Nuclear Iran: Diplomacy still the best strategy

Melissa attended the IISS Regional Security Summit: the Manama Dialogue in Bahrain representing the Department of Defence. Melissa Is an airborne Tactical Coordinator in the Royal Australian Air Force. and she is also studying a Masters of Science, focusing on Operations Research and Statistics.


After thirty years of heavy sanctions and the constant threat of military intervention, Iran has failed to be deterred from its ambitious nuclear intent. Recently, Tehran has indicated it will cease higher enrichment of uranium if sanctions are lifted and its right to enrich is duly recognised. With Iran showing increasing flexibility in recent negotiations, the best way forward is a diplomatic one. Previous attempts for diplomacy by a number of countries, notably the P5+1, have failed as a result of breakdowns in communication due to public hard line statements by each of the nations, concurrent sanctions and military threats delivered by Israel, the United States and on occasion the European Union (EU). Sidelining sanctions, removing immediate threats to their sovereignty and then making a shift for private bi-lateral negotiations between the United States and Iran have a greater change of yielding a successful outcome. The involvement of Washington may also help allay particular security fears by Israel whose influence on previous negotiations has been unhelpful. Removing the crippling sanctions and a shift for diplomacy should not be viewed as a reward, but a pragmatic tool for achieving a successful outcome for all relevant parties. The West can ensure that by lifting sanctions and removing direct military threats, they have done everything in their power to discourage nuclear proliferation and prevent an ongoing conflict rather than encourage both.


  1. For the P5+1: Accept the United States as an appropriate negotiator for private bilateral discussions directly with Iran.

  2. For the United States: Seek and engage in private bilateral discussions. This will allow freedom of discussion, free negotiation and rebuttal and a demonstration of the benefits and consequences of further actions.

  3. For the United States and the European Union. Reconsider the follow on negative outcomes of the crippling sanctions enforced in all areas, but particularly in those which effect the human population most negatively.

  4. For Australia: Use its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council during 2013 and 2014 to support efforts for diplomacy with Iran.

  5. For the United States and Israel: Only consider military force including strikes on key nuclear facilities as an absolute last resort.


In October this year, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak said “‘an immediate crisis had been averted this summer because Iran had chosen to use a third of its enriched uranium for use as fuel rods in a medical research reactor’”, the conversion making it much harder to use for weaponry purposes1. This statement highlights the complexity of the ongoing situation with Iran and the rest of the region. After thirty years of sanctions, the West has failed to deter nuclear development in Iran. Heavy sanctions have been further implemented, with previous ones ranging from the energy and transport sectors, the oil and gas industry, humanitarian transactions, export restrictions in graphite, metals and to software relating to the shipping industry2. As Iran is a signatory to the Non- Proliferation Treaty, there is some doubt in the wider community as to why the concern seems to solely rest in Iran, rather than near neighbour and non-signatory Israel. Threats of military force have been made by both sides, leaving the situation in an unhealthy stalemate where neither Iran nor its neighbours are happy with the current state of affairs. In the past few months, the European Union has increased trade sanctions in Iran. After thirty years of sanctions, the international community is questioning whether sanctions have any, or at worst an opposing effect.

With Iran continuing to contest that its nuclear development is for peaceful energy and medical research purposes, many nations are still cautious of Iran’s true intentions. However, with increasing flexibility shown in recent negotiations, Iran’s peaceful nuclear rights may need to be accepted in the wider community. With Iran indicating it will cease higher enrichment if sanctions are lifted and its right to enrich is recognised3, there is now scope for negotiations with both the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) and the United States. When questioned why Iran would have made the conversion of these fuel rods, the Israeli Defence Minister claimed they may have heeded warnings from the US or Israel, wish to delay confrontation, or to convince the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of their peaceful intent4. Or less sceptically, Iran was simply using the enriched uranium for the purpose it intended. Iran has consistently denied intent to gain a nuclear weapons capability and claims that Israel is warmongering, adding another element to the debate. The malcontent with Iran’s nuclear ambitions urges the decision on which approach is best – increasing sanctions, strikes on key nuclear facilities or a quest for diplomacy and harmony in the region, even at the risk of gulf proliferation?

