Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

The Iranian Nuclear Conundrum

Steven E. Meyer


By Steven E. Meyer

October 25, 2013

The first round of nuclear talks in Geneva between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, and Germany) is now complete; the second round will begin on November 7. The talks are being conducted in secret and both sides have announced that they are satisfied with the first-round discussions. A senior U.S official said the talks were “intense, detailed, straightforward, and candid” and Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif described the first round as a “very important step” and that Iran was “looking to the future with some hope.”   

However, the fact that the talks were being conducted in secret, reputedly to protect their confidentiality and to encourage honesty, has led to considerable criticism and opposition in Iran and the United States. One of the most significant obstacles to any deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear development is the “rejectionists” in both countries. Conservatives in Iran have argued that American satisfaction with the first round of talks can only mean that Iran already has made too many concessions and can only lose in any further negotiations.  

American conservatives—especially Tea Party advocates in Congress--sound remarkably similar, saying that Iran cannot be trusted and that it is time to intensify economic sanctions, not loosen them, as the Obama administration is suggesting to encourage Iranian negotiators. Some American conservatives are arguing that the time is fast approaching when a military strike against Iran will be necessary.  

Even without the opposition of the rejectionists, serious differences remain between Iran and the P5+1. Iran is determined to protect what it sees as the same sovereign right that the P5+1 countries exercise to develop nuclear capability. And the P5+1 are just as determined to curb Iran’s right to do so, based essentially on what they see as Iran’s destabilizing actions. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEC) reports that Teheran’s nuclear capability has grown over the past few years. Iran now has more than 1,000 new centrifuges at its main facility in Natanz, in addition to about 3,000 older-model centrifuges stored in the holy city of Qum, as well as the reported plutonium stores in the city of Arak. The P5+1 countries hope to restrict Iran’s uranium enrichment capability to 20 percent purity (i.e. below bomb-grade capability) and allow for much more intrusive inspections. 

Israel sees a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat to its existence and has linked up with American conservatives to oppose virtually any deal with Tehran. In return, Iran points out that it is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, while Tel Aviv has refused to sign the treaty because Israel possesses between 100 and 200 nuclear warheads. But Tel Aviv also feels that any deal with Iran will further isolate Israel, which already is feeling defensive and is perceived increasingly as a regional bully. Moreover, Israel is concerned that a deal between Israel and the P5+1 will reduce antipathy towards Iran, open Iran to Western investment, make clear that nuclear weapons are really a regional issue, and soften Washington’s embrace of Israel.

Meanwhile, in recognition that the nuclear issue is larger than Iran, a school of thought has developed arguing that allowing Iran to have nuclear arms is actually better than attempting to force Tehran into a “submissive” treaty.  Led by the longtime, well-known nuclear weapons expert, Kenneth Waltz, this school argues that a nuclear weapons balance in the region will produce greater stability than simply allowing Israel to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East. Presumably, Iran and Israel will balance each other, making nuclear war less likely.  Waltz maintains that Iranian leaders are not irrational and will avoid ensuring their own destruction via retaliatory attack. He argues further that a nuclear balance will eliminate first strike capability, that no state has ever been dissuaded from “going nuclear” because of economic sanctions, and that history proves that when a state attains nuclear weapons, it actually becomes more peaceful, not less.

Waltz’s position makes a lot of sense, but not because of his advocacy of a nuclear-armed stand-off, but because he introduces the concept of parity. While nuclear balance between and among states has arguably produced greater stability, it would be safer and more constructive to attain parity through mutual nuclear arms reduction rather than nuclear arms possession.  In this context, Israel’s actual nuclear arsenal is a greater threat to stability in the Middle East than Iran’s potential nuclear arsenal. As Christians, our response to this issue should consider a position based on military parity devoid of nuclear weapons rather than one based on the possession of nuclear weapons.

-  Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.

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