Will Iran change its nuclear policy?
Interview with Matthew Kroenig

“The supreme leader Ali Khamenei has been facing this choice between having a nuclear program or having a healthy economy since at least 2005, and every time he has chosen to opt for a nuclear program. I do not see any reason to think that Khamenei will change this course”.

Interview by David Jano with Matthew Kroenig, assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University and the author of Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Cornell University Press, 2010)

TQT: What will happen to Iran’s pursuit of nuclear power after the election of Rouhani?
Kroenig: In short I do not expect any new development. Rouhani is a regime insider. He believes in the basic goals of the Iranian Islamic revolution of 1979. He might be more pragmatic than others, but his goals are not different, he just has a more moderate way of achieving them. I think a lot of the optimism surrounding the Rouhani election is misplaced. It is definitely worth pursuing new diplomatic relations with Iran now that Rouhani is the new president, but I think that it would be naïve to think that Rouhani is a reformist.
TQT: A lot of pundits and experts have in fact sounded optimism when it comes to Hassan Rouhani and the relations between Iran and the West. Why is this then? Are people just desperate for change after eight years with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?
Kroenig: I think that everyone is desperate for a change. People are dreading the terrible choice of an American military intervention or letting Iran get the nuclear capability. The diplomatic solution would clearly be the better outcome, so everything that might get this to happen, perhaps a new Iranian president, makes people excited. There are some reasons for optimism. The thing that was most encouraging about the election in my opinion is that it showed a lot of dissatisfaction among the people. They voted for a candidate who campaigned on improving the economy and improving the relations with the rest of the world. A vote for Rouhani was a vote against the current Iranian trajectory. That was definitely good news, I just do not think we can translate that to a change in policy when it comes to the nuclear program. At the end of the day it is the supreme leader Ali Khamenei who makes the decisions and not the president. The new president is still fully committed to the nuclear program; he is just more pragmatic of how he wants to pursue that goal.
TQT: Are Iranian people content with this course? Are they accepting that pursuing a nuclear program comes with massive economic sanctions implied by the West? Are they not feeling the sanctions?
Kroenig: The Iranian people are feeling the sanctions. But Iran is not going to get rid of the sanctions unless they put serious curbs on their nuclear program. The supreme leader Ali Khamenei has been facing this choice between having a nuclear program or having a healthy economy since at least 2005, and every time he has chosen to opt for a nuclear program. I do not see any reason to think that Khamenei will change this course. Only if Khamenei felt that the economic pressure on Iran was so severe that the regime might collapse and the system of theocratic governance might be at risk, he would alter his course. In that sense the elections were bad news, as there were no protests and no violence as we saw in 2009. The presidency was handed over to a cleric and a regime insider without any real complaints. It shows me that the Iranian regime is still stable, and the supreme leader has nothing to worry about at the moment.

TQT: Back when Hassan Rouhani used to be the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator he seemed to act on his own in very pragmatic terms. You do not see any chance of this happening again now that he has become president?
Kroenig: Any concessions that are made, including the concessions that were made in 2003-04 when Iran temporarily suspended uranium enrichment, has to get the approval from the supreme leader. I think that Rouhani had a role to play back then, that role being to report back to the supreme leader on the negotiations. I think that Rouhani advised on what course would be the best, but in the end it was the supreme leader who decided. He could have a similar role this time around. He will have the opportunity to make recommendations to the supreme leader. He can influence Khamenei, but it will be an indirect influence.
TQT: Do you think that the Iranian presidential election of 2013 was rigged like in 2009? This is not the candidate that people had predicted, so are we once again experiencing foul play?
Kroenig: That is true. Like many others I also thought that Saeed Jalili would have won the election. While Rouhani was probably not the preferred candidate of the regime, it is important to point out that he was among the short list of approved candidates for the presidency. A lot of candidates were barred from running, including the former president Rafsanjani. Yet Hassan Rouhani is among “one of the guys”, so nothing controversial on that note. There is no reason to believe that recent elections were rigged unlike in 2009, which is kind of interesting. The Iranian electoral system requires a run-off if there is no candidate who gets more than 50 % of the votes in the first round. I think it is possible to assume that Khamenei might have predicted a run-off between the most popular candidates, and then the regime could rig the election for their preferred choice. Yet Rouhani surprisingly took the whole thing, even without a run-off.
TQT: You recently had an article published by USA Today, where you claim that “the US should continue to explore a negotiated settlement to the crisis, but the prospects remain slim as President Obama has stated that the window of diplomacy is closing”. However if the window is coming to an end, what do you think will happen afterwards?
Kroenig: The diplomatic window will close somewhere between two and fourteen months from now [ed. June 2013]. This is the best estimate that we have. If Iran does something stupid or provocative, like kicking out inspectors or increasing their enrichment say tomorrow, then the US would have two months to respond – as the best estimates that we have tell us that it would take Iran almost two months to develop one nuclear weapon. Yet It is very unlikely that Iran will do anything like this [stupid or provocative]. So the next deadline comes when Iran has reached an ‘undetected breakout scenario’: At some point, as Iran build up its nuclear capabilities, it will be the time when they will be able to make nuclear weapons. This can be detected by the US and forces Obama to make a decision. This point will be reached no later than the summer of 2014.
TQT: This makes the summer of 2014 the new deadline or the new red line. Has there not already been many deadlines and red lines on the Iranian nuclear issue, which then seem to be pushed back? The Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu for instance had a deadline in the summer of 2013?
Kroenig: I guess different pundits, experts and government officials are setting different red lines. Yet there has actually been very few red lines explicitly drawn up by US leaders. So what President Obama and secretary of defence Leon Panetta have said is that if Iran gets nuclear weapons, it will be a red line crossed. If the US gets any information on this all options are on the table.
TQT: I assume that you still claim, as you have expressed before, that if the diplomatic course towards Iran fail, an American military intervention would be the right solution?
Kroenig: It would be a terrible choice to make. It is a choice between allowing Iran to have nuclear weapons and all the downside consequences associated with that or a limited strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The latter choice is also a bad option, as it probably means Iranian military retaliation and at least a small scale conflict. It is a choice between two bad options, but in my opinion an attack on Iran would be the less bad option. I think that Obama has the same opinion, as he has stated many times that his policy is to prevent, not contain Iranian nuclear capability.

