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Editor’s Note: This article was written by former ADV author Paul Derikx.

In today’s time of concern about nuclear proliferation in countries such as Iran, the academic debate on the explanatory value of the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness becomes highly relevant for both policy-makers and academics. The current negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program are based on a carrot-and-stick approach. While sanctions are introduced by the P5+1 group (The permanent members of the United Nations Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China + Germany) to punish the expansion of the Iranian nuclear program, temporary sanctions relief is provided when Iran is persuaded or acts at least as if it is convinced of the nuclear non-proliferation norm. Although the result in changed behavior might be the same, the lessons learned by policy-makers and academics could differ widely and the importance of the underlying reason should not be overlooked. When the result in changed behavior is caused by a strict sanctions regime, it would prove the success of sanctions to enforce compliance of states to international norms and values. Would Iran’s new policies be based on a new set of values held by a new government, regime change should be of central concern to outside interposal.

When Iran was led by nationalistic governments from 2005 to 2013, it saw an expansion of the Iranian nuclear program and marked a period of worsening tensions between Iran and the P5+1 group. It is expected that the election of a new, moderate president in June 2013 furthered the domestic norm implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation norm. The developments in Iran are used as a test case for the debate between the logic of consequences and the logic of appropriateness. Is the more cooperative behavior of the Iranian government with the P5+1 group due to a new set of values held by the in 2013 newly elected president? Or are the positive outcomes of the recent negotiations the result of economically devastating sanctions? The first question would imply a behavioral change on the basis of the logic of appropriateness and the second would imply a behavioral change on the basis of the logic of consequences. Hence, is the choice to abide by the nuclear non-proliferation norm caused by the logic of consequences, the logic of appropriateness or both? Negotiation proposals of both Iran and the P5+1 group, together with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions provide new insights into the domestic politics of Iran. It explains how the behavioral changes came into being and whether these changes could be attributed to the P5+1 imposed sanctions regime, corresponding to a logic of consequences, or the 2013 election of a new president, Hassan Rowhani, which would imply a logic of appropriateness.

The Iranian nuclear program began in 1957 when the US and Iran signed a civil nuclear cooperation agreement as part of the United States Atoms for Peace program. Signing the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in 1970, Iran has been a non-nuclear weapon state ever since and has always reiterated its assurances that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. The international community nowadays doubts the true purpose of the program and suspect that Iran’s true intention is to acquire a nuclear weapon. The UNSC, the European Union (EU) and the P5+1 have subsequently imposed economic and financial sanctions on Iran. These suspicions are being fueled by reports of the IAEA, stating it cannot exclude the possibility that Iran has developed a military nuclear program in violation of the NPT. The Iranian government has ever since denied to have militarized its nuclear program, while the IAEA and foreign intelligence reports provided information on the nuclear program that showed the expansion of the nuclear program with covert nuclear research sites and enrichment facilities. Negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program progress slowly if at all. After 8 years of worsening relations during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, reformist Hassan Rowhani succeeded Ahmadinejad as president. However the talks between Iran and the P5+1 remain complicated, Iran behaves much more cooperatively vis-à-vis the international community since Rowhani was elected president. In the meantime, the Iranian nuclear program advanced incredibly.

The presidency of Ahmadinejad marked a period of worsening relations between Iran and the P5+1. The P5+1, the IAEA and the UNSC feared that Iran would master the nuclear fuel cycle and intentionally reprocess the spent nuclear fuel to the high levels of uranium enrichment needed to build a nuclear weapon. Iran denied these allegations and claimed that its nuclear program was for peaceful purposes and allowed under NPT article IV. On August 8th, shortly after the election of Ahmadinejad on August 3rd 2005, the E3/EU made a comprehensive proposal for a long-term agreement with Iran. The E3/EU group consisted of the UK, France and Germany and had the support of the High Representative of the European Union, and was the precursor to the P5+1 group which was established in June 2006. The proposal outlined that the EU would provide for positive economic incentives and civil nuclear technological assistance in return for an Iranian commitment that it would not seek to acquire a nuclear weapon and would make guarantees that its nuclear program was exclusively for peaceful purposes. The Iranian government rejected the European proposal in its entirety and particularly on the grounds that the proposal did not acknowledge Iran’s right to the enrichment of uranium as stipulated in NPT Article IV. Iran ended the negotiations promptly and, breaking an earlier agreement with the E3/EU, it proceeded with uranium conversion (a chemical process needed for uranium enrichment which is in turn the basis for the development of a nuclear weapon). Addressing Article IV and its right to a civil nuclear program, Iran ‘talked the talk’ of the nuclear non-proliferation norm, yet it remained vague how to fulfill its IAEA treaty state obligations to verify the nature of the nuclear program.

