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Iran: Little Room for Maneuver

Tehran - back in the limelight? Photo: Mohammadali f./flickr

Although the rest of the Middle East is now rightly in the spotlight, Iran, with a simmering opposition movement and a highly controversial nuclear program (the focal point in regional diplomacy prior to the ‘Jasmine revolutions’) will no doubt return to the forefront of regional affairs very soon. However, the diplomatic equation in the conflict between Iran and the West may be changing, and contrary to the sometimes hysterical warnings of some commentators in the West and the bellicose rhetoric of Iran’s president, Tehran is in a corner. Below some points to keep in mind when analyzing the situation:

  • What country, more precisely what regime, currently faces an existential threat and finds itself surrounded by the world’s most powerful fighting force on three of four borders (principally Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, but also Iraq): nuclear-armed Israel or Iran?
  • How much of this all is a securitization game? Prime Minister Netanyahu and especially Israel’s political right keep the focus on the country’s purported ‘insecurity’ and off the West Bank; President Ahmadinejad, in turn, exploits the external threat to consolidate support back home and divert attention from his lousy track record in actually governing Iran.
  • If Iran decides to weaponize, will it not first withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)? The 1980 Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties and the NPT, which the US and Iran have both signed and ratified, respectively, demand it. Although this instance could very well prove the exception to the rule, Iran is not North Korea. Iran maintains relations and accords with many other states in the international system, all of which count on it to uphold some modicum of predictability. It is likely to do so despite its belligerent rhetoric.
  • Even if Iran obtains a bomb does that suddenly mean that it cannot be deterred? Is it genuinely plausible that policymakers in Tehran will commit to a suicide pact? It takes more than one person to deploy a nuclear weapon. President Ahmadinejad, incidentally, is far from top dog in all things military in Iran.
  • The West’s present negotiating strategy vis-à-vis Iran – suspend uranium enrichment and comply with all International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards or incur sanctions, other unpleasantries (read covert war) and possible military strikes – reveals just how asymmetric the strategic environment actually is. The West, led by the US, rather than mollify Iran’s legitimate security concerns, can bomb the country into serially delaying or discontinuing its nuclear weapons program, likely without causing intolerable harm to Western interests elsewhere throughout the region. Some salient omissions from the West’s negotiating platform include: public security guarantees and a public retraction of all threats of regime change and obliteration; a truly handsome cash and investment offer to induce Tehran to stop enriching uranium; a willingness to countenance ‘grand bargains’ that fully restore US-Iranian relations and would include Iran yielding to international concerns regarding its nuclear ambitions; Israeli nuclear disarmament.

On 3 February, the authoritative International Institute for Strategic Studies headquartered in London released a comprehensive assessment of Iran’s WMD capabilities. The report concludes that Iran can most likely not break-out using its monitored stock of enriched uranium without tipping off IAEA inspectors and inviting an immediate strike against its nuclear facilities, and possibly other targets. More alarmingly – notwithstanding that only circumstantial evidence in support of this scenario has to date surfaced in the public domain – Iran could be running a parallel enrichment program with the aim of clandestinely achieving a break-out or surge capacity and eventually a full-scale nuclear deterrent capability.

The game is certainly coming to a head. Prevailing intelligence estimates – admittedly imperfect and often conspicuously pliable – put crunch time in the 2012-2016 range, with apprehensions mounting significantly after 2012. Indeed there is little doubt that Tehran will be returning to center stage of regional diplomacy as soon as these momentous events in the rest of the region wind down.

Make sure to check out The Leveretts’ The Race for Iran.