TQT: You also had another article published recently by “Foreign Policy”. It was titled “The Case for Overkill”. What was that all about?
Kroenig: First of all the editors purposely chose a provocative title, as I would probably have named it “The Case for Superiority”. The article is about the fact that I do not think that the general public understands how nuclear deterrence works. There have been two theories throughout the Cold War, one is the 2minimum deterrent theory”, where if you just have a few nuclear weapons it is enough as no one would dare start a nuclear war with you. On the other hand, there are those who claim that nuclear superiority only comes when you increase your nuclear capabilities. I have recently looked upon the history of nuclear interaction after 1945 until the present, and it shows that nuclear superiority does matter. That leads me to believe, that US nuclear cuts will leave America significantly weaker.
TQT: I assume that your most recent article in Foreign Policy was provoked by the speech that Obama gave in Berlin? Yet he talked about a nuclear-free world already during his first period as president.
Kroenig: Of course this is a continuation of the Obama vision, for instance presented to a European audience in Prague in 2009. I think that Obama and his administration truly believe in a vision of a world without nuclear weapons and what is really motivating American nuclear reductions is a desire to take a step towards that vision of ‘global zer’o. Yet, what President Obama often says, is that the nuclear cuts will not weaken US nuclear deterrence and that there are other benefits to be gained – for instance, that it will save us money and it will help us pursue nuclear non-proliferation. I think that all of this is incorrect, as I think it will hurt American nuclear deterrence, it will not make us look better towards Iran and it will not save us money.
TQT: In March 2013, we saw President Obama visit Israel for the first time as American President. Since then Israeli leaders have been almost silent on Iran. What d you think happened during the talks between Obama and Netanyahu on the issue of Iran?
Kroenig: The major pattern that is striking is that for a long time Israeli leaders were talking openly about a possible military strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Over time and certainly since the Obama visit to Israel we have had almost complete silence from Israel. I think that there are two things contributing to that; one fact is that the Iranian nuclear programme has already reached a point where an Israeli attack would not destroy the programme but only delay it. The second thing is that the Obama administration has gone a long way to reassure Israel that they will take action towards Iran if necessary.
TQT: So the diplomatic window is closing within approximately a year, but do you honestly believe that Obama is speaking the truth when he says that a military option towards Iran is also on the table?
Kroenig: I have to point out, that when people are talking about a military option, they and I are talking about limited airstrikes and definitely no American boots on the ground. None of the options would require the latter. An attack on Iran would not be in the style of what we have seen earlier in Afghanistan or Iraq. Of course there is the danger of things spiralling, but Iran does not have the ability to project power beyond its own borders. It would take an American appetite to make it a bigger fight, and there is nothing like that at the moment in Washington D.C. The most likely outcome would be a limited US strike on key Iranian nuclear facilities and a calibrated token Iranian response. There is no one I know in Washington at the moment advocating things like an Iranian regime overthrow. People in favour of a strike are talking about a limited air-strike. As former secretary of defence Robert Gates said: “Any US president who advocates another US land war in Asia should have his head examined”. ■

Matthew Kroenig is an assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University. He is the author of Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons (Cornell University Press, 2010), which received the International Studies Association’s Best Book Award, Honorable Mention. His articles on international politics have appeared in such publications as American Political Science Review, Christian Science Monitor, Comparative Strategy, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, International Organization, International Security, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Newsday, Perspectives on Politics, Security Studies, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Washington Quarterly, and USA Today. He has provided commentary on BBC, CNN, C-SPAN, NPR, and many other media outlets.

David Jano has a Masters Degree in Contemporary Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Southern Denmark. His articles on the Middle East and Israel have appeared in such publications as TQT, RÆSON, Jyllands-Posten, Middle East Insights, Sharnoffs Global Views and Times of Israel. He has provided commentary on Radio 24/7, DR P1, DR 2 and Tv2 News.

ILLUSTRATION: The Flag of the Islamic Republic of Iran [photographer: Shutterstock]