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Iran's previously secret nuclear enrichment facility at Qom. (HO)
Iran's previously secret nuclear enrichment facility at Qom. (HO)

Peter Jones

Dealing with Iran will require diplomacy with a hard edge Add to ...

The revelation of a previously secret nuclear enrichment facility at Qom and the tests of medium- and long-range Iranian missiles could not have come at a better time for those seeking to put more pressure on Tehran. The leaders of the United States, Britain and France made a joint statement at the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh promising a much tougher line if Iran does not change its nuclear policies. It seems clear that U.S. President Barack Obama's desire to use diplomacy to resolve this problem, while not abandoned, will require a sharper edge.

More importantly, Russia and maybe even China are tired of Tehran's actions. While Moscow's new attitude may be at least partly explained by the abandoning of Washington's ballistic missile defence plan, that is beside the point for Tehran. Russia and China represent Iran's hopes for a veto over stronger sanctions in the Security Council - and those hopes are now in doubt.

What exactly has happened in the past few days?

Washington announced Friday that for some time, U.S. and other intelligence agencies have been tracking the development of a new and undeclared uranium enrichment facility outside Qom. The Iranians maintain that the construction of such a facility was undertaken for legitimate civilian purposes. They further maintain that, since no fissionable nuclear material has been introduced to the facility, they were under no obligation yet to report its construction to the International Atomic Energy Agency.

This latter point may be technically true, but beside the point, politically. This is the latest revelation in a string of actions that critics say amount to a long-standing Iranian policy of deception, dissimulation and deceit. This is far from the first time Tehran has been forced to admit suspicious nuclear activities it had tried to keep secret, and elements of Iran's nuclear research have little to do with a fully civilian nuclear program.

Where do we go from here?

Iran will likely go into one of its seemingly reasonable phases of soothing language and offers of inspections for the new facility. This is not new; Tehran has moved skillfully over the years, alternating between defiance and diplomacy in response to pressure over its nuclear program.

There is a difference this time, however: Iran and the United States are scheduled to have their first diplomatic discussions later this week in Geneva. These will not be direct bilateral talks; they will take place within the context of a broader diplomatic process also involving China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain.

It is unlikely that these talks will lead to any breakthroughs immediately, if at all. Iran will defend what it calls its right to peaceful nuclear technology, perhaps offering a small concession or two, but not acceding to demands for a halt to its enrichment activities.

It is also difficult to see how a complete cessation of enrichment can be achieved - Iran has simply gone too far for that. Military action will not halt it. The best an attack could achieve is to delay the Iranian program - but at the cost of further radicalizing the country's politics, increasing Tehran's determination and inviting retaliation elsewhere.

Intelligent sanctions do have an impact. For example, during my last trip to Iran, in August, I found that the country's banking system is now unable to process international credit transactions. But while sanctions can raise the costs of proliferation, it is doubtful that sanctions alone can stop a determined proliferator.

For better or worse, diplomacy with a hard edge remains the preferred option. But not too hard - Persian culture requires room for backing down without admitting defeat, perhaps to something like a small-scale, fully inspected research enrichment program. This is perhaps the best (or least worst) outcome that can be hoped for, and it is a long shot.

The latest revelations have set the stage for the next round in this saga. It remains to be seen if the United States and its partners can take advantage, or if Iran will wriggle off the hook once again.

Peter Jones is associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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