Finding the Balance: Effective Solutions for a Nuclear-Hungry Iran

“The genie’s out of the bottle, but it’s not yet wandering around”. The genie, in the words of Olli Heinonen, former Deputy Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, describes Iran’s nuclear program.

Iran continues to leave world leaders skeptical about its nuclear intentions. So when Iran’s top nuclear official invited IAEA director Yukiya Amano to tour the nation’s nuclear sites last month, an offer that has been extended before, many eyebrows raised in response. Sure enough, last week Iran’s foreign minister announced that closer cooperation with the IAEA would only occur if the agency cancels its research into allegations of a nuclear program in Tehran.

So what’s really happening with Iran’s nuclear program?

On July 13, the Hudson Institute and Ploughshares Fund grantee Partnership for a Secure America held a panel discussion entitled “Perspectives on the Iranian Nuclear Challenge” in Washington, DC. In addition to Heinonen, the talk, chaired by Richard Weitz and Katherine Gockel, featured Christopher Ford, Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security, and Peter Jones, Professor at University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.

The experts all weighed in with suggestions for handling a nuclear-positioned Iran going forward.  

“We’ve come to know conversely less and less about the scope and content of the nuclear program,” said Heinonen, who noted that Iran refuses to address questions of the military aspect of its nuclear regime while continuing to stockpile enriched uranium and build up its enrichment capabilities.

Ford provided three main reasons for Iran’s desire to possess nuclear weapons: to use as an intimidation tool, to immunize itself from outside military intervention, and to garner status and prestige in the world. The real danger, he argued, hinges on the last point, and is the uncertainty of how Iran would behave should it acquire a weapon.

He also noted that the most important voice the U.S. can take on now is a subtle one. As he argued, the U.S. must send the right signals to those who are keen to follow Iran in seeking nuclear capabilities, ensuring a counter-narrative by making a strong case to nations in the region to refrain from responding to a nuclear-armed Iran by pursuing their own programs.

Speaking from his own experiences in negotiations, Jones contributed insight into the deal-making process.

“[Iran is] very good at having a bottom line, but not letting you know what it is and making you search for it,” he said. Jones laid out the four options available to deal with a nuclear Iran. He categorized military action as unviable, only justifying Iran’s paranoia and reasoning for needing nuclear weapons. Sanctions, he explained, are limited in their effect. Only an international end to buying Iranian oil might have the power to make Iran look twice, but the realistic possibility of this is slim to none. Indirect actions have had some effect in pushing back to program’s timeline, but his argument was for diplomacy, an option, he argued, many have shoved under the table.

“The US has engaged in diplomacy with countries we did not agree with in the past,” Jones said. Given that, we are capable of doing it now.

Joel Rubin, Director of Policy and Government Relations at Ploughshares Fund, recently appeared on to discuss the future of Iran’s nuclear program and also made the argument that military strikes are not a pragmatic option.

The road ending in some agreement, or at least feeling of confidence, about the future of Iran’s nuclear program will be long and complex, all panelists agreed. But the Iranians have interests too, such as the desire to see their regime succeed, the need to be a part of the international market, and, most importantly, ensured protection against an attack, nuclear or otherwise, against them. It’s these human qualities that we can use in dealing with Iran, and ultimately, in putting the genie back in the bottle for good.

Video of the full discussion can be found on Hudson’s Institute UStream channel.


Photo by Hamed Saber on Flickr