07/02/2013 11:29 am ET Updated Sep 01, 2013

Iran's Red Line

In the coming weeks and months there will be much analysis exploring the potential implications of the election of Hassan Rouhani as Iran's next president. Will Iran become more flexible in its nuclear negotiation with the west? Will a President Rouhani change Iran's foreign policy? Only time will tell, but to be sure optics matter in foreign affairs and so does rhetoric. A President Rouhani is likely to be more measured and less vitriolic then his predecessor. However the P5+1 and the Obama administration must bear in mind that any package that they present to a Rouhani administration on the nuclear front must be acceptable to Iran's Supreme Leader and have overall approval across the political spectrum in Iran so as not to suffer the same fate as the failed Geneva accord of 2009.

For a country like Iran to pursue a nuclear program is not a whimsical decision brought about overnight by a politician or political party; it requires sustained capital, technical expertise, and broad-based political support over many years. There must be consistency in a country's desire to have such a program. If one looks at the United States during the Cold War it made little difference which political party was in the White House; it was well accepted by presidents from Harry Truman through Ronald Reagan that the United States must have an active nuclear weapons program to stave off all those who threaten her and to maintain its position as a global superpower. Similarly modern Iran has been pursuing a nuclear program since the time of the Shah. Over the last 50 years the people and government of Iran have changed, but the desire for Iran to have an indigenous nuclear program has remained a constant. The Iranian Revolution and ensuing eight year war with Iraq slowed down progress in the nuclear arena but it did not change the belief of the leadership in Tehran that Iran must achieve mastery of the nuclear cycle.

Iran's pursuit of nuclear technology is consistent with her belief that it lives in a "rough neighborhood." Having fought a bloody war with Iraq and having relatively poor relations with most of the countries that surround it revolutionary Iran has used proxies in the Persian Gulf, minority parties in the Levant as well as Shia population centers in the Middle East as a means to project power. With the fallout of the Arab Spring still unclear and Syria descending into chaos, the Iranian leadership may have to re-examine their policies, but the P5 +1 should not expect a dramatic shift in Iran's calculus with respect to its nuclear program. Yet, Iran will be careful not to cross red lines that the United States has have laid before it. These red lines include not having enough stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium to be able to divert into a nuclear weapon. In fact over the course of the last year Iran has diverted enough 20 percent enriched uranium to medical isotopes thereby postponing the "eyeball to eyeball" moment with the United States. However, Iran will continue to expand not only its enrichment program but also its atomic energy infrastructure because this has always been Iran's own red line: that no matter what agreement the P5+1 and the Iranian delegation agree to-if the ability to indigenously enrich uranium is not part of the conclusion of the talks then there will never be a settlement that the Iranian leadership could live with or justify to its people.

Certainly, the P5+1 may insist that Iran not be allowed to weaponize its stockpiles by enforcing a stringent IAEA inspection program, but this was never part of the strategy of the leadership in Tehran. Iran knows that if it were ever to accumulate large stockpiles of enriched weapons grade uranium or begin the process to mount that uranium onto a missile it would set off a "trip wire" which would compel the United States to take military action. This has never been something that the Iranian leadership, which despite its rhetoric is abundantly cautious and pragmatic, has sought to do. Rather, Iran wants to be recognized as a nuclear capable state; one that has all the parts and know how to weaponize but will not do so unless forced to because a nuclear power has taken military action against it. This is very similar to the nuclear posture of states like Japan, South Korea and Germany which do not have nuclear weapons but leave little doubt to their foes that this is a matter of will rather than capabilities.

It is for this very reason the international sanctions regime has failed so miserably in altering the thinking of the Iranian leadership. To be sure sanctions have had an effect on the day-to-day lives of the Iranian people. Inflation, rising food prices, medicine shortages, and unemployment have hampered the ability for average Iranians to maintain their minimal standard of living. However, what sanctions have not done is to change Iran's red line because that red line has been part of its deterrent strategy since Imperial Iran embarked on its quest for an indigenous nuclear program. From Tehran's perspective if a nuclear power such as the United States or Israel (a non-signatory to the NPT) were to take military action against it because of what Tehran believes are its natural rights to nuclear power it would leave Iran little choice but to exit the NPT and begin its march toward weaponization. As North Korea has recently showed the world, once a country has nuclear weapons it becomes virtually immune from offensive military attack no matter how mad or irrational its leadership's rhetoric is. Unless they take the illogical step of using it; they either become a pariah state (See North Korea) or eventually accepted into the community of nations (see India and China).

The Obama administration should welcome the election of President Rouhani and view him as someone who will actively seek a resolution to the nuclear impasse. However any resolution can't reverse what two generations of Iranian leadership view as something vital to their national interest: having an indigenous civilian nuclear program