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How to Keep Iran Nuclear-Free

In the late 1950s, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev turned down Chinese leader Mao Zedung’s request to help his country build an atomic bomb, although the Soviet Union initially helped China several years earlier. The Kremlin also did not share its atomic secrets with another key Cold War ally — East Germany. Now that the Cold War a thing of the past, Russia is even more interested in stopping the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The prospect of a nuclear Iran bodes ill not only for Russia, but for the entire world. Iran’s example would only inspire other regional powers to acquire nuclear weapons in the Middle East powder keg. What’s more, it would only be a matter of time before terrorists of all stripes got their hands on enough nuclear bombs to hold all mankind hostage.

Most countries look negatively at the prospect of Iran becoming a nuclear power. This includes all six states acting as intermediaries in the current talks with Iran over its nuclear program — Russia, China, the United States, Britain, Germany and France. But there are differences in their positions on the subject.

Washington has viewed the Islamic regime in Iran as an inveterate foe, if not an outright enemy, for almost 30 years, although President Barack Obama is clearly less hawkish on Iran than former President George W. Bush.

Russia has a completely different relationship with Iran, of course. Although few in Russia are ecstatic about Iran’s ultraconservative theocracy or its militaristic ranting, Iran has proved to be a good partner for Moscow. For example, it has supported Russia during its conflicts in the Caucasus and Central Asia, it cooperates with Russia in the Caspian Sea region and is an important trade partner with Russia, particularly in the nuclear energy sector. In addition, many in the Kremlin view Iran’s anti-U.S. stance is an added bonus, particularly as Russia tries to counter Washington’s global influence.

China is even more favorably disposed toward Iran. Unlike Russia, China has never been at war with or even disagreed with Iran. Beijing’s friendly relations with Tehran in the 1970s were built on the concepts of solidarity between Third World countries and opposition to Soviet hegemony. The two countries have cooperated closely on military, technical, trade and economic matters, and those ties have taken on greater significance now that Iran has become one of China’s main energy suppliers. Traditionally, China has always supported and defended any country that feeds its voracious appetite for energy, including Sudan.

But what does Iran really want, and how will it go about achieving its goals? Of course, Iran’s leaders publicly deny any plans for developing nuclear weapons, but there are three main reasons why Iran wants nuclear weapons:

1. They are needed to guarantee national security. A former high-ranking U.S. diplomat once explained to me why the United States and NATO bombed Yugoslavia for violating human rights, but not China. “Because China has nuclear weapons,” he said. Iranian leaders know this basic rule of international relations very well.

2. They would propel Iran to the position of regional superpower in the Middle East, and perhaps beyond. The Iranian elite has always dreamed of achieving this status. Moreover, Tehran hopes that a nuclear Iran would be able to contain Israel — that is, if it is able to build nuclear weapons before Israel destroys its nuclear facilities.

3. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the conservative clergy supporting him want nuclear weapons to neutralize internal opposition, to rally Iranian society around the call to fight off foreign threats and to bolster patriotism and national dignity.

It is therefore clear that the Iranian nuclear question is extremely complex. As in Krylov’s fable “The Swan, the Pike and the Crab,” everyone is pulling at the same problem from different directions. It is obvious that progress can only be achieved under two conditions:

1. The United States takes concrete steps to establish full-scale, normal relations with Tehran. Washington should provide Tehran with an array of security, political and economic incentives to dissuade Iran from joining the nuclear club.

2. The United States, Russia and other nuclear powers should prove to Iran that they are ready to move toward complete nuclear disarmament in agreement with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty of 1968.

But both of these conditions are very difficult to satisfy. The United States is not accustomed to making concessions to “rogue” states, and this true for both Republican and Democratic administrations. Second, Israel would surely be against closer U.S.-Iranian ties, as would China and Russia. As for the question of nuclear disarmament, the members of the nuclear club know better than anyone else what huge geopolitical benefits come with being a nuclear power. But global nuclear disarmament, as utopian as it may sound, offers the only possible chance that Iran will ever step down from its desire to acquire nuclear weapons.

Yevgeny Bazhanov is the vice chancellor of research and international relations at the Foreign Ministry’s Diplomatic Academy in Moscow.

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