Hard questions should Iran-US diplomacy fail

If military force is off the table, and real sanctions have been paid only lip service, what is the point of confronting Iran's nuclear ambitions?

Diplomacy requires compromises that rarely satisfy either side completely. And the more nations that get involved, the less likely it is that the perfect solution will be found. The result is often more of a tangled mess than effective policy. The protracted brouhaha over Iran's nuclear programme is a prime case in point. Should Iran obtain nuclear weapons, the potential consequences would probably affect the Gulf nations more than any other, even including Israel. The regional shift in power could force difficult decisions: a drastic expansion of the Arab Gulf states' military capabilities and/or requesting a nuclear security umbrella from the US. Neither is an ideal scenario. The UAE designs to be a bridge between the East and West, not to take sides in a game of nuclearised power politics.

But it is not the Gulf that is leading the diplomatic charge towards transparency regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions. As the most powerful nation in the world, the US is the natural choice, but it has had limited success. Barack Obama had promised an outstretched hand if Iran would unclench its fist, but Tehran hasn't relaxed its fighting stance. With the carrot approach having failed him, Mr Obama has been trying to garner enough votes in the UN Security Council for a new round of sanctions.

The right sanctions regime could cripple Iran's economy and force Tehran to divert limited funds from its nuclear programme towards keeping food on people's tables and warming their homes. In all likelihood, however, that will not happen. The US needs the support of Russia and China to implement tough sanctions, and that support is highly unlikely. The best it can probably hope for is support from Russia for symbolic sanctions, and an abstention from China that would allow the sanctions to pass.

Meanwhile, the US has seemingly taken a military strike out of the diplomatic equation. The military solution would wreak untold havoc on the region, but disavowing the use of force removes a source of leverage, and with such an intransigent nation you need all the leverage you can get. At this point it appears that Washington may be preparing to live with the consequences of a nuclear Iran. If Iran is not overtly threatened with an attack, then it has less reason to bridge the gap between nuclear weapons capability and a nuclear weapons arsenal.

Yet, if the world is ultimately not prepared to do what is necessary to halt Iran's nuclear programme through strong sanctions, diplomacy or, in the last resort, force, another question remains: what was the point of this exercise?