This paper argues that the framing of Iran’s policies as “the problem” for regional security and the attempts of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1), especially the “Western” allies, to coerce Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program perpetuate not only pre-established tensions, but also the current diplomatic stalemate. The core aim of the paper is to propose an alternative, regionally led approach to Iran and its nuclear program. It argues that this could become an opportunity for regional security-building, if Iran is treated as an equal to its negotiating partners. With this aim it critically examines some core underlying causes of regional tensions and threat perceptions, seeks to identify opportunities for cooperation, and proposes treating Iran as a potential founding member of a regional framework managing and regulating the running, operational safety and proliferation safeguards of its and other emerging regional nuclear energy programs. Such a framework could be tied to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The paper examines the role Turkey together with Brazil, which has experience in negotiating nuclear cooperation agreements under political tensions, could play in initiating the process, which could lead to a Nuclear Weapons Free Zone in the Gulf, and what constraints it is likely to face.

Key Words

Mistrust, nuclear co-operation, Turkey, Israel, ABACC, NPT.


Over the past decade Iran’s nuclear policies have attracted much attention and aggravated pre-existing suspicions about its intentions and external policies. In the “West” as well as in parts of the region it has been increasingly portrayed as “the problem” for regional, or even global, security. The following analysis seeks to show that perpetuating this perception of Iran, with a focus on its nuclear program, does not adequately capture the underlying dynamics of regional insecurity and is detrimental to both regional security and progress in the negotiations of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) plus Germany (P5+1) on Iran’s nuclear program. It critically examines some of the core causes and symptoms of mistrust and tension in the region in order to demonstrate that Iran is not the principal cause of regional insecurity, although it can be a contributor to it, and that the polices of external actors, and some of their client states, are not conducive to ameliorating existing threat perceptions or promoting regional stability. The analysis furthermore seeks to identify aspects of regional security dynamics which may offer opportunities for an alternative, regional approach to Iran, especially its nuclear program, kernel for a regional security regime based initially on nuclear regulatory cooperation. Amongst external actors in the region, the US and its transatlantic allies have been the most prominent voices warning that the lack of transparency over Iran’s nuclear program- coupled with the development of missile technology- strongly suggested that its intentions were not as peaceful as it claimed. They fear that an Iranian nuclear weapons capability would seriously threaten regional and global security as well as the future of the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), since Iran is a Non-Nuclear Weapons State (NNWS) member of the NPT. In the region, Israel has long assumed that Iran intends to acquire nuclear weapons, and not just a breakout capability, which is the capacity to produce nuclear weapons quickly at a later stage. It already perceived Iran’s links with Hamas and Hezbollah, which Israel, the US and the EU classify as terrorist organizations, as a threat, when the provocative rhetoric of Iran’s leadership under President Ahmadinejad raised the specter of Iran as an “existential threat”. These fears matter to the US and Britain, France and Germany- the EU members p r o m i n e n t l y involved in the negotiations with Iran- as they regard Israel’s security as one of their responsibilities. They are not alone in their perceptions of Iran as a security threat. In recent years others in the region, such as the Gulf States or Turkey, and those further afield, such as Russia, China or India, have expressed more or less openly their desire not to see a nuclear armed Iran. Yet, these countries have been dealing differently with Iran. Turkey, to a degree some Gulf states, China, Russia and India have engaged and maintained, developed or expanded their economic and political ties with Iran. Their approach has been less coercive than that of the “Western” allies and Israel, although, as members of the P5+1, China and Russia supported the tougher UNSC sanctions in 2010 and India has consented to adhering to the sanctions package. Apart from increasing pressure on Iran and persuading others to support their coercive approach, the US and its European allies have long insisted that Iran provide verifiable assurances of the peaceful nature of its program. This includes compliance with inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ratifying the Additional Protocol, which enhances the IAEA’s powers, and ceasing uranium enrichment. They expect Iran to fulfill these preconditions before they are prepared to discuss implementing their proposed incentives for Iranian compliance and consider expanding the scope of negotiations. That approach, which has been accompanied by repeated calls for military strikes in the US, Israel and occasionally elsewhere, has produced an uneasy stalemate. The likelihood of the US using force against Iran may be low. Arguments against such escalation have been carrying the day for years and the Obama Administration indicated its reluctance to be drawn into another war in the Middle East in early 2011, when it took a back seat during the establishment of the no-fly zone over Libya and insisted that NATO command the operations. But the repeated attempts at negotiations coupled with progressively harsher sanctions have not made a peaceful settlement with Iran more likely. This leaves not only the problem of Iran’s nuclear program unsolved, but also uncertainty over the future behavior of Israel, whose sense of insecurity has been growing even greater since the beginning of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011. Hence the current approach to Iran requires adjustment. The following analysis proposes that, while the initial aim of an alternative approach might be to break the current stalemate, there is the potential to turn Iran’s nuclear policies from a challenge into an opportunity for regional security building. In order to explain the underlying rationale for this proposal and identify some of the key challenges for its implementation, this analysis discusses a number of relevant aspects of the regional context. Is not possible within the confines of this article to examine the regional security challenges, of which many have a more immediate impact on human security than the perceived threat from Iran, as comprehensively as they deserve. The analysis focuses on the dispute with Iran, because, if unresolved, it will foil the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone (WMDFZ) in the Middle East that was agreed at the 2010 “NPT Review Conference” and may trigger a much worse security crisis in the medium term or, should Iran indeed acquire nuclear weapons, a nuclear arms race in the long term. It briefly discusses the problem of Israeli nuclear policy, but focuses on the Iranian nuclear program because there is greater scope for cooperation and confidence-building with a chance for more immediate success which may in the long term benefit negotiations with Israel. Scope for cooperation lies in the fact that a range of regional countries are planning or implementing nuclear energy infrastructures.2 Especially in the Middle East, where mistrust continues to be so pervasive, it is primarily in their and their neighbors’ interest that they can assure each other credibly of the peaceful purposes of these facilities and their governments’ efforts to keep nuclear materials secure from illicit access by individuals, including non-state actors. Regional cooperative non-proliferation arrangements could have several desirable side-effects, especially if they ultimately become tied into the IAEA framework. They would assure the international community of the proliferation security of the nuclear energy programs and could include cooperation on regulating their operational safety. They could begin to reverse the spiral of mistrust by initiating cooperation on comparatively technical matters and open up opportunities for gradually widening the scope of cooperation. De-politicizing initial cooperative efforts would be important because anxieties in the region are often expressed in terms that do not openly address the underlying actual causes of the tensions, which have originated from a complex set of intra-regional frictions that have often been exacerbated by the policies of external actors, especially patron states such as the US. As this analysis will show, the case of Iran illustrates this well. Regional actors publicly emphasize the presumed nuclear threat, but their reasons for fearing Iran or portraying it as a pre-eminent threat often lie elsewhere. Clients of the US may frame threat perceptions in a way that their patron perceives them as common concerns. A US response may seek to promote these presumed shared interests, but may be neither conducive to regional security, let alone the development of trust, nor in the client’s long-term security interest. Not all regional states treat Iran exclusively as a negative force or pariah, but this can generate distrust on the part of their patron or Western allies. The potential merits for regional security of regional involvement, such as that of Turkey, and a less confrontational approach to Iran are thus not recognized. This analysis seeks to identify some avenues for tapping into the potential for a more constructive approach.