Co-Sponsored by:Pugwash Conferences on Science and World AffairsInstitute for Political and International Studies, Tehran
This most recent in the current series of Pugwash workshops on Middle East security was held in Tehran from 6-8 September 2003 and was hosted by the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) of the Iranian Foreign Ministry. As is customary with Pugwash meetings, the workshop was held on a non-attribution basis, thus the workshop report is the sole responsibility of the author and has not been endorsed by any of the participants. Pugwash is very grateful to IPIS for facilitating the meeting and for the organization of all the sessions. A total of 17 international participants from eleven countries attended the workshop events, meeting with a wide range of government officials and policy specialists at various institutions in Tehran. These included IPIS itself, the Center for Strategic Research of the Expediency Council, the Institute for Strategic Studies of the President’s Office, the International Institute for Caspian Studies, the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies, and the International Relations Studies Center of Tehran University. Pugwash would like to thank all these institutions for their hospitality and for facilitating valuable and interesting discussions. Pugwash also gratefully acknowledges travel and other support provided by the Ploughshares Fund.
Perspectives on Security
The meeting began with an overview of current international security challenges, especially in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions, with much of the focus on the US-led invasion of Iraq in the context of what the Bush administration has defined as the war on terrorism. From an Iranian viewpoint, there is a normative paradox when one country, such as the United States, seeks to define what constitutes security for all other countries in the international system. The Bush administration claims that the United States is the repository of stability in the post 9/11 environment, but is this claim justification enough for its attack on Iraq? From the perspective of those living in the region, is the Middle East really more secure now than before the war on Iraq? And what of the United Nations, whose credibility and contributions have been undermined by US unilateral military action? What can be the future of multilateral security mechanisms when the world’s strongest military power feels free to act unilaterally whenever it chooses?Iranian participants emphasized that, for a country like Iran, surrounded as it is by instability in Iraq, Afghanistan and to the north in the Caucasus, and with nuclear-armed Pakistan and India to the east and nuclear-armed Israel to the west, the world looks very different from Tehran than it does from Washington. The demonizing of Iran by the Bush administration as a member of the ‘axis of evil’, and administration calls for pre-empting would-be WMD proliferators, only further heightens Iranian feelings of insecurity. In such an environment, Iran will look at a multiple range of options for safeguarding its security. At the same time, some participants pointed out that military strength alone won’t guarantee Iranian security, and that institutions such as United Nations are very important for providing security mechanisms for regional powers such as Iran. For a country with 15 neighbors, Iran must balance very different relations with a wide range of governments and peoples (Arab, Turkic, Russian, Afghan, central Asian, south Asian). While not belonging to the Arab world, the Indian subcontinent, or central Asia, Iran can act as a bridge between these three regions. Thus the importance of cooperative security concepts, which forms the basis of President Khatami’s “dialogue of civilizations,” proposed at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly in September 2002. It was agreed by all that perceptions of security have changed greatly in the post 9/11 period, not least in the United States, where the psychological underpinnings of American security were profoundly shaken by the attacks on New York and Washington, DC. While acknowledging this reality, however, Iranian participants pointed out that the US cannot seek to unilaterally remake the global system in its own image; instead, stability and security must come from within countries and regions and be both indigenous and incremental. The point was also made that, in the post 9/11 period, security has become too strictly identified with threats of international terrorism, and that the development concerns and concepts of human security of importance to developing countries have been neglected. In the context of US-Iranian relations, moreover, a history of American interventions and support for the Shah on the one hand, and the trauma for Americans of the embassy hostage crisis on the other hand, have poisoned bilateral relations for more than two decades. The situation is so poor that US-Iran relations currently are in a vacuum, with little dialogue between the two. Thus there is a need to explore what kind of confidence-building steps could be taken to improve chances for constructive diplomacy. From a US viewpoint, one such step might be the transfer of al-Qaeda suspects being held in Iran to a third country. The question was asked, in turn, what would Iran like to see from US? One reply was that, although Iran has taken constructive steps to improve stability in Afghanistan, how much confidence can Iran have in the US when the Bush administration continues to call for regime change in Tehran and continues to define Iran as a member of the “axis of evil”? A change in rhetoric would constitute an important element towards restoring meaningful dialogue, as Iran sees itself and feels justified in being recognized as a responsible partner in international relations.
