On December 11, 2007, about seventy members of the public, the media and the diplomatic corps attended a public debate and discussion hosted by the Brookings Doha Center. Entitled “Nuclear Proliferation at a Crossroads: Iran, the U.S. , and Arab States,” the event was held at the Diplomatic Club in Doha, Qatar and was broadcast live in Arabic on Al Jazeera Mubasher. On the panel were Ambassador Greg Schulte, the U.S. Permanent Representative to International Organizations in Vienna, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Dr. Mehran Kamrava, Director of the Center for International and Regional Studies (CIRS) at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar, and Professor of Political Science at California State University, Northridge. The discussion was moderated by Mr. Hady Amr, Director of the Brookings Doha Center and Fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. The Brookings Doha Center is a project of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy and an integral part of the Brookings Institution.
Ambassador Schulte began by analyzing the content of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on Monday, December 3rd, 2007. He explained that the most discussed judgment in this report was the assessment that Iran halted its nuclear weapons activities in late 2003. “This point has often been misrepresented and underemphasized in world press,” Schulte said. “What is particularly important is that the NIE notes with high confidence that Iran did, indeed, have a covert nuclear weapons program until fall 2003—a clear violation of Iran’s Non Proliferation Treaty obligations to use its nuclear technology towards only peaceful ends. It also notes that Iran’s leadership continues to keep open the option to pursue nuclear weapons, and that Iran’s enrichment program—which it continues in contravention of its international obligations—is part of keeping open that option.” According to Schulte, the positive message that the NIE delivered was that the United States and its international partners have been on the right path in pressuring Iran to halt its nuclear weapons work.
Despite the NIE findings, Schulte said there were still reasons to be concerned as Iran continues to develop technologies that could bring it closer to a nuclear weapon if Iran’s leaders chose to restart that program. Schulte emphasized the role of the IAEA and the UN Security Council in making sure that Iran’s nuclear activities conform to international laws. “The goal of the UN Security Council process and international sanctions is to persuade Iran that it is more advantageous to cooperate and negotiate than to delay and deny,” he said.
Schulte ended his remarks by stating that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons has not given Iran additional prestige but rather, have led it to become increasingly isolated. Schulte explained that the United States is ready to engage in negotiations with Iran alongside its partners from Europe, Russia and China with the aim of achieving a long-term agreement to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. He emphasized that Iranian leaders have a strategic decision to make at this point and stressed that if they were interested in security, prestige, and economic benefits, they would take up the six P5+1 countries on their offer rather than pursuing capabilities that cause the world such concern.
Dr. Mehran Kamrava put the U.S. – Iran nuclear conflict in a different context, one that involved Iran’s position in an increasingly polarized international system. He noted that the ongoing conflict is part of a larger phenomenon, where Iran’s nuclear activities are not the issue of debate but rather Iran’s position in the current international system. Kamrava explained that after 9/11, the premises of the Bush administration’s foreign policy have been unilateralism, preemption and talk of Iranian “regime change,” thus alienating Iranian efforts at diplomacy.
Kamrava added that Iran’s defiance of the international community comes against a background of resurging “populism” in which leaders of the populist movement promise their people a redistribution of wealth while questioning the international system, a phenomenon that has been unraveling in Iran.
Kamrava expressed his doubts about Iran’s desire to own a nuclear weapon but asserted that Iran would use its nuclear program to negotiate a package deal with the U.S. “Iranians are indeed after an incentives package,” Kamrava said, “but they are not after the offer that has been so far extended to them.” At the core of this standoff he said is the “guarantee that Americans will not actively undermine the political system in Tehran.”
The two speakers addressed numerous questions from the floor. In answering one question on the U.S.’s position regarding nuclear weapons owned by Israel, Ambassador Schulte said that the United States looks forward to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons on the basis of a comprehensive peace settlement. He said that Iran’s activities continue to hinder such a settlement and that its nuclear program may perilously instigate a regional arms race.
In responding to Iran’s relationship with GCC countries, Kamrava explained that Iranian diplomacy has progressed from being “reactive” in the early years of Ahmadinejad’s administration to being “proactive” lately. Kamrava attributed this shift to the realization by the Iranian leadership that their estranged diplomacy was not doing them any good and that it was time to engage regional players. He also underscored the strategic mediating role that GCC countries can play between the U.S. and Iran.
Kamrava advised the Iranian leadership not to consider the NIE as a victory or as an end for the debate but rather as an opportunity to seek diplomacy, especially after the vocal criticism for the Iranian chief negotiator for the outcome of the recent negotiations in London. Kamrava ended on an optimistic note saying he is thrilled that there is still the desire to engage in talks despite the presence of “demagogues” on both the American and Iranian sides.
In his concluding remarks, Ambassador Schulte reconfirmed the United States’ readiness to sit at the negotiations table as long as Iran demonstrated good will to the same. He said the United States wanted a different relationship with Iran but this depended on a number of decisions to be taken by the Iranian leadership. Some important questions Iran will have to answer in this regard are whether it can commit to its international obligations, particularly those pertaining to the NPT, whether it is prepared to support the Middle East process, and whether it is ready to stop funding terrorist groups and to stop tampering with the stability of neighboring states. Schulte hoped that Iranians would pay attention to what happened with North Korea and infer that there is a diplomatic way out of this conflict by cooperating with the international community rather than standing against it.