Could Iran’s Defiance of Western Nuclear Demands be a Rational Choice?

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Despite mounting pressure on Tehran to engage in substantial negotiations over its nuclear program, no serious analyst is expecting a diplomatic breakthrough any time soon. After all, the Iranian leadership continues to signal defiance despite sanctions pressure, and the ferocious power struggle currently underway within the Tehran regime militates against any near-term strategic change of course. But there’s another, more telling reason why Iran shows little interest in reaching a compromise deal to break the standoff right now: A cold-eyed realist assessment by Tehran’s leaders that their position grows stronger while America’s grows weaker in the course of the current deadlock. Just as Washington is waiting for the effect of sanctions to weaken Iran’s resolve, so are Iranian leaders waiting for the Arab Spring uprisings to further weaken the position of the U.S. and its allies in the region.

China and Russia this week both criticized Tehran’s conduct, and urged it to get serious about talks. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov  told President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to be “more constructive” in dealing with the international community on Iran’s nuclear program. And China’s President Hu Jintao, the previous day, had urged Ahmadinejad to “take substantial steps” to promote dialogue to resolve teh standoff.

Moscow and Beijing’s concern may be U.S. efforts to escalate sanctions pressure on Iran, which Russia and China believe will do no good. Ahmadinejad assured his Russian hosts that he was ready to rejoin talks with world powers, but he also made clear in recent days that nothing they could offer would persuade Iran to halt uranium enrichment. In fact, Iran announced an intensification of enrichment efforts at its reinforced mountain facility at Fordo, designed to protect if from air attack.

Unless the U.S. and its partners are prepared to ease their demands on Iran — highly unlikely, right now — no breakthrough is expected even if talks are resumed.

Some gloomy commentators suggested that recent events suggest an Iranian nuclear weapon is now inevitable, with Iran having established that it can withstand the pressures that the West brings to bear.

But others, including a group of six former ambassadors to Iran from Western powers, believe Iran is pursuing the capacity to create a weapon, but stopping short of actually building one.

“In terms of international law, the position of Europe and the United States is perhaps less assured than is generally believed,” the ambassadors wrote. Despite Iran’s obligation to satisfy transparency concerns raised by the IAEA, they argue, “nothing in international law or in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty forbids the enrichment of uranium… In Iran, this activity is submitted to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency. These inspections, it is true, are constrained by a safeguards agreement dating from the 1970s. But it is also true that the IAEA has never uncovered in Iran any attempted diversion of nuclear material to military use.”

The current assessment of the U.S. intelligence community remains that while Iran is aggressively pursuing the technological capability to do so, “We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.” Thus the words of U.S. Director of National Intelligence Gen. James Clapper briefing the Senate Intelligence Committee last February. “Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran,” Clapper added, noting that Tehran’s leadership would “undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence, as well as the international political and security environment when making decisions about its nuclear program.”

The problem, of course, is that right now, even a national-interests realpolitik perspective in Tehran  may prompt the regime to hold off on making any major agreements with the U.S. and its allies.

Trita Parsi and Reza Marashi, writing in the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, suggest that there is, in fact, a cold logic behind Iran’s current defiance:

“Tehran has long viewed the Washington-Tel Aviv-Riyadh alliance as a declining power in the region. As such, Iranian government reluctance to negotiate with America has not necessarily been rooted in an ideological opposition to the idea of talking or improving relations with Washington.  Instead, hard-liners in Tehran fear that any relationship with the U.S. would require Iranian acquiescence to status quo regional policies.”

That means, they argue, that Tehran perceives the Arab Spring as accelerating the decline of American power in the region — a process they hope to encourage. And why cut a deal now when you believe you could get better terms later, when your adversary is weaker? Thus, Parsi and Marashi  write:

“Iran’s perception of the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi [alliance] as a declining regional power – incapable of shifting its policies in accordance with a new power distribution – seems to have cemented.  Although the proverbial political and economic screws have been tightened through sanctions to increase Iran’s international isolation, the Islamic Republic is paradoxically less isolated regionally.  Iran’s measured confidence vis-à-vis the U.S.-Israeli-Saudi [alliance] is further reinforced by the fall of pro-American dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia; volatility across the region that has destabilized countless others; empowered pro-Iranian political factions ruling Iraq and Lebanon; and Iran’s indispensible role in any long-term solution to stabilize American national security interests in non-proliferation, terrorism, energy security, Afghanistan, Iraq, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

The Iranian leadership perceives the Obama Administration as being willing only to make tactical shifts in U.S. policy, rather than a strategic turnaround that accepts the permanency of Iran’s regime and its status as a regional power — a shift, Parsi and Marashi note, that is unlikely given pressure from Israel, the Saudis and Capitol Hill. “Thus, going forward, Iran will likely prefer to discard the notion of rapprochement with America that Iranian reformists entertained, and instead maintain the strategic objective of hastening Washington’s military exit from the region.”

And as things stand, the U.S. and its allies are waiting for sanctions and other forms of pressure to make Iran more amenable to Washington’s terms. Either way, the stalemate appears increasingly likely to remain unbroken for years to come.