The negotiations between Iran and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, plus Germany, over Iran’s nuclear program are entering a new, and probably decisive, stage. The negotiations have been going on for almost a decade, with long interruptions, and whether a breakthrough will come this time is anyone’s guess. But the situation has never been as serious as it is today, and peace hangs in the balance.
After the recent visits by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Washington, DC, and by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to Tehran, a foggy situation is nonetheless becoming clearer. It appears that US President Barack Obama has won time by drawing a line in the sand – the start of an explicit Iranian nuclear-weapons program – and by assuring Israel of America’s readiness for military action should negotiations fail.
Moreover, in view of the danger of a military confrontation, the United States, together with Europe and other partners, has implemented tough new “smart” sanctions aimed at Iran’s oil exports – its main source of income – while largely isolating the Islamic Republic from the international payment system. Iran urgently needs the oil revenue, and, without participation in the payments system, its international trade is grinding to a halt. Barter transactions and suitcases full of cash are not a viable alternative. So Iran’s economy is being shaken to the core.
Furthermore, the US seems to have communicated in a credible manner both the seriousness of the situation and its own intentions to the Iranian leadership via various channels. So, if this round of negotiations, too, should fail, a great – and entirely foreseeable – tragedy could begin to unfold.
The good news is that all of the parties involved seem to be aware of this, which should focus official minds on a serious negotiation process and a diplomatic solution. Moreover, it should be clear soon enough whether Iran is serious about a compromise this time, because there are ample benchmarks.
The content of such a compromise is more or less clear: acceptance of low-grade uranium enrichment by Iran for non-military purposes, and enhanced and verifiable safeguards, such export of low-grade enriched uranium for further processing and stronger and more extensive inspection rights for the International Atomic Energy Agency inside Iran. For example, the IAEA would gain access to previously closed Iranian nuclear facilities.
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Of course, a compromise would not address the Iranian regime’s domestic behavior and regional ambitions – a source of shared angst for Israel and the Arab Gulf states, first and foremost Saudi Arabia. But, with no one seriously prepared to go to war for regime change in Iran, particularly after the decade-long misadventure in Iraq, no one should weigh down the negotiations with futile aspirations.
This applies equally to Iran, where some influential people still think that the US can be forced out of the Middle East, and that the status quo can be changed to install Iran as the region’s hegemonic power. This illusion, no less than Western hopes of regime change in Iran, could be seriously pursued only at an indefensibly high risk of war and regional chaos.
Other significant factors will play an important role in deciding the outcome of these negotiations. The first concerns Iranian domestic politics and the ongoing power struggle within the regime – a struggle that scuttled a diplomatic solution once before, because neither conservatives nor reformers were willing to afford President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad a diplomatic triumph. One can only hope that, in view of the seriousness of the situation, this route to failure will be closed off.
Developments in Syria, Iran’s last remaining ally in the region, are equally likely to play a role. The fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would amount to a strategic debacle for Iran , which would then be faced by a united front of Arab states, supported by Turkey, the US, and, in a way, by Israel. Iran would then find it difficult to maintain its foothold in Lebanon, and its position would become more complicated even in Iraq, despite its Shia majority. In short, its quest for regional predominance would collapse.
In light of the complexity of external factors, it will be important not to overload the nuclear negotiations with issues that the talks are not designed to resolve. Syria, the future of Iran’s regime, the situation in the Persian Gulf and in the wider region: all of these problems must be addressed at a different level and at another time if the risk of war over Iran’s nuclear program is to be contained or avoided.
Ever since Alexander the Great memorably solved the puzzle of the Gordian knot with just a blow of his sword, people have dreamed of a simple military solution to complex problems. But, all too often, applying military force to a problem leads to more problems. In Iraq, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld demonstrated that using military force only as a last resort is not merely an ethical and moral imperative, but one based on Realpolitik as well.
There are times when using military force becomes unavoidable, but it should never be chosen as an alternative to diplomacy. That is certainly true for today’s “Persian Knot.” Yet that choice – war or diplomacy – now confronts both sides.