Iran’s Nuclear History

Iran’s nuclear history dates back to 19575 as a direct result of the Eisenhower administration’s intent to increase military, economic and civilian aid to Iran in coordination through the ‘Atoms for Peace Program’. Iran has been a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) since 19586. As a signatory, Iran has the right to civilian energy production through either the uranium or plutonium route. In addition to the legitimate nuclear power programs, it is widely believed that a parallel clandestine weapons program continues to progress. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979, there was a breakdown of diplomatic relations with the United States particularly following the US Embassy hostage crisis, and opposition to the nuclear program from Washington began in earnest. There were a number of both internal and external influences affecting Tehran’s decision to ramp up its nuclear program during this time. Firstly, nuclear efforts were intensified and the development of ballistic missiles increased during the Iran/Iraq War, after reports of an Iraqi clandestine nuclear program7. Also, Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s nuclear facility in 1981 and pro-nuclear President Ayatollah Ali Khamenei coming into power spurred the nuclear program into action8, with the then leader vowing to rebuild Tehran’s program after the war. During the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq’s clandestine nuclear program was discovered also forcing Iran to further its nuclear progress.

Iran continues to claim its nuclear program is purely for peaceful energy and medical purposes. Much of the suspicion surrounding this peaceful intent comes from results of the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspections. Following the Gulf War, Iran continued to ramp up its civilian research programs. In 2002 and 20039, IAEA revelations of clandestine research raised international concern over fuel enrichment beyond energy grade into weapon grade and the intent transitioning beyond peaceful. A subsequent 2003 report from the IAEA explained that Iran had failed to meet obligations under the 1974 Safeguards Agreement by withholding design specifications of new facilities10.

Concealment of some programs from the IAEA fed further concern, leading the US to believe that both routes to energy production were in use by Iran. No concrete evidence linking Iran’s peaceful program to a weapon development program has ever been made. However, the concealment of certain facilities has increased concerns. Further causes of concern in the 2009 report included an undeclared gas centrifuge enrichment plant near Qom, used to produce high-enriched uranium (HEU), another large enrichment facility at Natanz, and a heavy water reactor at Arak used for the platinum route11. Iran continues to lay claim of establishing a complete nuclear fuel cycle to support its civilian energy program, however, the same fuel cycle could be used for nuclear weapon production. Iran refuses to answer IAEA questions regarding its past activities, instead choosing to shift the attention to Israel, highlighting Israel not being a signatory to the NPT, and having an unacknowledged stockpile of weapons. If Iran does develop a nuclear weapon capability, then it may be the beginning of a race for Gulf weapon proliferation and further instability for the region.

The Intended Role of Sanctions

The US has imposed sanctions on Iran for almost three decades12. Sanctions in Iran have proven to be unsuccessful in their primary aim of deterring Iran’s nuclear development. It is clear that sanctions have been ineffective in their primary role of deterring a nuclear Iran, yet the EU persists with increasing sanctions on Iran’s trade13. Sanctions have long had a deep impact on Iran’s economy with the currency sinking sharply – 40 percent against the US dollar and claims of oil imports being down 20-30 percent since 201114. Iran has begun to respond to sanctions with increasing unpredictability, this year threatening to close the Strait of Hormuz. In August, Ayatollah Khamenei, now the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution, reiterated that Iran is not seeking to develop an atomic bomb, and criticised the US and Israel, two allied nations in which one is the only country to have used a nuclear weapon, the other a non-signatory with an existing stockpile of weapons.

The driving force behind the sanctions is to pressure the Iranian Government to cease nuclear enrichment by straining the Iranian economy. Dr Trita Parsi, President of the National Iranian American Council, expressed her opposition. ”Economic sanctions have undermined Iran’s pro- democracy movement by weakening Iran’s civil society and by hampering the emergence of a wealthy middle class – key components of any indigenous process of democratisation”15. The sanctions have meant that Iranian state controlled industries are insulated by the protection sanctions have provided, strengthening their influence. The Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as an example have profited from their involvement in smuggling, economically isolating other legal practices. These sanctions have provided a gateway for corruption and increased black market activity. Travel and trade sanctions, donations to legitimate aid and human rights organisations both counter attack efforts to legitimatise negotiations and for participation in the international theatre. The Iranian Government is using the sanctions to blame the international community for its poor economy.

