An Iranian operator monitors the nuclear power plant unit in Bushehr, about 755 miles south of Tehran, November 30, 2009.
Mehdi Ghasem / Courtesy Reuters

The recent international agreement on Iran’s nuclear program is a welcome triumph of hope over experience. Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, has signaled his willingness to go further than any previous Iranian leader to satisfy the international community’s concerns about his country’s ultimate nuclear ends. For Rouhani and his team of political moderates, however, getting to yes with the United States and its partners is the comparatively easy part. The really tough part will be the struggle inside Iran.

The Islamic Republic’s secretive nuclear program has been grinding away for nearly three decades. During this time, the country has gradually built up considerable political, technical, and organizational inertia toward the bomb. That inertia will not dissipate simply because diplomats shook hands in Geneva. What is really necessary is a profound change in the nuclear program’s organizational culture -- and such transformations always take time.

Given the realities of Iran’s internal situation, the United States must show forbearance and reject calls to jettison the Geneva agreement at the first hint of Iranian noncompliance. Iran must be held to its promises, of course, but not in a manner that weakens the power or resolve of the very people who have the strongest interest in keeping those promises.

Patience is merited in this case because the potential benefits far outweigh the potential costs. Even if Rouhani -- contrary to all indications -- really is the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has alleged him to be, the fact is that Israeli intelligence itself has acknowledged that Iran could not possibly have its first bomb before 2015 or 2016. Moreover, given the pathetic track record of past such estimates, in the real world an Iranian drive toward the bomb would probably need much more time than that. At this point, therefore, the United States and its partners can certainly afford to give Rouhani the benefit of the doubt.

THE CHALLENGE OF REFORM

Historically, some countries have been able to allay Western fears about their nuclear programs practically overnight. For instance, in 2003, Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi had a change of heart and put his 30-year-old nuclear weapons project completely out of business within weeks.

But Iran is not Libya. For one thing, the Iranian president does not have Qaddafi’s power. He has to push his policies through a maze of decision making bodies with overlapping jurisdictions and different political colorations, while constantly looking over his shoulder at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- who is not fully in command himself. Iran’s many institutional bottlenecks will offer the nuclear program’s old guard, aided and abetted by the country’s powerful hard-line nationalist political factions, ample opportunities to resist any concessions made at the bargaining table in Geneva.

Rouhani’s task is made even more complicated by the fact that the Iranian nuclear program is much bigger, more advanced, and more fundamental to national identity than Libya’s was. The Iranian masses are proud of their nation’s technical accomplishments, even if the hundred billion-dollar price tag seems a little steep. Meanwhile, the program serves as an important source of income for thousands of people, many of them with political connections. This combination of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs has long tilted the political playing field in favor of Iran’s nuclear priesthood.

Rouhani’s greatest challenge, however, will be to ensure that his high-level policy changes are actually implemented on the ground. Bureaucrats the world over have a strong instinctive preference for keeping things just as they are, and there is no reason to think that those who have been running Iran’s nuclear program are any different. Moreover, the Iranian nuclear program is not a single bureaucratic silo but rather a sprawling estate with many players and moving parts, and many secrets that the players want to hide -- including from each other. Even assuming that Rouhani genuinely wants nuclear transparency, therefore, the international inspectors will inevitably face many frustrations over the next six months and beyond. Important documents they want to examine will go missing; key people they want to interview will clam up or fade into the woodwork; and when they do uncover new evidence of illicit behavior, program officials will attempt to whitewash it.

The historical case of Argentina shows just how hard it can be even for a country’s own government to bring about profound change in a well-established nuclear program. In 1983, Raúl Alfonsín became the country’s first democratically elected president after years of brutal military rule. Just before Alfonsín’s inauguration, the military-protected Comisión Nacional de Energía Atómica revealed that it had successfully enriched uranium in a secret facility in the Andes. Although he put on a brave face in public, Alfonsín was shocked by the news and strongly suspected that the facility might be part of a broader secret bomb program.