The first round of sanctions, as agreed upon in UNSC Resolution 1696, were subsequently imposed in December when Iran ignored the UNSC deadline to halt its uranium enrichment program. It is indicative for a logic of consequences, as the Iranian government ignored the UNSC threat and subsequent imposition of sanctions. The costs of not complying to the non-proliferation norm did, in this case, not deter Iran from continuing its nuclear activities. In other words, the Iranian government chose not to comply by UNSC resolutions, IAEA demands and the NPT. After the UNSC announced a new round of sanctions, now also targeting Iran’s financial and trading sectors in March 2008, Iran presented its own proposal on May 13th. This too indicates that the Ahmadinejad-led government followed a logic of consequences. In response to additional sanctions, the costs of non-compliance became higher and a Iranian counter-proposal sought to halt further sanctions. Although the Iranian proposal addressed economic cooperation and assistance in nuclear research and development as was earlier proposed by the P5+1, it remained vague on how it would address the international doubts about the nature of the nuclear program. With the Iranian proposal on the table, a delegation of the P5+1 group presented a counter proposal in Tehran on June 16th. Both parties agreed upon a “freeze-to-freeze” period. Iran would halt its expansion of its enrichment and reprocessing activities while the P5+1 would not impose additional sanctions or pursue further sanctions in the UNSC. Promising to temporarily halt its nuclear program, the Iranian government responded to international pressure and addressed the nuclear-non proliferation norm for instrumental reasons.

Even if Iran did not seek to acquire a nuclear weapon, it did not behave as it should be under the NPT and IAEA regulations. Analyzing the Iranian proposals, the Iranian government ‘talked the talk’ of the nuclear non-proliferation norm. It reiterated its right to a civil nuclear program, while Iran denied to have militarized its program. Recalling the IAEA and UNSC reports on the continuation and expansion of Iran’s nuclear enrichment program with no clear civil purposes, it is at least reasonably doubtful that the extent of the Iranian nuclear program is allowed under the NPT. Promising from time to time to halt its nuclear program or not to expand its enrichment or reprocessing activities temporarily, it is argued that the Iranian government made tactical concessions to international pressure in the form of sanctions imposed by the UNSC. International sanctions forced Iran to address the nuclear non-proliferation norm. Yet while it mentioned the principles of the NPT, the Iranian government did not cooperate with the P5+1 and the IAEA and chose to continue and expand its nuclear program. Therefore, it is argued that the behavior of Iran under the first presidency of Ahmadinejad followed a logic of consequences. The Iranian negotiating policies constantly made tactical concessions in the form of temporarily freezing the nuclear program to hold off additional sanctions, before it expanded its uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing activities which are needed for a militarized nuclear program.

On the 12th of June, 2009, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected with two-thirds of the votes for another term amidst accusations that the election was rigged. Because of the weeks of protests following the elections, the negotiations with the P5+1 were stalled. In the meantime, the nuclear program was continued and expanded. On April 9th, the Iranian annual National Nuclear Technology Day, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran had mastered the nuclear fuel cycle (The nuclear fuel cycle is the process in which nuclear fuel is produced. Part of this process is the enrichment of uranium, which can be used to acquire a nuclear weapon) and that the suspension of the cycle was non-negotiable. On September 13th, Iran made a proposal, formulating a number of negotiable issues. These issues covered cooperation to combat terrorism and piracy, UN and UNSC reform, promoting a rule-based and equitable IAEA oversight function, and promoting the universality of the NPT and the non-proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It failed once again to give insights in the nature of its own nuclear program and how it would address the concerns of the IAEA. The Iranian negotiating strategy can be described as if it tried to buy time by negotiating with the P5+1 to hold off further sanctions damaging the Iranian economy, without, by ignoring its responsibility to verify the nature of the nuclear program, making a serious commitment to reach an agreement with the P5+1, while expanding its nuclear program. Weighting the costs of sanctions in favor of norm abidance, it is too indicative for a rational cost-benefit analysis and a logic of consequences. The Ahmadinejad-led government chose not to change its behavior.

