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Now that Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany (P5+1) have finally embarked upon a negotiating process over Iran’s nuclear program, much of the talk regarding an imminent Israeli attack on Iran has receded. In the words of Time Magazine’s Tony Karon, the “snooze button” has been hit on the ticking alarm clock.
Yet the threat lurks as a mechanism of pressure on both Iran and the United States, and its continued utility must be understood in these terms.
Despite Israel’s very public bravado, a premeditated strike against Iran has always been highly unlikely. Israel does not possess the military capability to destroy Iran's enrichment and enrichment-related facilities without support from the United States. And the Obama Administration, winding down two costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, does not have the stomach for a new conflict with unanticipated repercussions.
Israeli strikes against Iraqi and Syrian facilities in 1981 and 2007 cannot serve as useful precedents for an attack on Iran. The destruction of Iran’s numerous facilities will necessarily entail several days of sustained strikes, and risks catapulting the region into another war that no rational US administration can wish or desire.
Yet the leaderships in Israel, the United States, and Iran have been engaged in a dangerous game that has increased the potential for an accidental conflagration in the Persian Gulf region. This has involved repeated Israeli threats of a strike whose purpose is to pressure American and European leaders to tighten the sanctions noose on Iran. So far, this strategy has been very successful for the Israelis, since even a good part of anti-war opinion in the US has bought the argument that economic sanctions are a type of diplomacy, part of a good faith attempt to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and an alternative to war.
Yet such an approach, based on the belief that the Iranian leadership only responds to painful pressure, ignores Iran’s domestic environment. In the reality that is Iran’s highly contested political milieu, threatening language and hostile policies are more likely to strengthen the security establishment and enhance hard-line positions that argue for an aggressively rejectionist foreign policy. Capitulating to “Western bullying” is not an option for any Iranian politician. Responding to threats with counter-threats, on the other hand, has been a useful instrument for fanning nationalism at home and reminding the world of the potential costs of economic war against Iran.
It is only now, with US-sponsored sanctions going for the strangulation of Iran’s economy, that the dangers of this endless game, intended to weaken and even destabilize Iran, with no diplomatic pathway to resolve the nuclear issue, is becoming evident. Escalation and miscalculation is embedded in the differing calculations of the three leaderships as they maneuver their respective countries’ relationships to each other and their own domestic dynamics.
For the Israelis, the impact of sanctions on Iran’s calculations regarding the shifting of its nuclear program towards military ends is not as important as a sustained commitment to sanctions by the US and Europe. It is an approach that intends to ensure that no viable environment is created for meaningful negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program through agreement on limitations upon its enrichment program and a more robust inspection regime.
The current Israeli approach is intended to consolidate Obama’s repeated assurances about America’s unbreakable bond with Israel no matter how much Israeli policies violate international law or threaten American interests in the region. In this calculation, the resolution of the nuclear issue is deemed more dangerous than Iran becoming a state with nuclear-weapon capability, because a resolution will eventually direct attention, even in Israel itself, away from Iran and towards the occupation of Palestinian lands. It will also enhance Iran’s ability to project power in the region, weakening an Israeli strategic superiority seen as dependent upon uncritical US support for Israeli policies.
This is why hard-line advocates of Israel in the US have worked so hard to limit the Obama administration’s options towards Iran through congressional action. For instance, an amendment to the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act not only mandates sanctions on firms and countries that deal with Iran’s Central Bank or buy Iranian petroleum; it also denies the President the power to repeal those sanctions during negotiations in exchange for changes in Iranian policies. Unlike the previous measures, now only Congress can lift the most severe sanctions ever imposed. Various Israeli lobbies in the US have even tried, so far unsuccessfully, to promote congressional legislation that effectively bans any diplomatic interaction with Iran. Pending resolutions in both the Senate and House also call for complete suspension of enrichment and reprocessing activities, a verifiable end to Iran’s ballistic missiles program, and additionally “oppose any policy that would rely on containment as an option in response to the Iranian nuclear threat.” Considering that Iran has repeatedly and emphatically stated that it would not accept any deal that would deprive it of its recognized rights as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), including the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes under international scrutiny, such maximalist demands have no other purpose than to prevent a resolution on the basis of some sort of compromise.
After a short and half-hearted attempt, the Obama administration, willingly or otherwise, fell into the trap of effectively continuing the Bush administration’s one-track policy of ratcheting up pressure in the hope that the Iranians will finally cry uncle. Meanwhile, hard-line Israeli influence on domestic US political dynamics prevents Obama from making do with existing draconian sanctions on Iran that more or less constitute economic warfare. Nothing he does is deemed sufficient; there is a consistent requirement for yet more measures to squeeze Iran yet further, and cease uranium enrichment that brings it closer to the status of a real or virtual nuclear state.
The problem with this approach is that the current Iranian leadership perceives itself as left with few options apart from responding to belligerent policies with belligerence of its own. It believes the Obama administration, despite protestations to the contrary, is like its predecessor: more interested in regime change and destabilization than resolving the nuclear issue. Hence, in its response, the Iranian leadership has made a calculated decision to demonstrate it will not be a passive recipient of decisions made by others. It has thus highlighted the costs of escalating sanctions, whether through threats to obstruct or shut down oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz; permitting protestors to attack the British Embassy; or threatening to halt oil exports to European states before European sanctions against Iran’s Central Bank come into effect in July.
This escalating sanctions regime and threat scenario naturally increase the prospect of an accidental conflagration in the Persian Gulf, where both Iran and the US have a substantial military presence and lack sufficient means of communication. In short, the potential for this presumably controlled game of brinksmanship to spin out of control will continue to increase if the current round of negotiations fails to produce results.
Unless the Obama Administration recognizes the acute dangers of its relentless campaign to isolate Iran and strangle its economy, no meaningful dialogue can take place. This must entail genuine negotiation rather than the repetition of a demand that has repeatedly been rejected. Iran cannot and will not accept the demand for the suspension of its enrichment program. It is too heavily invested in it economically, and politically it cannot afford the appearance of surrender to external demands. Yet Tehran has in the past offered limitations on its enrichment program, as well as acceptance of a more robust inspection regime. Furthermore, the steady expansion of its nuclear work, including production of uranium at higher enrichment levels, has given it not only some leverage but also the ability to give a few things away in exchange for both the acknowledgment of its rights and eventual easing of sanctions.
So there is room for a process of give and take. But this is the case only if the objective is the resolution of the nuclear issue rather than continued pressure to keep Iran isolated and its regional ambitions in check. That said, the latter remain the preferred objectives of the current Israeli government and its powerful allies in the United States.
The potential for such a give and take process was acknowledged even by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton who, after the initial April meeting in Istanbul between the P5+1 and Iran, suggested that the intended “sustained process of serious dialogue” will be “guided by the principle of the step-by-step approach and reciprocity.” What Ashton did not say is whether the highly charged political environment in the US during an election year will allow the Obama Administration to pursue such an approach.
If the Bush and Obama administrations’ intelligence assessments have indeed been correct, and the Iranian leadership has not yet made the decision to become a nuclear-weapons state, a sustained process of serious dialogue is the only way of making sure that such a decision is not adopted. The pursuit of policies intended to promote regime insecurity in Tehran will impact Iranian calculations in the opposite direction, and risks yet another disastrous regional war – not mere air strikes against Iran. Instead of being the proclaimed alternative to war, escalating sanctions will end up being a path to war.
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