Like a well-worn pair of shoes, analysts of the decade-old Iran crisis have generally lapsed into a comfortable complacency about the whole thing. Yes, endless negotiations are not really getting us anywhere, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s umpteenth “final warning” remains on the table, along with President Obama’s mantra that the Islamic Republic simply will not be permitted to possess nuclear weapons. But there is nothing new in any of this, is there ? Implicit in such thinking is that somehow, some way, the Iran crisis is no longer worthy of the name. It is not seen as a crisis at all, but rather has morphed into a sort of unsatisfactory, frozen, status quo, forever just one step from becoming septic, but never getting there.
Such thinking is worse than lazy, it is dangerous. For it entirely misreads the inherent instability of what is going on. Strategically, the positions of Iran and Israel (and probably the US) are wholly contradictory ; no matter the tedium of endless and fruitless rounds of negotiation, nothing has changed the basic unstable parameters of what is at stake. Iran - from its point of view for a number of very good strategic and nationalistic reasons - wants the bomb, whatever the rest of the world thinks of this.
On the other hand, Israel finds such a position - again for very good strategic and nationalistic reasons - entirely unacceptable, and will use force in order to prevent this. Increasingly consistently, and despite its desperate efforts to avoid an actual showdown, the Obama White House largely agrees with Israel’s narrative and is drifting towards either tacitly agreeing to an Israeli strike, or partnering with the Netanyahu government in engaging in military action to eradicate the Iranian proliferation threat.
To put it mildly, these enduring strategic realities mean that the Iran nuclear crisis - all happy talk to the contrary - remains one of the most volatile, dangerous, and wholly unresolved issues facing the world today.
Four new, indisputable facts belie the emerging conventional wisdom that Iran does not constitute a crisis at all. In fact, they further the argument that the nuclear crisis may well be the greatest single global political risk confronting the Obama administration.
First, there is an agreed consensus that the sanctions are not working. Yes, as of March 13, Iran’s official inflation rate topped 30%, with the real rate likely double this, an eye-watering 60%. It is generally agreed that oil and gas sanctions - striking at the lifeblood of the Iranian economy - have cut Iranian exports in half, gravely wounding the country. There is no doubt about it ; Iran’s people are suffering.
And yet it must be also gently pointed out that the sole purpose of sanctions is, as ever, to change the policy calculations of the regime in question, economically forcing them in the interests of survival to modify their foreign policy. In the case of Iran this certainly has not happened. As General James Mattis, the Head of CENTCOM, made abundantly clear while testifying to Congress in March 2013, global sanctions are not preventing Iran’s nuclear progress. As such, it is hard to see how they can be seen to be working.
Instead there is a darker read of the sanctions scenario. Despite the undoubted pain, rising inflation, falling exports, and economic encirclement of Tehran, they have yet to yield, all demonstrated economic devastation to the contrary. Surely this refusal to bend to economic reality gives the world some sense of the value Iran’s leaders truly place on developing their nuclear program.
Second, the time frame for Iran to develop a nuclear weapon is no longer in question between the US and Israel. Pinning himself down for the first time on March 13, President Obama said it would take Iran around a year more to build a nuclear weapon, if nothing else changed. Given that the US and Israel would not wish to wait to strike until the very last moment, such an assessment is not far off Prime Minister Netanyahu’s repeated and ominous reminder to world leaders that they should be ready for the prospect of (Israeli) military action to stop the program this summer. If such a vague deadline drifted until the early autumn it is hard to see that much distance between the White House and Israel over an Iranian deadline.
Third, as such, frictions between the two allies over Iran seem to be genuinely on the wane. While visiting Israel for the first time in March 2013, the President hinted to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the US would not (any longer) stand in the way should Israel decide to take unilateral action, and strike Iran on its own. As he put it, “Israel has the right to independently defend itself”.
Further, the President made clear he understood the reasons for such a possible Israeli action, given its relative proximity to Iran, the repeated threats about its existential right of existence emanating from Tehran and its more limited military capabilities. More than one recent commentator has rightly seen all this as a warning to Tehran that now is the time to cut a deal, as the US would not hold its ally back any longer.
In what must have seemed music to the Israeli government’s ears, the President went on to forcefully state that Iran would not be allowed to go nuclear, ruling out the option of containing Iran. Not only did the President seem to loosen the restraints he has heretofore placed on independent Israeli military action, he has recently gone a long way towards making it clear that the American military option itself is increasingly likely barring a nuclear deal.
Fourth, American public opinion firmly bolsters the President’s increasingly hawkish stance. A comprehensive Pew Research poll, released on March 19th, makes for somber reading. A decisive 64% of Americans would support a US strike to scuttle Iran’s nuclear program, up from 58% in 2012. Thus, almost two-thirds of those Americans polled felt it was better to prevent Iran possessing nuclear weapons even given the attack’s likely consequences, while only 25% thought it more important to avoid military conflict, even if Tehran developed nukes. Such decisive domestic support gives the White House the political leeway to get tougher with Iran, presumably in the hopes of ratcheting up the diplomatic pressure to the necessary levels to get a nuclear deal done. However, the flip side of such brinksmanship is that failure to reach an agreement in the near- to medium-term makes a follow-on American military strike far more likely.
In the short run, look for talks to rumble on, Iran to divert enough of its 20% enriched uranium into medical uses to keep its stockpile down to non-crisis levels, and little to happen this spring until the June aftermath of the Iranian presidential election. So, in other words, look for more quietly complacent reasoning that this “crisis” is not worthy of the name.
It is to be hoped that the Obama administration itself knows better. For after June, at long last, the clock will well and truly start. Within a matter of a few months, it will become increasingly clear as to whether a full-blown military strike by either the US, Israel, or together, can be averted. However, given the somber, and little reported upon events of the past few weeks, Iran remains the elephant in the corner of the room, with the risk capacity to trample all in its path.