Because of the lack of resolve on the part of Iran to provide concrete information about its nuclear program, the P5+1 did not enter into negotiations following the September proposal of Iran. But when Iran informed the IAEA that is was seeking assistance to acquire 20% enriched uranium needed for the production of medical isotopes, a short step to weapons grade uranium, the US sensed an opening. The US proposed that Iran would ship out 80% of its low enriched uranium (LEU is enriched up to a maximum concentration of 20%. For use in most nuclear power reactors, uranium is enriched to 3% or up to 5%. LEU used in research reactors is usually enriched to 12 or up to 20%) stockpile and in return would get the enriched uranium for its research reactor producing the medical isotopes. Initially, Iran agreed in principle to the agreement reached with the P5+1 in October 2009. But when political opponents of Ahmadinejad voiced criticism in and outside parliament over the deal, this tactical concession was retreated and Iran delayed its definitive response to the P5+1. Thereafter, Iran for the first time began to enrich its LEU to highly enriched uranium (HEU has a higher concentration of purity than 20%. HEU is commonly used for the production of medical isotopes) with a concentration of 20% in February 2010. Although the pressure on Ahmadinejad had been growing since his reelection with street protests at the beginning of his term, political opponents voicing their criticisms, and a deepening economic crisis, it had not deterred the government to change its existing policies. Taking the reports of the IAEA and the statements of the Iranian government into account, it becomes clear that Iran hardened in its resolve to further its nuclear program. Not only had it quantitatively expanded its capacity to enrich uranium, it started during the second term of Ahmadinejad’s presidency to enrich the uranium to highly enriched uranium at 20% purity and considered only a small step away to weapons grade uranium. While Iranian officials argued these stocks of HEU were to be used for medical purposes, the IAEA reported multiple times evidence of a militarized nuclear program and reiterated the Iranian unwillingness to fully cooperate to verify what the extent of the program was. The actions of the Iranian government thus imply a logic of consequences, as the domestic parliamentary pressure not to succumb to international sanctions offsets the costs of international pressure. The Ahmadinejad-government chose after a cost-benefit analysis to ignore the international pressure and to further expand its uranium enrichment capacities.

In July, the EU’s oil embargo came into effect and severely restricted Iran’s main export good and source of revenue. The sanctions were effective in the sense that Iran’s currency plunged 40% and the economy was in further decline. Yet the sanctions did not succeed in changing the policy-making of the Iranian government, as the IAEA reported in November 2012 that Iran had completed the installation of another 2.800 uranium enrichment centrifuges and was planning more. The sanctions also did not stop Iran of enriching uranium to 20% purity, while the IAEA director general concluded that the IAEA could not rule out that all nuclear material was used in peaceful activities and that the talks between Iran and the IAEA had not delivered any results since 2011.

Because both sides in the negotiations thus hardened in their resolve, it took nine months before the negotiators met again in April 2013. Iran’s proposal would freeze the further installment of centrifuges and the suspension of the enrichment to HEU in return for the abolishment of all sanctions. Yet the P5+1 and Iran failed to find common ground as the P5+1 proposed Iran should shut down one of its key enrichment facilities, and that Iran should sign the Additional Protocol of the IAEA which would give the agency more possibilities to establish oversight and conduct inspections. The P5+1 group was also only willing to retract some sanctions. After the subsequent failure of these talks, Ahmadinejad announced the further expansion of Iran’s uranium enrichment process, though the average prices in Iran increased by 60% as a result of international sanctions. Apparently, the Iranian government was willing to bear the costs of international sanctions in favor of a nuclear program.

Following the elections of June 14th, 2013, Hassan Rowhani was elected as president of Iran with a landslide victory in the first round of the vote. Contrary to his predecessor Ahmadinejad, Rowhani advocated a more conciliatory approach to the P5+1. He is, as any Iranian leader though, still determined to continue the Iranian nuclear program for peaceful purposes. One could argue that the Iranian government finally succumbed to international sanctions and that the election of Hassan Rowhani was a result of sanctions induced economic hardship.However, a poll conducted by the Tehran University and the University of Maryland refutes the idea that sanctions were the reason for Rowhani to be elected, as only two percent of his voters mentioned lifting of sanctions as a reason to support him.1Another poll conducted by ZRS showed that 96% of the electorate thought that the continuation of the Iranian nuclear program was worth the economic costs of sanctions.2It is more likely that the Rowhani-led government followed a logic of appropriateness. Rowhani has a history of pursuing a conciliatory approach in negotiating with the E3/EU when he was secretary of the Supreme National Security Council (SNSC) before he was removed by Ahmadinejad in August 2005. The SNSC has, together with the presidency, shared responsibility over the nuclear program. The SNSC proposed in March 2005 to limit the Iranian number of centrifuges for the enrichment of uranium (the proposal was however rejected by the E3/EU, as the US would at that time not have accepted an Iranian nuclear program in any form). This would mean that Rowhani continued to follow a logic of appropriateness as president as he did as secretary of the SNSC in 2005.              