The human cost of these sanctions must always be considered. Figures from the United Nations (UN) estimate that at least half a million children died as a result of sanctions in Iraq16. The ‘smart’ sanctions being employed in Iran are designed to target only the Government and key economic and military operatives17; however, poverty and destitution have been an unacceptable by-product. In Iran, sanctions have also unintentionally caused significant rises in the power and influence of para- governmental economic actors18. Job creation is also a significant issue facing Iran. The number of available jobs fails to account for the number of 20-24 year olds entering the work force19, placing further strain on families. The soaring price of commodities, unemployment, poverty and destitution has pitted Iranian communities against sanctions as the cause rather than the Government, hence weakening domestic opposition.

Despite this, placing further sanctions on Iran also seems to have failed to influence the Iranian people. As Israel is discovering with Lebanon20 inflicting indiscriminate pain and suffering turns a nation against the immediate cause – Israel, rather than any of the underlying causes. When isolated nations, often poisoned by media propaganda are attacked indiscriminately, they are left to look to external enemies. Sanctions also make it easier for leaders to place blame externally. Recent wide ranging support for Iran’s nuclear ambitions21 within Iran has also meant that sanctions are less likely to cause Iran’s people to want to influence their government into alternative action. The opposing effect is more likely, especially with continuing threats from neighbour Israel. Many continue to support peaceful enrichment not just in spite of sanctions, but in light of them.

Ultimately, the last decade of sanctions have not altered Iran’s nuclear persistence. Eight years ago, President Bush said “we’ve sanctioned ourselves out of influence with Iran”22. Severing Iran’s access to trade in the US and Europe, the UN has lost influence and Iran has become decreasingly sensitive to threats. Not only is Iran less sensitive, they now treat the US amongst others with the distain reserved only for those who look down at us. Despite uncertainty with the Iranian regime, the UN need to start treating Iran with the respect deserving of a peer. Diplomacy should not been seen as a reward, but as a tool for leverage. Sanctions are a clamp in the tool box and military force is the hammer. Perhaps the diplomatic screwdriver for lack of a better option may be just the tool for the job. The US cannot continue to try and shake Iran’s hand whilst slapping it in the face. Dual-track incentives23 to facilitate the free flow of information and thus undermine the regime’s control over media propaganda are more appropriate as a negotiation tool. Diplomacy is the only way to open a peaceful dialogue and for a change to full disclosure and co-operation.

Military Force

In December last year, Iran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz24, a vital chokepoint for the delivery of oil amongst other materials between the Gulf States surrounding the Arabian Gulf and the rest of the world through the Arabian Sea. This threat put to action would have certainly provoked a military response from the western allies. Warships currently stationed in the Gulf, force assigned to anti-piracy, anti-terrorism and safeguarding the Strait of Hormuz would have been commissioned for strikes against Iran’s warships and land targets. Not to mention the air response that could be swiftly executed by fighter and bomber aircraft stationed on several US aircraft carriers in the region contributing to International Stability Assistance Force (ISAF) operating over Afghanistan. As a third of the world’s tanker borne oil25 passes through the Strait, a closure would significantly affect the global price of oil, as well as cripple Iran’s economy. The follow on effect of this oil stoppage is a heavy concern for Europe. Italy, Spain and Greece26, the three countries most dependant on Iran’s oil, are three of the weakest in the European Union (EU).

In 201027, President Ahmadinejad announced plans to commence enrichment to 20 percent at a 164 machine enrichment centre at Natanz. Although legitimate under the NPT, it would improve enrichment capability and enable critical research for Iran’s nuclear experts. While Israel has maintained a nuclear weapons capability since the 1960’s28, it claims being the sole capability in the region is necessary for security. Undoubtedly, Iran would not be as interested in a nuclear weapon capability if Israel were a signatory to the NPT. Iran is well on their way to the ability to develop HEU. This is their legal right under the banner of medical research and civil energy production, especially given that oil and gas are valuable to sell, rather than be used for energy production. One can hardly blame Iran’s leadership for being curious about nuclear weaponry given their geo-political stance, relationships in the Gulf, the West’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and continuous threats from the US and Israel and ever increasing sanctions from the EU.