Alfonsín sent a team of experts to investigate, but they were stonewalled. They were finally able to collect the information they needed only after the president’s heavy personal intervention and three months of hard digging. Perhaps the most surprising part of this story is that, although the nuclear program’s bureaucrats had made every effort to protect their secrets, in fact their real self-interest lay in coming clean; the investigative commission concluded that the enrichment plant was not part of a broader drive toward a nuclear bomb, and Alfonsín ended up providing strong support for the plant’s continued operation.      

In the coming months, Iranian nuclear program officials will resist opening their cupboards at least as strenuously as their counterparts in Argentina once did. But, like Alfonsín, Rouhani is no pushover. Before the Geneva negotiations even started, the president was quietly arranging the chess pieces for his reform bid. His political allies are now ensconced in key positions at the top of the nuclear estate, and Iranian hard-liners have begun to complain about “widespread human-resources changes at the nuclear facilities.” These are very positive signs. Even so, the domestic battle over Iran’s nuclear future has only just begun.

ATOMS FOR PEACE

Beyond maintaining realistic expectations about how fast Rouhani can change Iran’s nuclear behavior, the United States should also look for ways to help him do it. The promised economic sanctions relief will surely be welcome in Iran. The real key to a permanent resolution of this crisis, however, is to convince Iran’s nuclear scientific and technical workers to become not just the object of reform efforts but their driver. If the nuclear program staff themselves were sold on the promise of reform, then Rouhani and his team would be able to start sailing with the wind instead of against it.

A cultural transformation inside Iran’s nuclear bureaucracy is not an impossible dream. Although the inner workings of the Iranian nuclear program remain mysterious, historical experience both inside and outside the country suggests that many of the program’s scientific and technical staff have been straining at the yoke of autocratic mismanagement and want to be part of the international scientific community. It is terribly demoralizing to work in an organization that privileges ideological agendas and political timetables over professional norms. The many honorable people who are currently trapped in this situation have ample motives to become front line troops in the process of cultural change.

In line with this objective, the United States should immediately start promoting the development of collaborative relationships between American and Iranian universities and research institutions, including laboratories that have links with the nuclear program. The risk to the United States that the Iranians might learn some dangerous technical secrets from such exchanges is minor in comparison with the value to the United States of demonstrating to them that there is a bright future in store for a professionalized Iranian scientific establishment that embraces international norms. The reintegration of Iranian researchers into the global scientific community would also produce the right conditions for mutual trust and the eventual disclosure of Iran’s own technical secrets. For its part, Iran would undoubtedly welcome such a bridge-building initiative.   

Of course, efforts to reach out to Iranian scientists and engineers will not succeed unless the United States simultaneously puts a stop to Israel’s alleged assassination campaign against these people, which has probably been counterproductive in any case.

The United States should do what it can to encourage the Iranian nuclear program to open up. Yet there is still no getting around the fact that the major responsibility for achieving that end lies with the Iranian government itself. And unfortunately, Rouhani’s currently enormous stock of domestic political capital will likely soon start diminishing. As it does, the nuclear old guard may come roaring back in.

The United States should carefully prepare for the possibility that Rouhani will ultimately fail. But it should not assume that failure is his destiny. Back in the 1980s, many analysts assumed that Alfonsín would be unable to reform Argentina’s nuclear estate. But he proved them wrong. Argentina’s nuclear program itself embraced his policy of gradual opening, and the international community kept its cool even though Buenos Aires continued to refuse to join the Nonproliferation Treaty all the way up to 1995. Today, Argentina is a highly respected and successful exporter of nuclear research reactors, for which it can also supply the enriched uranium fuel. And nobody suspects that its enrichment work is part of a secret nuclear weapons breakout plan. If Rouhani keeps his course and the West keeps its patience, there is a good chance that Argentina’s nuclear present will be Iran’s nuclear future. 

  • JACQUES E. C. HYMANS is Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Southern California. He is the author, most recently, of Achieving Nuclear Ambitions: Scientists, Politicians, and Proliferation.
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