In September 1995, at a conference commemorating the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a senior Iranian arms control adviser, Hassan Mashadi, told reporters that Iran was ‘keeping its nuclear options open’. The country’s tough security environment, the threat it felt from the United States and Israel, were all reasons, he argued, that it should pursue nuclear research. The extent of this research was made clear ten years ago, on 14 August 2002, when an Iranian opposition group revealed full details of Iran’s nuclear activities, precipitating the current crisis. The Mujahedin e Khalq claimed it received the information from contacts ‘inside Iran’; privately, diplomats have told me that ‘everyone knows’ the real source was Israel.
Since then the crisis has bloomed into a grand, global stalemate. Iranian nuclear scientists are blown up on Tehran’s streets – reportedly by Mossad – while Israeli diplomats are killed in India, supposedly at the hands of Iran. Somewhere between the two sides is the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany), which is locked in a diplomatic battle with Iran that has spent years going nowhere very slowly.
The P5+1 imposes sanctions on Iranian oil; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasts that Iran is running more uranium-enriching centrifuges than ever before. Israel hints that it will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities; the Iranians urge them to do their worst. The only things that look like breaking the deadlock are either military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or the possibility that sanctions, which are hurting the country, will force it to compromise. Neither option is in itself desirable. Browbeating Iran into a compromise would be a solution of sorts, and infinitely preferable to a military strike. But it would be a short-term one because it fails to address the overarching problem between Iran and the West that Mashadi voiced almost twenty years ago.
Mistrust and fear of the West, not unreasonably, permeate Iranian decision-making. It is instructive that while P5+1 diplomats understandably focus each set of negotiations on narrow nuclear issues such as enrichment, Iran constantly seeks to broaden talks out to encompass regional security and even the financial crisis. Such moves are often stalling tactics, but they also show the way the regime sees the nuclear crisis: as one more symptom of the West’s overall refusal to accept the Islamic Republic’s existence.
It is the continuing failure of the international coalition facing Iran to understand this that makes the impasse so dangerous. Netanyahu’s comments on attacking Iran get stronger every day; sooner or later someone will have to live up to their own rhetoric. On the diplomatic track, the most recent P5+1 offer to Iran in Baghdad was so paltry – offering to lift a few peripheral sanctions if Iran agreed to enrich at much lower levels than it is currently doing – that it appears the group is content to pile pressure on Iran through sanctions and see just how high a price it is willing to pay for its continuing intransigence.