Center for Strategic Decision Research



The Iran Crisis

Ambassador Munir Akram
Permanent Representative of Pakistan
to the United Nations

Let me preface my remarks about this important issue by saying that what I am going to present are my personal analyses and views rather than those reflecting the views of my government. I also want to say that I believe the context of the crisis relating to Iran needs to be understood, and that it is basically a struggle for Persian Gulf dominance between Iran and the United States and its friends.


There are two very different perspectives from which the Iranian crisis can be viewed. First, the U.S., or Western, perspective involves the need for effective control over the oil and energy resources of the Gulf Region, which will remain an important source of energy for the next 25 years. The failure of the effort in Iraq to achieve greater control over these resources has made it all the more necessary to address Iranian power in the Gulf.

There is also perceived danger in the West of Iran assuming a dominant position in the area known as the Shia Crescent, which stretches from Iran through Iraq into the eastern regions of Saudi Arabia, where their oil fields are. In addition, there is perceived danger in the fact that Iran is the only Islamic country in the Middle East that is resisting the dominant forces seeking a solution of the Middle East crisis on the basis of land for peace. To add to that, Iran is perceived as supporting Hezbollah, supporting Syria, and supporting groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Hamas government that are now in power in the Middle East. Finally, there is the defiant Iranian rhetoric against the U.S. and Israel and the Western belief that the acquisition of nuclear weapons by Iran would make it virtually impossible to change that behavior and the country’s disruption and dominance of the region.

The Iranian perspective is very different. Iran sees that the U.S. and its allies seek not only regime behavior change but regime change. Some in Iran even fear that the Western objective is fragmentation of Iran, and see nuclear capability, if not the acquisition of nuclear weapons, as the only long-term guarantee against attack and for consolidating the dominant role that Iran feels it has a right to play in the region.

The Iranians believe that Iran’s power is now at its zenith. Its regional rivals, both in Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and in Afghanistan (the Taliban), have been eliminated by its global rivals and Saudi Arabia has been weakened by the terrorism that has been occurring since the post-9/11 period, when it came under U.S. and Western pressure. In addition, Iran is not broke. It enjoys unprecedented oil revenues because of a high demand for oil and gas worldwide and believes that any disruption to the oil pipelines would cost the West more than it would cost Iran. The Iranian nuclear program has also generated unprecedented national unity in Iran and support for the hard-line government. In addition, the country believes it has the capability to cause disruption throughout the region, which it feels is a strength. Finally, Iran believes that the dialogue it conducted with the EU 3 did not work, because the EU 3 did not deliver on its incentive promises despite Iran’s two-year suspension of enrichment. The unyielding posture now displayed by Ahmadinejad is seen in Iran as yielding better results. The government has had enough of dialogue and discussion and has resumed enrichment.

The nuclear issue is thus at present the fulcrum of the struggle between the U.S. and its allies and Iran, and the positions taken by the two sides on this issue appear to be mutually exclusive. The P-3—the U.S., the U.K., and France—has called for a halt in enrichment, but President Bush has been quoted as saying, “Iran should have no nuclear weapons, no nuclear weapons capability, and indeed no knowledge of having nuclear weapons.” The U.S. has stepped up sanctions and the use of force has not been taken off the table. Iran, on the other hand, says that it has a right to nuclear enrichment on its soil under the NPT and that its extent is negotiable. Until now, Iran has disavowed nuclear weapons ambitions but it has threatened to reject the additional protocol and indeed to walk out of the NPT if the Security Council or the international community adopts punitive measures against it.


There are divisions within the policy establishment on both sides. Within Iran, three groups exist: the reformers, led by Khatami, the previous president, who have now been marginalized; the pragmatists, Rafsanjani and Rouhani, who are prepared to work out a deal and from whose efforts the Russian proposal was born; and the hard-liners, Ahmadinejad and the leadership of the Revolutionary Guards, who have insisted on enrichment on Iranian soil as part of any deal. The supreme leader, Khamenei, and his appointed negotiator, Larijani, are somewhere in between the pragmatists and the hard-liners.

