As the Nov. 24 deadline for Iran and the great powers to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear agreement approaches, both sides may be confronted with momentous choices. What happens if the decade-long search for an arms-control accord falters? Although there is little evidence that the West is contemplating alternative strategies, important actors in Iran are beginning to consider life after diplomatic failure.
Since the exposure of its illicit nuclear program in 2002, the Islamic republic has wrestled with a contradictory mandate: how to expand its nuclear infrastructure while sustaining a measure of economic growth. The reformist president Mohammad Khatami avoided debilitating economic sanctions by suspending nuclear activities. Then came the tumultuous presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which privileged nuclear empowerment over economic vitality. Current president Hassan Rouhani has succeeded in negotiating an interim agreement — the Joint Plan of Action — but he faces diminishing prospects for a final accord. Iran has finally come to the crossroads, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and many hard-line elements seem ready to forge ahead with their nuclear ambitions even if they collide with economic imperatives.
During the past few years, Khamenei has been pressing his concept of a resistance economy whereby Iran would shed its need for foreign contracts and commerce. “Instead of reliance on the oil revenues, Iran should be managed through reliance on its internal forces and the resources on the ground,” he said last month. Writing in the conservative daily Khorasan last year, commentator Mehdi Hasanzadeh went further: “An economy that relies on domestic [production] rather than preliminary agreement or the lifting of a small part of sanctions or even all sanctions will bring a great economic victory.” In the impractical universe of conservatives, Iran can meet the basic needs of its people by developing local industries. Iran’s reactionaries seem to prefer national poverty to nuclear disarmament.
The notions of self-sufficiency and self-reliance have long been hallmarks of conservative thinking in Iran. Since the 1980s, a central tenet of the hard-liners’ foreign policy perspective has been that Iran’s revolution is a remarkable historical achievement that the United States can’t accept or accommodate. Western powers will always conspire against an Islamic state that they cannot control, this thinking goes, and the only way Iran can secure its independence and achieve its national objectives is to lessen its reliance on its principal export commodity. Hard-liners believe that isolation from the international community can best preserve Iran’s ideological identity. This siege mentality drives Iran’s quest for nuclear arms and their deterrent power.
Although many in the West may privately hope that the interim accord will simply roll on in absence of a comprehensive agreement, Iranian adherence is hardly assured. The history of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy suggests that it will abandon the agreement when it has sufficient technological capacity to carry out a rapid surge of its program. Between 2003 and 2005, while the Europeans negotiated a suspension of Iran’s program, Tehran continued to accumulate nuclear materials and hone its research skills and, when it was ready, abandoned its pledges.
Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has already established the pretense for introducing speedier centrifuges. “New centrifuges will be used for production of vaccines,” he noted last month. Then, in an uncharacteristically honest moment, Salehi acknowledged that “such kinds of machines cannot be purchased at the world market. They are not sold as they are said to be of dual use.” And it is precisely that duality that attracts Iran to machines that can produce highly enriched uranium with speed and efficiency. Once Iran’s skilled scientists are confident of their mastery of the new machines, the Joint Plan of Action is likely to meet the fate of the other agreements that Tehran has negotiated with European powers.
In the coming weeks, the ebb and flow of the high-wire negotiations are sure to capture headlines. We will see furious diplomacy and foreign ministers journeying back and forth to European capitals. But it already seems clear that Khamenei and the hard-liners are poised to choose nuclear power over economic prosperity — a decision that would probably prove catastrophic for their country. Rouhani may yet be able to temper, for a while, such rash impulses. But by loudly contemplating alternative strategies should diplomacy exhaust itself, Iran seems to be crossing a dangerous threshold.
Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.