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Iran’s isolation temptation

As the Nov. 24 deadline for Iran and the great powers to negotiate a comprehensive nuclear agreement approaches, both sides may be confronted with momentous choices. What happens if the decadelong search for an arms-control accord falters?

Since the exposure of its illicit nuclear program in 2002, the Islamic republic has wrestled with a contradictory mandate: how to expand its nuclear infrastructure while sustaining a measure of economic growth. Reformist president Mohammad Khatami avoided debilitating economic sanctions by suspending nuclear activities. Then came Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who privileged nuclear empowerment over economic vitality.

Current president Hassan Rouhani has negotiated an interim agreement — the Joint Plan of Action — but faces diminishing prospects for a final accord. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and many hard-line elements seem ready to forge ahead with their nuclear ambitions even if they collide with economic imperatives.

During the past few years, Khamenei has been pressing his concept of a resistance economy whereby Iran would shed its need for foreign contracts and commerce. In the impractical universe of conservatives, Iran can meet the basic needs of its people by developing local industries. Iran’s reactionaries seem to prefer national poverty to nuclear disarmament.

Since the 1980s, the hard-liners’ foreign policy perspective has been that Iran’s revolution is a remarkable historical achievement that the United States can’t accept or accommodate. Western powers will always conspire against an Islamic state they cannot control, this thinking goes, and the only way Iran can achieve its national objectives is to lessen its reliance on its principal export commodity. This mentality drives Iran’s quest for nuclear arms and their deterrent power.

Although many in the West might hope the interim accord will simply roll on in absence of a comprehensive agreement, Iranian adherence is hardly assured. The history of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy suggests that it will abandon the agreement when it has sufficient technological capacity to carry out its program. Between 2003 and 2005, while the Europeans negotiated a suspension of Iran’s program, Tehran continued to accumulate nuclear materials and hone its research skills and, when it was ready, abandoned its pledges.

Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, has already established the pretense for introducing speedier centrifuges. “New centrifuges will be used for production of vaccines,” he noted last month. Then Salehi acknowledged that “such kinds of machines cannot be purchased at the world market. They are not sold as they are said to be of dual use.” And it is that duality that attracts Iran to machines that can produce highly enriched uranium with speed and efficiency. Once Iran’s scientists are confident of their mastery of the new machines, the Joint Plan of Action is likely to meet the fate of the other agreements that Tehran negotiated with European powers.

In the coming weeks, the ebb and flow of the high-wire negotiations are sure to capture headlines. But it already seems clear that Khamenei and the hard-liners are poised to choose nuclear power over economic prosperity. Rouhani may yet be able to temper, for a while, such rash impulses. But by loudly contemplating alternative strategies should diplomacy exhaust itself, Iran seems to be crossing a dangerous threshold.

Ray Takeyh is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.


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