Not that kind of Persian: What to do about Iran

Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani

World politics has been fixated over the last few days on the agreed nuclear deal between President Obama of the United States and Hasan Rouhani of Iran, bringing the age old topic of nuclear proliferation storming back to the forefront of international political thought.

But numerous questions are being brought to the fore. Will allowing Iran more economic strength become a means to the end of preventing nuclear proliferation? Or is this deal simply delaying the inevitable, putting more power and capital into Iranian hands in the meantime? This being said, is Iran getting a nuclear weapon such a catastrophic end? Perhaps what the Middle East is crying out for is balance from the nuclear dominion of Israel; some nuclear bipolarity to stabilise the region.

The deal places numerous restrictions on Iranian nuclear capabilities in exchange for the lifting of sanctions put in place by the US, EU and the UN, unfreezing over £64 billion worth of overseas Iranian assets, alongside an easing of financial restrictions which will counter the crippling inflation and devaluation of the Rial, providing Iran with increased economic weight with which it can throw around (somewhat) as it pleases.

Can this deal prevent nuclear proliferation to Iran?

The ‘restrictions’ on Iranian nuclear capabilities seem to present themselves in a number of guises. Firstly, Iran’s uranium stockpile will be slashed by 98% for 15 years, whilst the enrichment of said uranium must be maintained at 3.67% (i.e. maintained as ‘low-enriched uranium’, not the 90% enrichment required for nuclear weapon production). The BBC have also highlighted how there will be specific sanctions on individual reactor sites in Iran, for example research and development will only take place at the Natanz nuclear site and will be limited for the next eight years, whilst the Fordo site will not be allowed to enrich any uranium for the next 15 years. Further, the heavy-water nuclear facility in Arak, the spent fuel from which contains nuke-ready plutonium, will have to be redesigned so that it cannot produce weapons grade plutonium, along with its spent fuel being sent out of the country.

The list of restrictions goes on, qualified with an equally long list of sanctions being lifted, leaving us with the following questions; will this work? Can this deal prevent nuclear proliferation to Iran? Is this deal simply a delay to the inevitability of Iran getting a bomb, with the infrastructure to create a bomb still largely intact? Perhaps more pertinently, is stopping them from gaining nuclear weaponry the best course of action?

Let’s try to understand the merit of each viewpoint:

Will it work? This is definitely a question, which requires further definition; with regards to preventing Iran from gaining nuclear weapons capabilities in the next decade, yes. The economic benefits for Iran are tantalising enough to drive them to keep their end – the Washington Post was told by Professor Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, a professor of Economics at Virginia Tech, that the GDP of the Iranian economy is set to expand by 5-8% per year during the deal – which, as previously noted, will strongly cap their nuclear capabilities, making it effectively impossible for them to produce nuclear weapons.

This, however, is not to say that the deal will help to stabilise the Middle-East. Such an economic influx to Iran will certainly not, as Genevieve Wood puts it “be finding its way in to the pockets of the Iranian people”, rather funding will flow directly to the proxy armies that Iran already pumps capital into, such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shia militias, something which will, as highlighted by Kevin Connolly, certainly provoke Sunni communities into a reaction, notably Saudi Arabia. More funding and more arms to one of the more prominent defenders of Shia Islam will only further provoke the growing conflicts in the Middle-East between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

Power begs to be balanced

Such conflicts are not the only issue that Saudi Arabia will have, nor Israel for that matter. The increased economic might of Iran will only pull the tension between the powerhouse states of the region more taught, allowing Iran to “continue to pursue its aggression and terror”, as noted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Both states feel that the deal promotes Iranian power, and fundamentally will place Iran in a stronger nuclear position come the end of the deal. Perhaps the deal will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle-East as states like Saudi Arabia seek to arm themselves during Iran’s nuclear banishment, something which will certainly backfire on the US’s plans.

Yet would this backfire actually be a problem solver? The US, thanks to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), have consistently sought, along with the other recognized nuclear states and other accompanying states, to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. Kenneth Waltz famously argues the neo-realist corner that such an approach is a backward one; he highlights in his (now highly topical) article Why Iran Should Get the Bomb that “power begs to be balanced”, and that nuclear power in the region is polarised in Israel, destabilising the Middle East as a whole, citing the peace that the Cold War brought (only two small conflicts in Europe took place in Hungary, 1956 and Cyprus 1974), the most peaceful European period of the modern era.

Would this same reduction in conflict occur in the Middle East? Further, Waltz highlights that Israel are more likely to seek to attack Iran to prevent them from getting a bomb, like they perpetrated against Iraq in 1981 and like they demonstrated against Syria in 2007, rather than attacking them if they have one. (Waltz’s argument is highly interesting and worth a read).

What this doesn’t acknowledge is the instability of the Iranian regime, one openly showing its support for the proxy battles mentioned above and driven by a religious feud that seems set to end in disaster. Rouhani leads a country that has been fanatical since the revolution in 1979, and perhaps preventing such a regime from possessing a weapon of mass destruction is the best way forward.

Fundamentally, no-one knows what this deal will hold for Iran. No-one knows what would happen if they were to get a nuclear weapon, and no-one knows whether or not this deal will prevent it from ever happening, or simply defer or delay the arms race in the Middle East. Maybe nuclear war is on the cards. Maybe they just aren’t that kind of people.

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