So far, the hard-liners seem to have the upper hand—there has been enrichment without punishment. But the Iranian bottom line appears to be moving up. First the hard-liners considered the Russian solution; then they insisted on the Russian solution plus symbolic enrichment; and now three cascades of 164 centrifuges are in operation, with plans to build 30,000 more at the plant in Natanz. So the question is, in future negotiations, whether the Iranian bottom line will come down from this declared position. Of course, everything could change once pain is inflicted and once the confrontation heightens between Iran and the West, which is obviously the hope of the P-3.

Within the U.S., the hard-liners also seem to have the upper hand. As I said, they want no enrichment, escalating sanctions, and the option to use force, and have kept the heavy influence of Israel in the background. The pragmatists in the West, however, want to negotiate with Iran, escalate the pressure slowly, and not talk about the use of force, either for tactical or strategic reasons. There are also evidently some differences between the United States and its European allies, the latter seeking a more pragmatic approach that involves the slower escalation of pressure and no possibility of using force. But the U.S. objectives are unclear, particularly to the Iranians. Is it about ending enrichment and the entire Iranian nuclear program altogether, changing the behavior of the Iranian regime or the regime itself, or dissolving Iran because of reports of various activities against Iran inside the country?

The P-3 resolution in the Security Council has been delayed because of Russian-Chinese objections to Chapter VII, the role of the IAEA versus the Security Council, and because of concern regarding Iran’s threats of retaliation. Currently a package of incentives and disincentives is being elaborated by the Europeans but its finalization has been delayed. Will the U.S., Russia, and China endorse the package? The answer is unclear at the moment because it is uncertain whether Russia and China will go to the extent of vetoing the resolution. It seems that they will be cautious, but if the resolution includes sanctions, it is likely to be blocked. If the resolution is adopted, however, it will have legal and political repercussions for Iran and for the rest of the international community, but it will also set off a reaction. Iran has threatened to disavow the additional protocol, eject IAEA inspectors, and begin consideration of Article 10 of the NPT withdrawal. If these things happen, or if Iran continues to be noncompliant, it is likely that the P-3 will respond with a new resolution envisaging sanctions. Initially, such sanctions might be symbolic—a travel ban and an arms embargo. Later, however, they could include freezing assets and banning investment in Iran. Oil and trade sanctions, though, are unlikely because they would be counter to the interests of the P-3.


Therefore, unless the dynamic of the U.S.-Russia relationship and the U.S.-China relationship changes and if Iran further alienates friends such as Russia and China, sanctions are unlikely to be approved by the Security Council, especially those that apply to investment and economic cooperation. Such sanctions, however, might be applied unilaterally by the U.S., Europe, and others willing or persuaded to join in a coalition to penalize Iran. Those sanctions, however, are unlikely to change Iran’s position. More likely, Iran will move towards NPT withdrawal and other “retaliatory” measures, for example, halting its cooperation in Afghanistan. They could also cause problems in Iraq as well as make the hard-liners in Iran stronger.

A failure of sanctions against Iran would increasingly narrow Western options, leaving only the use of force as the ultimate and unpalatable alternative. Indeed, as the confrontation escalates, the danger of a conflict could arise, not merely by design but also by accident. There are several scenarios in which this could happen. For example, you will recall several months ago that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards captured eight British soldiers from Iraq on the border and paraded them blindfolded on Iranian television. If such a thing were to happen with U.S. soldiers, I think there could be grave consequences in an atmosphere of conflict and confrontation. So conflict could happen without a decision having been made at the top.


What options are available? First and foremost, I think the international community needs to set two realistic objectives for achievement in this crisis:

  • A cap on Iranian enrichment activities, leaving one or two cascades subject to total IAEA inspections, and Iran’s acceptance of the additional protocol and anywhere/anytime challenge inspections
  • An agreement for changing Iranian behavior vis-à-vis the Gulf and the region as a whole
While the modalities for reaching such an agreement are uncertain at this time, given the positions of the two sides, it would perhaps be best to use an intermediary—Russia, China, or perhaps Pakistan or Turkey—to craft a compromise solution. Another possibility being advocated is an open Iran-U.S. dialogue with everything on the table: nuclear programs and weapons, Iraq, the entire Middle East, terrorism, security, and so forth. A third modality would be to convene a Gulf or Regional Security Conference to work on all the above issues and the creation of a regional security forum that could include Iran. Perhaps the three approaches could be pursued in three different time frames to bring security to the Gulf: the intermediary approach in the short term, the U.S.-Iran dialogue in the medium term, and the security forum in the longer term.


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