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NEWS ANALYSIS: Behind Iran's Diplomatic Behavior
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Paul Kerr

Ever since the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) uncovered Iran’s previously covert nuclear activities in 2003, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (later backed by the United States) have attempted to persuade Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment program through a carrot-and-stick approach. This has combined the threat of punitive UN Security Council actions with the promise that Tehran would receive economic and political benefits if it complied with the West’s demands.

An examination of the Iranian leadership’s public statements and negotiating behavior, along with interviews with Iranian officials, indicate that this approach has successfully encouraged some Iranian compromises. The West has extracted some concessions from Tehran by exploiting the regime’s fears of the economic and political risks associated with further international isolation.

But during the past 10 months, Tehran has become more recalcitrant, a trend that has coincided with the diminished clout of Iranian officials more supportive of international engagement and the rise of those more inclined to advocate aggressive negotiating tactics. These domestic political changes occurred as an altered geopolitical landscape arguably decreased the credibility of Security Council threats.

If current trends continue, the international community may well be hard-pressed to persuade Iran’s policymakers that the risks of pursuing a uranium-enrichment exceed the rewards.

A Tangled Nuclear History

Iran and Isolation

Since the current Islamic regime came to power in 1979, the relationship between Tehran and the West has been characterized by mutual distrust and antagonism.

This distrust has interfered with Iran’s efforts to obtain nuclear technology. For example, France refused to provide enriched uranium to Iran after the revolution despite the fact that Tehran still held a substantial interest in the French Eurodif uranium-enrichment plant. (See ACT, January/February 2006.)

Mistrust from this episode apparently continues to animate Iranian diplomacy. A senior Iranian diplomat told Arms Control Today in April that the Eurodif venture, as well as other past Western efforts to constrain its nuclear program, have led the regime to believe that it cannot trust foreign nuclear fuel suppliers.

Moreover, Iranian officials claim that Iran obtained its enrichment technology from a clandestine procurement network because the United States had persuaded other countries to refrain from selling such technology to Iran.[1]

Nonetheless, in the decade leading up to the nuclear crisis, Iran’s relations with the West, particularly western Europe, had been improving. These ties were bolstered because Iran’s previous president, Mohammad Khatami, was perceived as a relative moderate with his call for a “dialogue among civilizations.” Some powerful Iranian politicians, as well as a large segment of the Iranian population, clearly supported the continuation of this trend, which was threatened by the 2003 revelations of Iran’s secret uranium-enrichment and related facilities.

Nuclear Crisis Hits

During the months following the initial public revelations of Iran’s nuclear programs, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom were able to use Tehran’s fear of international isolation to induce its cooperation.

Shortly after the IAEA began its investigation of Iran’s nuclear activities, the three European countries offered, in exchange for several Iranian concessions, to begin negotiations with Iran aimed at resolving concerns regarding its nuclear programs. In addition, the Europeans threatened to support the Bush administration’s efforts to persuade the IAEA Board of Governors to refer Iran to the UN Security Council if Tehran refused to cooperate.[2]

Iran agreed in October 2003 to suspend its uranium-enrichment activities, ratify an additional protocol to its IAEA safeguards agreement, and cooperate with the agency’s investigation of its nuclear activities.[3]

Then-secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Hassan Rowhani, who was in charge of Tehran’s nuclear diplomacy, said that at the time Iran feared the United States intended to push the council to adopt resolutions similar to those directed at Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Washington wanted UN inspectors to be “given unrestricted access to [relevant] installations, facilities and individuals,” he wrote in a July 2005 report to then-President Khatami, adding that “Iran’s refusal to abide by such resolutions” would have resulted in “subsequent threats followed by military action.” Tehran also believed that the U.S. agenda extended beyond the nuclear issue. Rowhani told a group of senior Iranian officials in 2004 that the “Americans intend to use the lever of the UN Security Council to solve all of their problems with us,” such as Iran’s support for terrorist organizations.

Within months of its agreement with its European interlocutors, Iran began to test the limits of Western diplomatic resolve by chipping away at its promised suspension of its uranium-enrichment activity. The Europeans again threatened to refer the matter to the Security Council. Once more, Tehran yielded, agreeing in November 2004 to adhere to a broader suspension while the two sides negotiated an agreement that was to provide “objective guarantees” that Iran’s nuclear program would be used “exclusively for peaceful purposes.”

