How to Stop Iran: My Interview with Non-Proliferation Expert Mark Fitzpatrick

09/24/2010 06:42 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Mark Fitzpatrick is one of the world's leading experts on nuclear proliferation. He is director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Program at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In an interview I conducted for Die Zeit Online, Fitzpatrick sat down to talk to me about whether a nuclear Iran is inevitable, what the utility of UN sanctions are, and how the West can still prevent a nuclear-arms race in the Middle East.

What is the nature of the Iranian threat?

Some analysts don't like to use the word "threat" until capabilities actually materialize into the form of a weapon that is deliverable. Today Iran does not have a deliverable nuclear weapon, so one might be more accurate to talk about Iranian capabilities, which are quite worrisome.

What are Iran's nuclear capabilities?

There is no doubt that Iran is seeking a nuclear weapon's capability, and I think this is beyond reproach except from somebody who is ready to believe anything Iran says. Just based on the economic logic of their program, the military ties, the evidence of nuclear weapons development work, the lying, the hidden nature of it and so forth--everything points to a desire to be able to build nuclear weapons should they make the decision. I don't know that anyone can say that they have made a decision. I don't know that they've decided themselves whether to produce nuclear weapons, but they want to be close enough so that if when they make a decision, they can do it. And that's the threat.

The deliverability part of it is exacerbated by Iran's simultaneous pursuit of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying a nuclear weapon if Iran can make it small enough. The development of Iran's program points toward being able to deliver a first generation 1 ton sized nuclear weapon at a distance that could easily hit Israel. They do not have a missile that today could deliver a nuclear weapon to Europe--and why would they it wouldn't make any sense. But certainly they would like to have what to their minds would be a deterrent capability vis-à-vis Israel; it would also be potentially useful to them to be able to threaten Gulf states.

What Iran possesses today and what they are developing seems to me clearly to be directed at Israel and other countries in their near neighborhood within 2200km. The Sejil is their most worrisome ballistic missile, it has a reach of 2000+--say 2200-2600km--that puts Israel squarely on the target by means of a missile that is deployed far enough back from Iran's borders that it wouldn't be susceptible to preemption.

Given what we know about Saddam Hussein's actual nuclear capabilities, how can we be sure that the Iranian regime isn't also bluffing and merely trying to look tough?

It's a good question; though it's an easy question to answer. In the case of Iran we have IAEA reports of inspectors. We know what its nuclear capabilities are. We know what their missile capabilities are--not on the basis of inspections, but on the basis of tests. It's all observable activity and nothing is presumed here about what the actual capability that they have.

The only presumption is the one that jumps from Iran's capability to the assessment that what they seek is a nuclear weapons capability; few analysts who would argue with that. The only argument would be about whether Iran has already made a decision to develop a nuclear weapon or not.

It's pretty clear that Iran until 2004 was engaged in weapons development work. Have they continued since? The British French and Israeli intelligence all think that they have. In 2007, the US NIE assessment argued that Iran had suspended their interest in developing a weapon, but that report is now being reassessed.

Is the West guilty of hypocrisy: picking on Iran for its inchoate nuclear capabilities while tolerating Israel's nuclear arsenal?

Iran undertook an obligation when they signed up to the Non-Proliferation Treaty to forgo nuclear weapons development. They did so of their own free will. It's the same obligation taken up by 160+ other countries. When a country violates that obligation by developing nuclear weapons capability, then the international community has an obligation to enforce the standards of the NPT and that is what the Security Council has done--first by asking Iran to suspend the activity and then enforcing sanctions when it refuses to suspend.

Is it a double standard? The legal argument is that Israel did not sign the NPT, so they are not violating any legal obligations.

What about the moral double standard?

As for the larger moral argument: First, Israel has had nuclear capability for over 30 years. They haven't introduced anything new in the Middle East recently. The new development is Iran's development of nuclear weapons capabilities that has caused the ME regional security situation to become increasingly destabilized.

That doesn't mean that I condone Israel's nuclear weapons. My position is that there should be no nuclear weapons. But how do you get there? You start by restricting the expansion of nuclear weapons; so I would say that any state trying to acquire them should be stopped by the international community.
And simultaneously states that have them should take efforts to reduce them, as the US, France, and Russia have been doing, to make them more transparent. And for other countries like Israel, to secure their borders so that they will be less needed, which is Israel's objective. And I can also understand their position that until they can ensure that they will not be annihilated they will not give up their national insurance policy.

