As the July 20 deadline approaches for a final agreement between the West and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program, it is vitally important to understand both sides’ positions. Here are five myths about Iran’s nuclear program.
Myth 1: Iran’s supreme leader will block a favorable deal.
The general view in the West is that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the hard-liners’ flag bearer and an obstacle to the conclusion of a deal. This could not be further from the truth. In many ways, Khamenei has been a moderating agent in the polarization of the domestic debate around the nuclear issue. He has reiterated a number of times that he fully supports the negotiating team, while reminding everyone that they should keep their expectations low. This is certainly due to the deep distrust between Iran and the United States. But it is also informed by the opposition of US hard-liners to any diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. By inviting the hard-liners to tone down their criticism of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, Khamenei is paving the way for Zarif’s team to effectively pursue a deal and receive sanctions relief, while hedging for failure.
Myth 2: The fatwa against nuclear weapons is bogus.
Tehran says that the “production, stockpiling, and use” of nuclear weapons are prohibited by Islamic law and that the highest authority in the country, the supreme leader, has issued a fatwa, or religious decree, to this effect. Many in the West question the validity and utility of such a decree. But the decree can serve a key purpose in the talks. Discourse doesn’t replace compliance, and trust can’t be built without verification, but the fatwa can be an additional confidence-building measure. The decree and its reiteration by various Iranian religious authorities and policymakers have made it extremely difficult for Iran to overturn its position. Stating time and time again over the course of more than a decade that something is prohibited, then violating that prohibition, would come at great political cost, delegitimizing the regime entirely from within.
Myth 3: Iran just wants to defy the international community.
Iranian concerns are often dismissed as mere manifestations of the country’s lack of commitment to its international obligations. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, the former Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently told me that Tehran could have withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This, he argued, would have been understandable and natural, given the change in regime. At that point, many countries had not even joined the treaty. But Iran chose to stay. Later, Soltanieh said, Tehran signaled its willingness to cooperate with the agency in the context of the technical cooperation program. Iran is not just trying to defy the international community; it has legitimate concerns, which must be addressed, or at least recognized and understood.
Myth 4: Iran doesn’t even need nuclear energy.
Western hard-liners certainly did not see eye to eye with Iranian revolutionaries in the 1970s and ’80s, but both groups then questioned the utility of a nuclear program in an “energy superpower.” While Iranian revolutionaries now think a nuclear energy program is needed, Western critics continue to argue that it is not. After all, Iran holds the world’s fourth-largest oil reserves and second-largest gas reserves. Tehran, then, they argue, must not have any legitimate needs for a nuclear energy program. Therefore, the only reason for Iran’s nuclear program must lay in its military ambitions. But, as other energy superpowers (including some of Iran’s neighbors) are showing, abundant oil and gas reserves are no reason for a country not to pursue other energy sources. Diversification, after all, is something all countries seek. But Tehran has other plans that go beyond nuclear power; arguments for the production of radioisotopes for medical purposes have been presented a number of times. One area that is not discussed as much is desalination, an energy-intensive process that Iran will have to consider more seriously as it deals with growing water scarcity. As noted by Soltanieh, Iran already has plans to this effect, including a contract with Japan for a desalination facility next to its Bushehr nuclear power plant.
Myth 5: Other states in the region are threatened by Iran’s program.
While this is true, it’s not necessarily due to the reasons US officials often present. Many states in the region, especially those that have been vocal in their criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, feel threatened not by the prospects of a nuclear Iran, but by Iranian-Western rapprochement. Political and economic isolation have helped states like Saudi Arabia, who fear losing their military, economic, and political ties and privileges with the United States. After all, Tehran and Washington did have close relations prior to 1979 and, given that the two countries have a lot in common, they could develop ties again.
Ariane Tabatabai is a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.