x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Iran's nuclear policy threatens itself first

When it comes to Iran's nuclear programme, there is no shortage of speculation about potential military applications. Yet one point should not be in dispute: Tehran's campaign of deception has hurt only itself.

When it comes to Iran's nuclear programme, there is no shortage of speculation about military applications. Yet one point should not be in dispute: Tehran's campaign of deception has hurt itself more than anyone else.

The cloak-and-dagger game has left outsiders guessing. The recent allegations about a delivery of dual-use North Korean software, which could be used to test uranium enrichment for weapons, is just one example. While there is no proof that Iran is trying to assemble a nuclear weapon, it is certainly collecting all of the pieces of a weapons programme.

For Tehran, this "break out" potential - the ability to start a programme and assemble a weapon in a relatively short period of time - may be part of a policy of strategic ambiguity. It can plausibly deny building a weapon while still holding the threat in reserve. It is understandable that neighbours are apprehensive.

Is the deterrent worth the risk for Tehran? The apparent partnership with North Korea is instructive. Pyongyang dedicated most of its energy policy since the 1970s towards acquiring a nuclear weapon - and indeed tested nuclear devices in 2006 and 2009. Meanwhile, its people are starving, it relies on its sworn enemies the United States and South Korea for food aid and, in all likelihood, the greatest threat to the regime is from the inside.

Iran is no hermit kingdom, and its citizens are much less likely to suffer in silence. In the past year, economic reforms have buoyed the economy but it will always be fighting against international currents. Its neighbours, for the most part, don't trust the Ahmedinejad administration, and even friends such as China and Russia are wary about the nuclear programme.

The result is sanctions that squeeze the Iranian economy as a whole. Recent payment delays from India, one of the largest buyers of Iranian oil, have threatened to cut billions in funds. Tehran, or at least its citizens, are vulnerable to international pressure - but decision-making may not be. The nuclear programme is steered by domestic considerations, and Iran's long-term welfare does not seem to be one of them.

In these pages, Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, has warned against jumping to conclusions on Iranian weapons of mass destruction. Precipitous action based on hazy evidence, after all, led to the Iraq war. There is still an opportunity for Tehran to wake up to its own interests.