The claim that they are being unfairly picked on just does not stand up to the facts: they repeatedly violated obligations that they undertook; they don't need to have undertaken these steps. In fact their development of nuclear weapons is counterproductive: they point to Israeli threats to attack Iran, but this is a circular argument. The only reason Israel has voiced threats is because Iran is developing its nuclear capability. If Iran wasn't, Israel wouldn't care. Nobody wants to invade Iran.

American and German neoconservatives and Iran-hawks (certainly a minority group in Germany, but increasingly vocal here too) argue that the Iranian regime is too ideological, irrational, and therefore unappeasable. Is this true?

We need to distinguish between the argument about Iran's "irrationality" and its "unappeasability."
I certainly disagree that Iran is irrational. This is demonstrably false: When Iran has been faced with severe national trauma it has taken decisions that a rational country would take. In the case of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran accepted a ceasefire--they did this late and lost thousands of young men when they should have accepted it far earlier--finally because it was in their national interest. They may not behave like Western states, but there is a rationality to their actions--the desire to yield more influence and gain more prestige in the Middle East for example--that is not irrational. And finally, the most important reason that Iran cannot be considered irrational is that the decision making process in government is based on consensus. There is not one sole decision maker. Even if one man is deeply ideological or irrational; decisions are made based on consensus, which ultimately leads to rationality.

Is Iran appeasable?

Now, that's a different question and I'm not sure about the answer to that one. The question boils down to Iran's intentions: does it want a nuclear weapons capability more than anything else? And if so than no, they are not appeasable. No amount of sanctions or positive incentives will dissuade or stop a country that has decided to pursue capability or bust. Look at the case of Pakistan: their former president said that if India get's nuclear weapons, we'll pursue them even if we have to eat grass.
In Iran's case, I don't really see why they would feel the same; they don't have an India-like enemy. I don't know that they've decided that they want nuclear weapons above all else. Which is why we should try negotiating strategies that increase the benefits if they do suspend their program and enforce sanctions if they do not suspend it.

But some have argued that Iran would like to provoke an apocalyptic war that would bring about the end of the world and the coming of the 12th Imam?

There is absolutely no evidence that anything near a majority of decision makers have an apocalyptic worldview. Some very intelligent people have promoted this idea of the Iranian regime as having a national suicide bomber mentality---but the evidence is just not there to support this assertion. When you look at how they approach decisions in times of national danger, that's not the way they approach things.

Some have argued that these are simply temporary rational compromises for a regime that wants to move toward ultimately irrational apocalyptic ends--like for example the destruction of Israel. What do you make of the leadership's calls to destroy Israel?

There is no evidence that the leadership is moving toward apocalyptic goals. To me that is so out of the realm of consciousness; it's just imaginations gone wild.

As for the goal of destroying Israel, I don't think this is Iran's goal. In Farsi, the meaning of Ahmadenijad's statements is that Israel would cease to exist as a Zionist State in the sense that Palestinian majority would vote within a state that would cease to be Jewish. That's what he means by this statement. I don't doubt that some Iranians would like to attack Israel, but they know that this would be a suicidal effort because of Israel's second strike capability. Many Neocons take it at face value that he means by force, but this is incorrect.

What letter grade would you assign President Obama and Angela Merkel for their handling of Iran up until now?

Like my American counterparts in the university, I'm a bit of a grade inflator: I'd give Obama an "A." He's demonstrated creativity, effort, and attention to detail in offering Iran a way out back in October in offering the fuel swap proposal. It looked for a while like Ahmadenijad was going to take the deal. Unfortunately others in Teheran pulled the rug out from under his feet.

Then Obama pursued a sanctions strategy that was very effective in getting UN Sanctions that was rather encompassing and getting almost the entire Northern Hemisphere to impose sanctions. That created an atmosphere that pushed Iran to return to the October 1 fuel swap agreement, but this time with new negotiating partners (Brazil and Turkey) who were not very good at it and got eaten alive and the negotiating table and gave them the store.

There are two caveats to the "A" grade. One mistake Obama made was when he sent a letter to Brazilian President Lula setting 3 key conditions for the fuel swap. The problem with the letter was that there were several other conditions that Iran did not meet, that should have also been in that letter. Brazil now has a pretext to wave it around and claim the negotiations were a success and go along with a deal whose fine print gave Iran everything they want.

I'm also not convinced that Obama's effort at engaging Iran was as thorough as it might have been or still could be. He has offered the hand of friendship in his pronouncements. He offered this very good deal. But Iran never accepts anything in a onetime negotiation. Anyone who has ever dealt with Iran knows that their negotiating style is 2 steps forward 1 steps back and sometimes the reverse. One must make multiple efforts. One must be persistent. Maybe there are secret overtures, but the public record does not reflect this.

