The United States and the European Union believe Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, but Tehran says its program is for peaceful, civilian purposes.
As Iranians head to the polls this week to choose a new president, talks with the West and the United Nations over the nuclear issue have been stalled. Analysts remain skeptical whether a new man in office will make any difference.
Jim Walsh, an expert on Iran’s nuclear program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), says the Iranian leadership is apparently divided on the nuclear issue.
“The Director for National Intelligence [James Clapper], the highest ranking intelligence officer in the U.S. government, has testified this year that Iran has not yet made a decision to build a bomb,” Walsh said. “Now, they want a capability — they have a basic capability because they know how to make centrifuges — but they haven’t made that critical political decision to go ahead and cross that bridge and decide to build a bomb.”
No progress in talks
For years the international community has been trying to persuade Iran to end its uranium enrichment program — but to no avail. Low-enriched uranium can be used for civilian nuclear power plants, but highly enriched uranium is an integral part of a nuclear bomb.
Two rounds of international negotiations this year failed to yield any progress.
In an effort to pressure Iran to end its uranium enrichment program, the United Nations Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran. In addition, several individual nations, including the United States, have imposed their own measures — for example, targeting Tehran’s oil industry and financial sector.
Former U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, whose foreign posts included Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria, calls sanctions a double-edged sword.
“I have seen it with sanctions elsewhere, including Iraq — manipulative, autocratic regimes, whether in Iraq or Iran, can manipulate sanctions in a way that the regime doesn’t suffer but the people do,” Crocker said. “That clearly is not our intent.”
While Walsh says sanctions do have their place, he questions whether they have achieved their goal.
“At the end of the day, whether they are good or bad doesn’t really matter," he said. "The question is, are we achieving our policy objective? Is the Iranian nuclear program capped? Is it being reduced in size?
"And sadly, the answer to those questions is ‘no,’'' Walsh said. “And we can continue to do the same thing over and over and over again and have it fail over and over and over again, or we can try to rethink what we are doing and try to actually achieve our objective.”
Some analysts, including both Crocker and Walsh, believe the way to move forward is to engage Iran in negotiations.
Ambassador Crocker, who has negotiated with the Iranians, says even failed talks can have positive results.
“Negotiations aren’t only about getting to ‘yes,’ particularly with a complex, sophisticated and to us often opaque country like Iran,” he said. “If you can get to ‘yes,’ that’s good, but if you get to ‘no’ — and the reason you get to ‘no’ is because of their intransigence — then you emerge in a stronger position for whatever comes next.”
As Iranians prepare to elect a new president on Friday, Walsh says the post-election period may provide a good chance for progress on the nuclear front.
“If the election goes smoothly,” he said, “there will be a window of opportunity following their presidential election and before the end of President Obama’s term, where if the parties want to get something done, that’s the time to do it.”
Both Walsh and Crocker, however, say Washington and Tehran must break the cycle of mistrust between them in order to seriously address issues such as Iran’s suspected intention to develop nuclear weapons.