Military force provoked by Iran’s threats would not compare to the sustained conflict that would result, and the increased instability in the region. It would also promote a gulf nuclear arms race, rather than deter it. Political and national unity in Iran, removal from the NPT, development of a nuclear weapon, conventional attacks on Israel, further instability in neighbouring countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan29 would result, setting the West’s mission in the region back twenty years in term of progress. With Iran insisting that sanctions will not deter its nuclear ambitions and insistence of civil nuclear intent only, the West must be conservative when considering Iran’s threats and unpredictable responses to sanctions and military threats. There are two options left. The first is to increase efforts for a diplomatic agreement and the second, to accept that in the future, Iran will have a nuclear capability, perhaps leading the Gulf down a pathway to change through negotiation of regional denuclearisation.

Why diplomacy is the only strategy

Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger asked an important question: “Do we oppose nuclear weapons because of the rouge quality of the two regimes furthest advanced on the road toward acquiring nuclear weapons – Iran and North Korea? Or is our opposition generic – does it extend to fully democratic countries? How far are we prepared to go in resisting proliferation?”30 A nuclear Iran is met with greater concern as it is a large oil producer with a developing population, significant industrial potential and with geo-strategic interests far beyond its borders. The international community continues to show concern with regard to the program, as spending money on nuclear energy is a drain on resources, leading many to believe the program is defensive – an information operation, deterring regime intervention by outsiders. Iran has aggressive neighbours. Israel, Pakistan, India and Russia31 are all countries who either have or have attempted to gain a nuclear weapon capability. The only way to move forward in dealing with such a complex international issue is with diplomacy. Under the Bush Administration, the US had a default for action through pressure. When dealing with a nation such as Iran, promoting diplomacy will always be far more effective than crippling sanctions or brute military force.

The primary role of sanctions was to limit the Iranian Government’s legitimacy and force a change to their nuclear regime. However, after thirty years, there is not a single example of sanctions achieving this aim. Cutting Iran’s access trade amongst other things has had the opposite effect, turning Iranian’s against the proximate cause and making the Iranians less sensitive to threats. Promoting trade, negotiating for diplomacy and treating Iran as a peer and power-broker, undermines the Iranian Government’s angst towards the West. Private bilateral negations32 are the best way forward. The open nature of the P5+1 (US, UK, China, Russia, France and Germany) means that the countries involved all have to serve their pride by defending their own hard line statements33 under the very public eye. Given their relationship with Israel and continuing involvement with Iran, the US is best placed for these bilateral strategic negotiations. The bilateral format serves the purpose of keeping either party’s nationals at bay through secrecy, as doing business with either side is an unpopular venture. The common idea that negotiations are a reward is a pre-historic concept needing review. Diplomacy is a tool for demonstrating both the benefits and consequences of multiple courses of action, in order to reach a compromise which is workable for both parties. The best example34 of a secret bilateral negotiation resulted in the end Vietnam War. Whilst not viewed as a success for the US, it put an end to the needless loss of innocent lives.


The current sanctions regime dealing with Iran is simply not working. After thirty years of sanctions, Iran still insists it has a legitimate right to enrich uranium. Continuing efforts to shake Iran’s hand while slapping them in the face with sanctions will never be an effective tool for regime change. Unpredictable responses to sanctions and threats of military action should be given their due regard. If Iran carried out its threat of closing the Strait of Hormuz, a military response and prolonged war would undoubtedly commence, leaving all parties involved politically and economically strained. The two options remaining for the West are to increase efforts for a diplomatic agreement and the second, to accept that Iran will eventually develop the ability to produce highly enriched uranium, and in turn possibly develop a nuclear weapon capability.

New private bilateral negotiations should not be viewed as a reward for good behaviour, but as a pragmatic tool for negotiating a peaceful agreement between nations. The international community becomes caught up with the concern of how we prevent diplomacy from becoming a means for legitimate proliferation. What many arguments choose to forget is that Iran continues to be a signatory to the NPT, and no hard evidence has ever been found of intent to produce highly enriched uranium, or nuclear warheads. Diplomacy is the only way to open a peaceful dialogue and for a change to full disclosure and cooperation. Lest we forget that if sanctions and military force fail, a new level of threat will present itself from Iran, angered by the West and encouraged by the nationals of Iran, strengthening national and political unity for the worst. Security and diplomacy are a means to an end for Iran and the Gulf region.


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