And your grade for Chancellor Merkel?

Merkel also gets an "A." She maintained European solidarity on the major foreign policy topic of the day. Unlike Iraq, where the Europeans were divided, they are united on this. This has a lot to do with Germany's position. Its natural inclination is to push for engagement and find compromise, but in order to maintain solidarity--and because she does distrust Iran because of its lies-- she has been willing to go along harsh EU sanctions that will require German businesses to give up investment opportunities. She has Principal over commerce. She's applauded by anyone who knows this issue.

Why was Merkel capable of maintaining European solidarity this time?

Because Obama tried the engagement policy, it took away the European refrain that the US should first try engagement. Europeans are also fed up with Iran: Iran's repression of the uprising last year turned many opinions. Europe's strong emphasis on Human Rights paved the way.

You mentioned Obama's extending a hand of friendship. Does the US belittle Iran or treat Iran disrespectfully, as Ahmadenijad often asserts?

Iran's sense of being treated as inferior is a very real issue. Much of this problem goes back to those infamous 3 words uttered by President George W. Bush: axis of evil. They could just not get over this insult. After cooperating with the US on the Afghanistan issue, they got this slur. It was so totally unnecessary.

Obama went a long way toward trying to overcome this problem. He showed Iranians tremendous respect in his Nowruz and State of the Union addresses. Iran would like an official statement from the White House that the US no longer considers them evil. They aren't going to get that, but Obama has gone pretty far.

Are there ways to reopen lines of communication between the US and Iran?

We should be engaging Iran beyond the nuclear issue--on stabilizing Afghanistan (where objectives are similar), on counter-narcotics trafficking (where they certainly have a national interest in cooperating), on Iraq negotiations that started a few years ago that didn't go anywhere. I'm not sure US put enough effort into that.

Engaging Iran will require a multi-faceted and repetitive effort on different fronts. Engaging Iran on various fronts, particularly where there are natural congruent goals, can contribute to confidence building and a sense of trust that is just totally lacking today. It doesn't mean that the nuclear issue will solve itself--it's a huge issue and the number one issue--but channels of communication need to be reopened. There isn't enough evidence that this is being seriously pursued by the US.

What is the objective of the most recent 4th round of UN sanctions?

None of the countries who have promoted sanctions think that they will change Iran's behavior.
There are 3 objectives to sanctions: First, to bring Iran back to the negotiating table in sincerity. Second, to restrict Iran's ability to acquire the wherewithal to expand their nuclear program. Unless they can acquire the materials and comp from overseas suppliers. They can't produce everything domestically. If their access to overseas supplies is limited, it's a way of keeping their program in bounds. Third, the broad purpose of heightening the downsides to their pursuit of capability. So that the Iranian people can see that there is a price to be paid. So that in future negotiations, you can withdraw those sanctions as incentive. And to show potential Iran wanabees that there is a price to be paid. That disincentive is crucial.

Are sanctions working?

They are certainly working for the second and third objectives. As for the first, it is too early to tell. Iran is talking about returning to the negotiating table, but it is not talking about it seriously enough yet. It hasn't agreed to any date or specific agenda. Catherin Ashton has been trying to get Iran back to the table and Iran has been signaling that maybe they'll be ready to do so soon. But again it's too early to tell. I'm hopeful that they may come back.

What would a negotiated outcome look like?

If negotiations were to really resume, we could figure out a solution that would give the world confidence that Iran could not quickly cross the line between capability and production. Bruno Pello, formally of the IAEA, is one of a few analysts who have suggested that Iran ship out all of its stockpile of LEU to another country, so it couldn't re-enrich it. It would be accompanied by intense IAEA surveillance to ensure that is not building another secret facility (like at Qom), but it would be a way to Iran to save face and compromise.

What happens if sanctions fail and Iran doesn't return to negotiate?

There are two broad categories of strategy: the first is one that I do not advocate and that's the strategy of military action to stop the program kinetically--

Ever?

No, I don't say "ever." There is a time and place for military action, when they cross the line between capability and production. Right now they have growing capability. If they were to test a nuclear weapon or to expel inspectors, or to produce weapons grade uranium, or to declare themselves a nuclear state (all things that North Korea did), well then yes, I think it would be grounds for attack to stop them from delivering a nuclear weapon.