The reconciliatory approach of the new Iranian government resulted in a first round of talks between Iran and the P5+1, cumulating in the Fall 2013 Proposal in October 2013. Finally addressing the concerns of the IAEA about Iran’s past nuclear and possible military nuclear program, an agreement was reached to provide a dialogue to resolve all outstanding issues. Although this points to an Iranian resolve to verify the peaceful purposes of its nuclear program, the IAEA inspectors were only permitted ‘managed access’ to nuclear sites and access to the military nuclear testing site at Parchin was still excluded from the deal (the IAEA suspects that Iran conducted nuclear tests for a militarized nuclear program at Parchin). This would point to a mixture of a logic of appropriateness and consequences. As the Rowhani-led government cooperated more willingly with the IAEA, it still did not provide all the information requested by the IAEA in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations for sanctions relief. Continuing its oversight activities nonetheless, the IAEA reported that for the first time in years there was evidence that Iran had actually frozen its nuclear program. With this new basis of preliminary trust between the P5+1 and Iran, another round of talks between the two sides resulted in an interim agreement called the Joint Plan of Action (JPA).           

Following predominantly a logic of appropriateness, the Rowhani-led government has had a reconciliatory approach to the P5+1 and showed a willingness to cooperate with the IAEA. The international sanctions were not the reason why a moderate president was chosen. The domestic pressure mechanism can, in this case, thus not explain why the Iranian government chose to change its behavior. This would mean that Rowhani continued to follow a logic of appropriateness as president as he did as secretary of the SNSC in 2005. The election of Rowhani was thus not the result of sanctions, but it did cause a change in Iran’s behavior because the leading agent in the government changed. Yet a careful cost-benefit analysis was made in the negotiations with the P5+1. Not disclosing or postponing verification of its nuclear activities, the P5+1 was compelled to retract some of its sanctions it had imposed on Iran. The approach of the Rowhani-led government is thus indicative for a logic of appropriateness, while it remained some elements of a logic of consequences.

It seems also that a change in government can thus foster the implementation of an international norm. Iran never cooperated to that extent with the P5+1 and the IAEA on the nuclear issue since Rowhani succeeded Ahmadinejad. Only after the election of Rowhani was the expansion of the nuclear program halted, which would make a case in favor of a logic of appropriateness.Key decision-makers on the Iranian nuclear decision-making process, such as the minister of foreign affairs, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Aency, and Iran’s representative at the IAEA were during the first year of Rowhani’s presidential term replaced by moderates instead of the Ahmadinejad era hardliners. These new governmental officials furthered then the implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation norm. Since then, Iran cooperated more willingly with the P5+1 and provided long overdue, yet not complete, information about the extent of its nuclear program to the IAEA, which would indicate the predominance of new set of values in the Rowhani-led government rather than a changing cost-benefit analysis. The election of Rowhani was thus not the result of sanctions, but it did cause a change in Iran’s behavior because the leading agent in the government changed, along with Iran’s representatives to the IAEA, its negotiators with the P5+1 and the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Agency. It is thus not a structural change, rather a change of agent in the domestic structure. The 2013 election of a new president with new values, furthered the domestic implementation of the nuclear non-proliferation norm in Iran. Without further information provided to the IAEA, one can only wonder what the real intentions of past and present Iranian governments were. It is thus in this particular case hard to verify whether Iran truly violates or adheres to the nuclear non-proliferation norm. Only time can tell.



1University of Maryland Center for International and Security Studies. 2013. “Iran’s presidential election and its domestic and international ramifications”. www.cissm.umd.edu/papers/files/irans_presidential_election_and_its_ramifications_v2.pdf

2Zogby Research Services. 2013. “Iranian attitudes”. www.aaiusa.org/page/-/Polls/Iran/IranOctober2013.pdf

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