Rowhani indicated that Tehran was influenced by unified international opposition to its enrichment program, arguing that if any of the “powerful countries” had supported the program, Iran “would have had an easier time” proceeding.

During its subsequent discussions with the Europeans, Iran presented several compromise proposals, including a January 2005 paper describing Iran’s willingness to negotiate about a range of issues, such as terrorism and Persian Gulf regional security.

Iran later offered to implement several measures intended to provide assurances of its peaceful nuclear intentions, although Tehran consistently signaled its intention to restart its conversion facility to produce uranium hexafluoride feedstock for centrifuges.

A March 2005 proposal described several mechanisms designed to limit the enrichment program’s proliferation potential. These included limiting the initial operation of the Natanz enrichment facility to 3,000 centrifuges, limiting the uranium-235 content of the enriched uranium, and “allowing continuous on-site presence of IAEA inspectors” at Iran’s centrifuge and conversion facilities.[4] Gas centrifuges enrich uranium by spinning uranium hexafluoride gas at very high speeds in order to increase the concentration of the uranium-235 isotope.

Iran offered further compromises in subsequent proposals, although all of them would have allowed for some uranium-enrichment activity, which was steadfastly opposed by the Europeans and the United States. For example, Iran offered in April to allow IAEA monitoring at its uranium-conversion facility, to begin at an earlier time than previously offered. A July 2005 letter from Rowhani to the Europeans indicated that Iran would agree to operate a lower number of centrifuges during the Natanz facility’s initial operation. The letter also said that Iran would suspend industrial-scale enrichment at Natanz for approximately 10 years.[5]

However, the talks ended in August 2005 after Iran rejected a proposal from the Europeans that offered Iran an array of economic, technical, and security incentives, as well as an assured supply of nuclear fuel, in return for giving up its enrichment facilities. Tehran also broke the November 2004 agreement by restarting its uranium-conversion facility.

These actions took place as Iran’s new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, took office after having been elected in June.

The senior Iranian diplomat said in April that the proposal was “insulting” and showed the Europeans to be unreliable negotiating partners. Stating that the Europeans had not seriously considered Iran’s compromise offers, he pointed out that the European proposal would have required Tehran to give up its enrichment program, a demand that was not an explicit part of the November 2004 agreement. Iran has also complained that the Europeans’ offer required Iran to make short-term concrete concessions in return for vague promises of future rewards.

The diplomat also criticized the United States, arguing that Washington “cast a long shadow” over the talks. U.S. pressure to maintain a hard-line stance dissuaded the Europeans from compromising with Iran, he said.

Although Iranian officials emphasized at the time that these decisions were made by consensus, Rowhani said in a speech in April that he had disagreed with this decision. Had the Europeans responded to Iran’s proposals earlier, he said, the two sides could have reached an agreement.

After the Dog Catches the Car: Security Council Diplomacy

Although both sides have repeatedly expressed their willingness to negotiate, Iran has not been willing to suspend its centrifuge program, the Europeans’ condition for resuming negotiations. The IAEA board finally referred Iran to the Security Council in February. (See ACT, March 2006.) The council issued a nonbinding statement in March that called on Iran to suspend its uranium-enrichment program and resume negotiations with the Europeans. So far, Iran has refused to do so.

Both sides believe that aggressive negotiating tactics have been successful in extracting concessions. Each faction also has reason to believe that time is on its side. Iran continues to say that it wants to resume negotiations, but it is not clear whether and to what extent Iran is truly prepared to compromise.

However, some Iranian officials are concerned that Iran’s intransigence has come at a cost and has put Iran in diplomatic jeopardy. In a letter to Time magazine published May 10, Rowhani expressed concern that the Security Council could impose sanctions and “even use of force” on Tehran. In a speech the previous month, he argued that the Ahmadinejad government’s more aggressive approach had yielded “some success” but at “a heavy price,” citing the growing international consensus against Iran’s enrichment program.

View From Tehran: Things Are Looking Up

Nevertheless, three trends suggest that Iran will continue to take a tough line. First, Iran likely perceives itself still to be in a relatively strong bargaining position. Second, Tehran is skeptical that its attempts at compromise will be rewarded. Third, Iran’s internal political dynamics appear to be moving away from, rather than toward, compromise.

It is widely believed that Iran’s bargaining position has improved since 2003. For example, the continued insurgency in Iraq may have decreased the United States’ ability to initiate military action against Iran. The increase in oil prices during the past year has likely reduced the Security Council’s willingness to impose sanctions on Iraqi oil exports and increased Tehran’s ability to withstand sanctions in other areas.

