By Sara Bazoobandi
The pressure to rethink diplomacy toward Iran has increased after two days of negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany ended fruitlessly in Moscow on 19 June. The diplomats proposed that Iran suspend its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, give up its existing stock of that uranium, and shut down the Fordo enrichment facility near the holy city of Qum. Fordo is particularly important to the Iranian authorities for two reasons: firstly, it is considered to be the only facility that cannot be destroyed by an Israeli airstrike; and secondly, the facility’s centrifuge cascades are speculated to be set to accelerate to 95 percent enrichment, which can be used to build bombs. The Security Council members had conjectured that the economic pain of the sanctions that have been toughened since December 2011 might change the mind of the Iranian elite, but the offer was not well received and the rhetoric of Iran’s intention to protect its nuclear rights was much in evidence.
The negotiations may well be a continuation of Iran’s “time-buying” strategy, used to carry on enriching nuclear fuel. Some evidence shows that the West might not be prepared to put up with this strategy. Prior to the Moscow meeting, 44 U.S. senators (both Republican and Democratic) sent a letter to President Obama urging him to stop the negotiations if the meeting did not lead to any concessions from Iran. The failure of the Iranians to come to an agreement was received by the negotiators as yet another signal of Tehran’s intention to build a nuclear weapon. At the same time, the Iranian public media referred to the Western proposal as another round of a full-scale media war launched against Iran. While the unsuccessful negotiations could give the West sounder justification for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, it also appears that Iranians are banking on the potential delay of the United States in dealing with Iran and Syria due to the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
Regional and domestic rationales
The question of whether Iran’s nuclear program has a purely civilian aspect has been a key part of the international relations debate over the past years, and there has been no concrete evidence to answer this question. Nevertheless, geographically encircled, politically isolated, feeling threatened, and increasingly losing popular support at home, the Iranian government seems to have plenty of reasons to want its own arsenal of nukes. From a regional perspective, Iran is surrounded in every direction by rivals as well as former or current enemies, some even armed with nuclear weapons. The United States has maintained a strong presence in two neighboring countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, with which Iran shares a land border in the east and the west. Pakistan is a nuclear-armed nation in the southeast; Turkey is America’s NATO ally located in the northwest; and Turkmenistan, which has acted as a refueling base for U.S. military transport planes since 2002, sits to the northeast.
In addition, there is a large cluster of U.S. client states in the Gulf: Bahrain, host to the U.S. Fifth Fleet; Qatar, home to a forward headquarters of U.S. Central Command; Kuwait, host of a large U.S. military presence; and Saudi Arabia, the strongest rival to the current and previous government of Iran. Indeed, in 2008 King Abdullah insisted on a military option against Iran to “cut off the snake’s head.”  The story, of course, does not end here, as less than a thousand miles to the west sits Israel, most likely in possession of over a hundred nuclear warheads and with a history of preemptive aggression against its opponents. And, after all, the United States and its allies opted for war with non-nuclear Iraq, but chose diplomacy with nuclear-armed nations such as North Korea and Pakistan.
Furthermore, the Iranian government has been struggling with internal challenges. The demonstrations after the 2009 presidential election proved that despite security measures, Iran’s political establishment still remains rather fragile when it comes to maintaining its popularity at home. For Washington, the 2009 crisis has refreshed an old fantasy that reform can be parachuted from the outside into Iran. In light of the Arab uprisings, less than two years after Iran’s presidential election crisis Iranian leaders watched several regimes in the Middle East fall, in some cases with the direct support of Western powers. This is why the domestic value of the nuclear program for the Iranian government must not be overlooked. A preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear sites may not necessarily lead to regime change, though the domestic reform movement remains a threat to the Iranian establishment in spite of the heavy-handed response of the government. Therefore, possession of nuclear arms can eliminate the risk of international intervention in support of an Iranian opposition movement calling for regime change.
Diplomacy over deployment?
The rhetoric of war against Iran has not eased after the Moscow meeting. While some believe that Israeli rhetoric must be taken at face value, others, including the Iranian state-owned media, argue that such rhetoric is a media war against Iran that will not be followed by catastrophic actions. But even if military action is not taken, sanctions will squeeze the economy even more tightly starting this month with the EU oil embargo. The consequences of sanctions already in place have been extremely damaging. A riyal crash, high inflation, sluggish growth, high unemployment, and increasing uncertainty and fear of “what is going to happen next” have particularly affected the lives of ordinary Iranian citizens. In my daily search for news and updates, I came across an online forum, the majority of whose members are young middle class Iranian women sharing their experiences of motherhood, with absolutely no political direction in their dialogue. Angry and frustrated by the recent jump in the price of bread and milk, even the members of this apolitical forum have proposed a silent demonstration through a boycott of milk and bread purchases three days a week! While it is true that the sanctions have pressed the government and affected the lifeline of the Iranian economy, which is oil revenue, the key danger is that crippling sanctions and pressure will continue to devastate Iran’s middle class—the backbone of the country’s pro-democracy movement.
While the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program have not been particularly successful, neither continued isolation nor a military strike are likely to lead to better consequences. Engagement is perhaps the only way to ease the tension. The West has to understand Iran’s situation, and if a nuclear-armed Iran is to be avoided, U.S. and Israeli politicians must dial down their threatening rhetoric and tackle the issue in a more realistic and rational way. Iranians are fearful, nervous, and defensive, perhaps for legitimate reasons, as the regional map shows. Distrust has disturbed Iran-West relationships for over three decades. The West’s proposals, as they currently stand, seek a unilateral trust building effort by Iran. This is unlikely to receive a positive response from Iran given the rising possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike. Thus, one concession that would go far in easing Iranian concerns would be to offer Iran some form of guarantee that Israel will not engage in such a strike if Iran can prove that it has dismantled its nuclear weapon program.
As Javad Larijani, a senior advisor to the Iranian Supreme Leader, stated in an interview with CNN in March 2012, the Iranian government’s interpretation of the unilateral sanctions is that this is the West’s latest attempt to look for ways to hurt Iran. The isolation has also had catastrophic impacts on Iranian society, and more sanctions and isolation will hold Iran back in its journey toward becoming a fully democratic nation. Therefore, a timely lift of economic sanctions and business-to-business economic interaction in exchange for a halt to nuclear enrichment would be far more appealing to the Iranian government. In addition, allowing for more freedom of the press and providing ground for more cooperation at the societal level should be a part of Western demands. After all, the democratization process has supposedly been a major part of the U.S. agenda for the Middle East.
Sara Bazoobandi, a visiting research fellow at MEI, is a Middle East economic analyst with a particular interest in energy economics and the political economy of the oil rich countries of the Gulf. She has conducted extensive research on various aspects of Gulf sovereign wealth funds, and recently published a book entitled Political Economy of the Gulf Sovereign Wealth Funds: A Case Study of Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Dr. Bazoobandi has worked as an economic analyst for various international corporate organizations and think tanks including Fundación para las Relaciones Internacionales y el Diálogo Exterior (FRIDE), Nomura International plc, and Roubini Global Economic. She holds an MSc in economics from the University of Reading and a Ph.D. in Middle Eastern studies from the Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies of Exeter University.
 “U.S. Embassy Cables: Saudi King Urges U.S. Strike on Iran,” The Guardian, 28 November 2010. Available at http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/150519.
 See Christiane Amanpour’s interview with Javad Larijani on 15 March 2012: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_H_DBga_Uag&feature=related.