A military strike is to my mind a potentially a lose-lose option. It probably would create conditions in Iran that would lead them to acquire a weapon for sure in possibly a shorter time than they would otherwise, because they would have the concerted effort of the nation and national economy toward this one goal of getting a nuclear weapon. And it is not a concerted effort today to go as fast as they can. If you look at the time it has taken them since they started this program in 1985--25 years--and they are still not there. Pakistan took about 10 years, but they had a concerted effort to get there. So if Iran were bombed today, it would set them back a few years, but then they would probably by hook or crook be determined to get it.

You'll set them back by a few years but give them a sense of national unity and an international excuse that much of the 3rd world would applaud: Iran was attacked so they have every right now to pursue nuclear weapons.

And the second strategy?

The second strategy is deterrence and containment: this is a tried and true strategy that has been proven effective for the West vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and China. They deterred those countries from ever using a nuclear weapon. They contained them from expanding their influence.

I think in this case, deterrence can work not only in preventing Iran from using a weapon but also from producing it. If Iran knows that the production of a nuclear weapon will result in a military attack, I think that could be an effective deterrent that would keep them on the capability side of the line (rather than actually producing it). As long as they don't cross that line to producing, it will be hard for Americans to condone another military action in the Middle East, but if Iran crosses the line, I think most Americans realize this would require military action. Willingness to use military force is absolutely necessary for deterrence to work.

Containment policies will keep the program limited. Sanctions and export controls are one form of containment, but there are others. Sabotage efforts to try to destroy or introduce imperfections in their equipment. This has been successful in the past and is one of the reasons Iran's program isn't working so well.

Are the US or Israel capable of a successful military attack?

Yes, absolutely. I think it's a good thing that Iran knows that a military option is a real option. I certainly think it is a real option. Iran glibly postures that the US is too overextended or that Israel doesn't have the capabilities for an attack. This is wrong. Israel does have the capability and the US would also be willing if necessary. The nature of the Iraq war has changed and the US is not nearly as extended as it was before.

What further role can Germany play in bringing Iran to its senses?

The sanctions that have been adopted by the EU are strong and laudable. I think it's very good that they went as far as they did. In fact it surprised me how strong they were. But it could be stronger: nations could adopt individual national sanctions that would go further.

It is beyond my comprehension why Germany doesn't close down Bank Melli. I don't understand why that bank is still in operation. The US has asked Germany to shut it down.

A harder step but one Germany should think about: what kind of sanctions would employ Germany's leverage most. What does Germany have that Iran really wants and denial of which would help change the cost-benefit analysis in Iran. I think it is German sales of equipment and replacement parts for German machine tools in Iran. 2/3rds of Iranian industry run with tools imported from Germany and these machines require replacement parts. Iran can't get replacement goods from China. It might be one sanction in the future to employ to try and put real pressure on Iran.

What about the US's most recent $60 billion arms deal with Saudia Arabia: is this another form of containment?

Yes, and this is another good idea. Giving Saudia Arabia defensive capabilities will serve as a deterrent for Iran to move from capability to production. Second, it will give the Saudis a sense of reassurance that their security is taken care of so that they don't have to acquire nuclear weapons of their own. Several Saudi leaders have said several times that if Iran acquires nuclear weapons, they would need them too.

There are disadvantages of course: it does promote an arms race, and it would be better if they were not.

Will sanctions push Iran further into deeper economic relations with the East ?

Yes, this is a possible outcome of sanctions and could create a world somewhat like the cold war where Iran is part of another camp. But first, most Iranian businessmen don't want to be exclusively part of that world; they want to be in the West. They realize its technology is best and why should they settle for inferior technology. Second, there are niche activities where China can't just easily replace the West--I mentioned the machine tools already; another is reinsurance, which is only a Western-based company activity.

So your general outlook for the future is...?

Sanctions will definitely slow Iran and they already have proven as much. Only half of Iran's centrifuges are currently working. They are having trouble expanding it. But through containment and deterrence, we are headed for a long cold war, in which we are never satisfied with the status of Iran's program, but we live with a nuclear capable Iran that does not cross the line into production.

My optimistic scenario is not a very good one: it has the potential to turn into a very dangerous scenario. Today they have a stockpile of 2800kg, enough for two weapons worth if they were to further enrich it for weapon's purposes. If they continue at this rate, they will have one weapon's worth in every forthcoming consecutive year. At some point, Israel will think that Iran's stockpile of LEU is too damn big. The more of this stockpile you have, the faster you can cross the line and develop weapons. Crossing the line with only a few weapons' worth of LEU is too risky (you want more than a handful of them just in case).

At what point Iran has too much LEU then Israel can tolerate is not clear to either side. Iran could inadvertently hit Israel's bottom line without even knowing it. That's the most dangerous part of this story.