Additionally, Tehran has continued to make progress on its enrichment program, providing the regime with another potential source of bargaining leverage. Since last fall, Iran has resumed work at its pilot centrifuge facility, produced enriched uranium, and continued to produce uranium hexafluoride.

A May 18 statement from official Iranian radio claimed that Iran’s technical progress has already enabled Iran to extract concessions from its European negotiating partners. Prior to August 2005, the Europeans had insisted that Iran would have to give up its uranium-conversion facility as part of any final agreement. The Europeans, however, have backed off that demand since Iran restarted the facility. (See ACT, December 2005.)

Iranian officials have previously argued that Iran should use its technological achievements as bargaining leverage. Rowhani asserted in 2004 that the international community typically puts “pressure on a country that is standing on the threshold” of being able to enrich uranium. But if that country developed the technology, he said, “it would be very difficult, if not impossible, to continue the pressure.”

Iran’s Suspicions

Ever since President George W. Bush labeled Iran as part of the “axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address, his administration has made clear its desire to see the clerical regime replaced. Washington also has continued to articulate its differences with Tehran on a range of non-nuclear issues and recently boosted its support for the democratic opposition in Iran.

Therefore, Iran continues to suspect the United States of using the nuclear issue as a pretext for increasing international pressure on the regime.

Indeed, Tehran fears that Washington will view any Iranian nuclear compromises as a sign of weakness and an opportunity to extract additional concessions. For this reason, Iran has balked at taking even temporary steps, such as a renewed suspension of its enrichment program, the Iranian diplomat said.

Additionally, the threat of Security Council action may now be dissuading Iran from undertaking IAEA-requested confidence-building measures that go beyond the government’s safeguards obligations, the diplomat added. Tehran has complied with some of these measures but is wary of participating in what Iran views as a potentially open-ended process that could lead to punitive Security Council actions similar to those taken against Iraq.

The Correct Negotiating Partner

Bush administration officials, such as national security adviser Stephen Hadley, have indicated that the international community can exploit differences within the Iranian leadership by maintaining pressure on Tehran. But such a strategy could prove difficult to execute.

On one hand, there are divisions within the Iranian leadership regarding the regime’s diplomatic tactics. Indeed, both Rowhani’s 2005 report and 2004 speech describe intense debates about diplomatic strategies and tactics. It seems clear that some Iranian leaders perceive international isolation more costly than do others.

However, pro-engagement Iranian officials have already been “discredited” by the Europeans’ rejection of Tehran’s 2005 offers, Farideh Farhi, an expert in Iranian politics, told Arms Control Today May 23. The Iranian diplomat concurred. This rejection demonstrated to more hard-line Iranian officials that compromise was ineffective and only signaled weakness, he said.



1. This claim was contained in Rowhani’s July 2005 report. For example, China decided in 1997 under U.S. pressure to cancel its agreement to supply Iran with a uranium-conversion facility. The United States also persuaded Russia during the 1990s to cancel a proposed sale of uranium-enrichment technology to Iran. Interestingly, the CIA in 1997 assessed that Iran was “responding to Western counterproliferation efforts by relying more on legitimate commercial firms as procurement fronts and by developing more convoluted procurement networks.”

2. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards agreements, which are required under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), allow the agency to monitor NPT states-parties’ declared civilian nuclear activities to ensure they are not diverted to military purposes. Under the IAEA statute, the agency Board of Governors is required to notify the Security Council if a member state is found in noncompliance with its safeguards agreement.

3. Additional protocols provide the agency with increased authority to detect clandestine nuclear programs, including by inspecting facilities that have not been declared to the IAEA. Iran has signed but not ratified its protocol. However, Iran still implemented the agreement pending ratification. Iran stopped adhering to the agreement in February. (See ACT, May 2006.)

4. Iran has a pilot centrifuge facility at Natanz and is constructing a much larger commercial facility at the same site. Tehran has said that the pilot and commercial facilities will eventually contain approximately 1,000 and 50,000 centrifuges, respectively.

5. Rowhani’s letter, a copy of which was obtained by Arms Control Today, stated that “[n]egotiations for the full scale operation” of the centrifuge facility “would continue on the premise that it would be synchronized with the fuel requirements” of a European or Russian-supplied nuclear reactor—a period of approximately 10 years, the Iranian diplomat said.


Posted: June 1, 2006