Iranian society, with its mixture of Persian, Islamic and Western roots, is in transition along a number of different axes: traditional-modern; religious-secular; ideological-rational; and tribal-individual. The Khatami government is seeking to fill a democratic vacuum in Iran that can integrate the most positive of these elements into a religious democracy best suited to the country. The point was made, moreover, that the West often sees only a monolithic Islam, whereas the reality of Islam is far more complicated. One participant outlined three strands of Islam: (a) a traditionalist Islam, which is in decline; (b) an extreme fundamentalist Islam, as represented by the Taliban, which is dangerous, and (c) a cultural Islam, which is moral and peaceful, and can be a force for stability. It was asserted that Iran could act as a buffer against the conflicting strands of traditionalist and extremist strands of Islam, as well as being an economic bridge between Asia and the West. Regarding domestic developments in Iran and the future of Iranian society, the point was made by several participants that the external image of Iran is different from the reality. Three important keys to understanding Iran over the past 25 years are: the 1979 revolution, the Iran-Iraq war, and the civil-social movement taking place under President Khatami. Regarding the 1979 revolution, the two dominant themes still playing out are Iranian independence and the role of religion in society. Memories of the Iran-Iraq war include US and French support for Saddam Hussein, the widespread damage to Iranian infrastructure, and the terrible toll the war took in claiming as many as one million casualties. The hallmarks of the Khatami presidency are the domestic emphasis on civil society and a dialogue of civilizations with Iran’s neighbors and others in the international community. Domestically, special importance is placed on the role of women, NGOs, and the media in shaping civil society, in a country where 70 percent of the population of 70 million is under the age of 30. It was noted that there are currently 1.2 million university students, and that 58 percent of incoming university students are women. All of these factors portend important challenges for an Iran seeking to rebuild its economic infrastructure and achieve closer integration with the international community, while it implements domestic policies that balance the will of the people with the will of God. In a country where oil accounts for 80 percent of state revenues, however, so that governments are not dependent on tax revenues from individuals and businesses, democratic values can be difficult to implement. Nonetheless, it was thought that generational pressures for economic and social reform would continue to support the expansion of democratic structures in Iran. The point was also made that Iran is a relatively young society in terms of the evolution of its current political system. There will be a transition to a new generation of political leaders and a greater emphasis on economic development and the national interest. Religion will always be an important element in Iranian society, but the concept of an historical revolutionary mission, centered on religion, will be modified over time, much as communist ideology has modified over time in China with the growth of a modern economy.
Iranian threat perceptions
Discussion began with a focus on Iran’s need to preserve its independence and safeguard its vital interests, while also maintaining a viable deterrent capability against an evolving range of threats. Mention was made again of the instabilities in countries surrounding Iran, of the existence of nuclear weapons in Israel, India and Pakistan, and of the challenges posed by US. One person noted that, while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is important to Iran, this is more of a peripheral issue; it is the Persian Gulf that is central to Iran’s security and economic interests. The view from Tehran, however, is that the US considers the Persian Gulf to be an “American lake.” Also, the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq may have removed one security threat to Iran, but this has been more than replaced by the greatly increased American military presence in the region, which in turn has exacerbated various political, religious and social instabilities throughout the area. As a result, a central tenet of Iranian policy is the early withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq and a greater role for the United Nations in facilitating a return to Iraqi self-government.As the only nuclear-weapons state in the Middle East, Israel is viewed as a direct threat by Tehran. Specifically, mention was made of an Osiraq-type scenario where Israel would launch a pre-emptive strike against what it claims are Iranian facilities being used to develop nuclear weapons. Israel is only 700 miles and two international borders away from Iran. The recent Israeli agreement with Turkey on use of its airspace for training purposes is seen as increasing the pressure on Iran, in terms of Israeli surveillance of Iran’s military and threats to destroy the Bushehr reactor and other facilities.In terms of regional security, Iranian security has been enhanced by the ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the removal of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and there has been tacit cooperation between Iran and the US on both these fronts (e.g., the 6+2 framework for Afghanistan). Indeed, it was stated that Iran has suffered as well from terrorist acts, particularly from the Taliban, and assertions that Iran is a state-sponsor of international terrorism were rejected.It was also mentioned that, post 9/11, the ideological competition between (Sunni) Saudi Arabia and (Shia) Iran has decreased, with Saudi Arabia no longer viewing Iran as a regional threat. Yet the situations in both Iraq and Afghanistan remain extremely fluid, with no certainty as to long-term outcomes. In addition to instabilities caused by the continuing drug trade out of Afghanistan into Iran, Tehran is concerned about a resurgence of the Taliban. Externally, Iran desires to improve relations with the US and the West, as well as with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and India. Yet the view from Tehran is that US actions are only fueling the international terrorist mindset. When Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons against Iran, the US was supporting him. Now, the Bush administration invades Iraq but finds no WMD. Iran is playing a positive role in trying to bring stability to Afghanistan and Iraq, where Iran has more of a stake than anyone. But it was felt that the US will not be interested in a democratic Iraq, as such a state would be anti-Israel and not supportive of all US positions, so the US will again seek an authoritative government that follows its line, with negative consequences for Iran.In terms of the Persian Gulf, it was stressed that Iran aims to keep the Gulf, which is of vital economic and strategic importance, from becoming totally dominated by the United States. Mention was made of several outstanding issues needing solution, including Iran’s exclusion from the Gulf Cooperation Council and the dispute between Iran and the United Arab Emirates over three islands in the Gulf. While there has been some tacit cooperation between the US and Iran in agreeing to ‘rules of the road’ in the Persian Gulf, such agreements are fragile in an atmosphere where the Bush administration continues to brand Iran as part of the “axis of evil.” More broadly, Iran sees the US as politicizing a number of issues, such as Iran joining the World Trade Organization and the regional natural gas pipeline, in order to keep Iran isolated.In looking at the broader implications of current regional dynamics, one participant thought that time was on Iran’s side, as current US difficulties in stabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan, plus the impasse in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, could cause long-term damage to American prestige.
Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East
One participant compared the chaotic situation in Afghanistan to that of political buzkhasi (a traditional Afghan game played on horseback), in that the players on the ground don’t know what is happening and only the spectators up in the stands can see the whole field and know what’s really going on. Others compared the situation now to that under the Soviet occupation; US and foreign troops occupy the country, the Afghan leaders don’t do anything without consulting the US, and the fighting continues. It was noted that the US intervention of Afghanistan was based on eradicating terrorism, the Taliban, and narcotics. Yet the US had previously supported the Taliban, in part to counter Iran, and the Taliban appear to be making a comeback. Osama bin Laden and top al-Qaeda leaders have not been captured. And the recent opium harvest in Afghanistan, of some 5,000 tons, was one of the largest ever. All three of these phenomena affect Iran directly. In the aftermath of September 11, Iran had constructive policy towards Afghanistan (October to December 2001), yet President Bush included Iran in his “axis of evil” during his January 2002 State of the Union address. Regarding Iraq, it was pointed out that three of the top security threats to Iran in recent decades have been Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel, and for the first time the US has a central role in all three. There is much uncertainty in Iran over the next Iraqi regime. Will it be authoritarian or democratic; what will be the political role of the Shia clergy; and will Iraq become a base for terrorist acts against Iran? Now that Saddam is gone, will the US dual containment of Iran and Iraq become a sole containment of Iran? It was felt by several participants that the US objective in Iraq is to extend its political and military influence in the Middle East, control Iraqi oil (2nd largest reserves in world), and influence Middle East events and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the latter in favor of Israel. The biggest victims of the war are the Iraqi people, now caught between extremist elements and US military occupiers. Moreover, the war will lead to the outcome it ostensibly was designed to prevent: an increase in radicalism and terrorism and Iraq as a haven for terrorists. The US military in Iraq, Afghanistan and central Asia now encircles Iran, increasing the potential for pressure on Iran. US intelligence sharing with governments in the region is one-sided and biased in favor of US. It was noted by some that much of the tension in US-Iranian relations has to do with Israel and what is seen as unquestioning American support for Israel, especially in its policies towards the Palestinians. As a consequence, Iran’s support for the Palestinians, and for Hezbollah in Lebanon, are viewed by many as points of leverage for Iran in seeking to change American policies. Other views held that that Iran should approach the Palestinian issue as a humanistic rather than an ideological issue, and that too much emphasis is placed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of Iranian domestic politics. For many younger Iranians, the Palestinian issue is far less important than economic and civil society issues within Iran. According to this view, Iran’s national interest should not be sacrificed for the sake of supporting the Palestinians, and that a more balanced policy will evolve as a new generation of leaders come to power. Opinions were also expressed that the US intervention in Iraq has strengthened the Sharon government in Israel, and that US demands on Iran to stop supporting Hezbollah and Palestinian groups are seen as wanting to give Sharon the ability to impose a one-sided settlement on the Palestinians. US access to Iraq’s oil could also reduce American dependence on Saudi Arabia, thus allowing Washington to pressure the Saudis on terrorism and Saudi support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad, again to the benefit of Israel.
Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty
The Pugwash-IPIS workshop was held on 6-8 September 2003, prior to an IAEA board of governors meeting in Vienna to consider Iran’s compliance with its NPT obligations. [Editor’s note: At the IAEA meeting on September 8-9, Iran was given until October 31 to respond to outstanding questions about its nuclear program. On October 21, following meetings of Iranian officials with the foreign ministers of the UK, France and Germany in Tehran, Iran announced its intention to “address and resolve through full transparency” all outstanding issues with the IAEA, including signing the IAEA Additional Protocol and voluntarily suspending uranium enrichment and processing activities.]In a wide ranging discussion, it was emphasized by several participants that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful and dedicated toward increasing the diversity of Iran’s energy sources. In particular, civilian nuclear power (a goal of 6,000 megawatts was mentioned) will be used for domestic energy consumption, allowing Iran to increase its exports of oil and natural gas so as to strengthen economic development. Additional benefits of a civilian nuclear power industry will include utilization of high technology, especially if Iran should be blocked by sanctions from technology sharing with other countries. There is also the issue of national pride, of Iran demonstrating that it is able to implement its energy program in the face of opposition from the US and other countries. Finally, mention was made of long-term uncertainties and the need for Iran to keep its security options open. On the issue of Iran signing the IAEA Additional Protocol, it was said that Iran needs assurances on complete access to peaceful nuclear fuel cycle technologies before it can sign the Additional Protocol, and that it will not succumb to political pressure. There are apprehensions in Iran that the Bush administration especially views Tehran signing the Additional Protocol as only the beginning of a next round of pressure and interference in Iran’s domestic affairs.In the discussion that followed, some participants questioned Iran’s need for civilian nuclear power, given its ample resources of oil and natural gas, even taking into account a diversification strategy. From a cost-benefit standpoint, it was pointed out that Iran is utilizing decades-old nuclear technology at Bushehr and other facilities which makes little economic or technological sense. There are also nuclear waste, safety, and proliferation concerns with this out-dated nuclear technology. More broadly, it was suggested that Iran would do much better to concentrate on other high-tech fields (biotechnology, computing, communications) rather than decades-old nuclear technology in order to accelerate its economic development. One Iranian participant, noting the $1.5 billion of sunk costs in the Bushehr reactor, suggested that perhaps the international community would consider granting ‘soft loans’ to Iran in order for Iran to switch to gas-fired power plants (he estimated that Iran would need some $2.5 billion in international loans to improve its natural gas infrastructure to the point where it would compensate for the loss of the Bushehr reactor). More broadly, it was noted that Iran should consider more future-looking and proliferation-resistant nuclear power technologies, especially given the future directions of nuclear energy (as, for example, outlined in a recent study from the Mass. Institute of Technology).Another suggestion was that, if Iran decided not to pursue a civilian nuclear energy program and would agree to a cut-off of the production of fissile material, pressure would mount on Israel to follow suit. This could have important ramifications for the entire Middle East region, and it was thought that some European countries especially could play a facilitating role here. Conversely, Iran must be aware that the EU-Iran conditional dialogue (improved political and economic ties conditioned on terrorism, human rights, and proliferation issues) could become seriously overloaded in the absence of a solution to the current IAEA-Iran issue. The same holds true for perceptions of Iranian support for radical/rejectionist Palestinian groups and Hezbollah in Lebanon, which complicates the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and Middle East stability. In response, Iranian participants noted that Iran has always advocated the denuclearization of the region and that it welcomes closer cooperation with the EU, but it is concerned that many European countries are following, or being pressured into, the hard-line policies of the Bush administration. In making the case that all the parties need to be more sensitive to their respective security concerns, the example was cited of Germany not consulting Iran about the sale of three diesel submarines to Israel. Concerning specific issues raised about Iran’s nuclear program, the following points were made. First, that Iran has faithfully fulfilled its IAEA obligations for 25 years but has not received in return the full benefits of Article IV peaceful nuclear technologies. Second, that Iran has only a limited ability to produce enriched uranium from its domestic uranium mines, and that such production is needed as a hedge against the cut-off of external supplies. Third, that Iran has been fully transparent about its heavy water nuclear technology. And fourth, that neither the Bushehr reactor nor the Natanz nuclear facility will be suitable for production of enriched uranium. In response, other participants noted continuing uncertainties about Iran’s nuclear program that have not been satisfactorily resolved. These include: (1) the fact that heavy water reactors can produce 6-8 kg of plutonium a year; (2) why should Iran go to the expense of producing uranium reactor fuel when it could buy it more economically on the international market?; (3) Iran’s centrifuge separation capacity appears to be far greater than that needed for a civilian nuclear power program; and (4) evidence of HEU isotopes at two nuclear facilities.Workshop participants expressed satisfaction at the open exchange of views, even though disagreements were not resolved, and pointed to the need to continue such dialogues on both the nuclear and other issues.
In concluding remarks, participants stressed the importance of cooperative efforts to integrate Iran more fully into both Middle East and Persian Gulf regional arrangements, and into the international community. One issue mentioned was the role of scientists and technology experts in regional reconstruction, similar to US programs with former Soviet nuclear scientists following the end of the Cold War. Are there ways that Iran can contribute to scientific efforts to prevent a brain drain in Iraq and Afghanistan? There are also the issues of Iranian contributions to stabilization efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, politically as well as religiously. More broadly, there are the Iranian concerns of being stigmatized by many in the international community and of being denied access to international fora such as the WTO. As Iran continues to evolve in terms of its domestic economy and society, it will be important for the international community to seek ways of engaging Tehran in promoting security and stability, both at the regional and international level.