Pyongyang’s shadow haunts prospects of nuclear deal

By Niu Song Source:Global Times Published: 2014-2-25 20:03:01

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Although the P5+1 talks were formally formed in 2006, the Iranian nuclear problem has yet remained unsolved due to perpetual divergences between the US, Britain, France and Germany on one side and Russia and China on the other. The sanctions against Tehran led by the West also have had limited effects.

The compromise among six global powers and Iran during the latest round of talks in Vienna last week created an amicable international atmosphere to end the nuclear problem. However, there are also challenges that shouldn't be neglected.

There is still a lack of consensus on the nature of the Iran nuclear issue, that is, Iran's real stance.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared on February 17 that Iran is not against negotiations with the six powers, but the talks "will not lead anywhere."

Khamenei's status and remarks provided a clue to understand Iran's nuclear intentions and its possible future moves from the perspective of Iran's Shia theocracy.

We need to precisely understand the relationship between Khamenei's anti-nuclear fatwa and Iran's research and development of nuclear technology.

Khamenei's political influence as Iran's supreme leader is unquestionable. He has absolute constraining power over the Iranian government, including the fatwa he issued stating that "the production, stockpiling and use of nuclear weapons are forbidden under Islam and that the Islamic Republic of Iran shall never acquire these weapons."

There are three possibilities with regard to Iran's nuclear intentions.

First, both Khamenei and the Iranian government oppose the development of nuclear weapons, but they support developing nuclear power for civil use. This interpretation is in accordance with the Shia doctrines and Iran's theocratic regime, but some are highly suspicious about it.

Second, Khamenei and the Iranian government are aiming at the capability of making nuclear weapons rather than possessing and using nuclear weapons, or purchasing and storing foreign nuclear weapons in Iran. In fact, some have argued that Khamenei's fatwa only prohibits tangible nuclear weapons.

The third possibility is that the final goal of Iran is stepping across the nuclear threshold to become a nuclear power through producing nuclear weapons and conducting tests. But if Iran truly does this, the religious legitimacy of Khamenei will be greatly undermined. 

A big challenge is to prevent Iran from gaining the capability of producing nuclear weapons. Iran became able to enrich uranium to 20 percent concentration of the fissile U-235 isotope in early 2010, which is beyond what civil use of nuclear power requires, stoking an alarm that Tehran is just one step away from developing nuclear weapons.

This relates to the biggest concern at the moment for the nuclear talks: nuclear cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang.

North Korea announced it would conduct the third nuclear test on January 24, 2013, and carried out the test a few days later on February 12. Some Western media reproached that "the possibility that North Korea is sharing nuclear weapon test data with Iran cannot be ruled out," and that Iran has been funding the North Korean nuclear program.

Moreover, South Korea and the US pointed out that Tehran and Pyongyang have been cooperating on long-range missiles. In the recent Vienna talks, the topic of long-range missiles was out of table at Iran's request.

But in fact, long-range missiles are closely related to nuclear tests. If the North Korean nuclear issue isn't handled effectively, it's hard to rule out the Iranian nuclear problem.

It's also noticeable that other volatile regional situations are distracting relevant powers from Iranian nuclear negotiations.

The Ukraine crisis reflected an expanding gulf between EU countries and Russia; China and Japan are witnessing an escalation of tensions in the East China Sea, and the US, confined by chaos in Syria, is impossible to overly pressure Iran over the nuclear issue.

It is difficult for the six powers to devote all their energies to Iranian nuclear talks and coordinate with each other.

The author is an associate professor at the Shanghai International Studies University and a postdoctoral fellow at the Berkley Center at Georgetown University.

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