Washington can bide its time on Tehran's nuclear ambition
US and Israeli advocates of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities may have claimed vindication when WikiLeaks cables revealed that some Arab regimes were singing the same tune behind closed doors, but that doesn't make military action any more likely. It's not for want of support from Arab capitals that the US refrains from actually exercising a military option that it insists remains "on the table" in dealing with Iran; it's simply cold, hard strategic logic.
The US defence secretary Robert Gates last month stated bluntly that bombing Iran's facilities would offer only a "short-term solution" that would, in fact, make a nuclear-armed Iran even more likely. Military action would at best set back Iran's nuclear progress by two or three years, Mr Gates warned, but would "bring together a divided nation [and] make them absolutely committed to obtaining nuclear weapons" via programmes that would simply "go deeper and more covert". (The US intelligence assessment is that while assembling the means to build nuclear weapons, Iran has not yet decided to actually build them.) "The only long-term solution to avoiding an Iranian nuclear weapons capability," Mr Gates argued, "is for the Iranians to decide it's not in their interest."
Needless to say, the hawks are not happy with Mr Gates. Alan Dershowitz, the most ferocious Israel advocate among America's public intellectuals, branded the defence secretary "Iran's favourite American facilitator". Not that Mr Gates, a Bush-appointee with a distinguished career of service at the head of the CIA who is due to retire next year, is bothered. And as Mr Dershowitz grumbled: "There are no signs... that his failed policies with regard to Iran's nuclear programme will end with his too long tenure."
Indeed. The Obama administration remains committed to sanctions as its primary coercive tool to persuade the Iranians that building nuclear weapons is not in their interests. The US and its closest European allies are, in fact, preparing a new round of unilateral sanctions, hoping that further economic pressure could make Iran more pliant when talks resume in Turkey next month. The likes of China and Turkey remain sceptical of that argument, and are expanding their stake in Iran's economy.
More significant, though, was a little noted but potentially profound shift in the US negotiating position. Speaking in a recent BBC interview, the secretary of state Hillary Clinton suggested that the West could accept Iran enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, once it had "restored the confidence of the international community" that its programme had no military objective. "They can enrich uranium at some future date once they have demonstrated that they can do so in a responsible manner in accordance with international obligations," Mrs Clinton said.
That much may seem like common sense given Iran's rights as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but the Bush administration together with Israel and France had insisted that Iran could not be trusted with even the civilian uranium-enrichment programme to which it is entitled under the NPT, because that would give it the technological basis to build weapons within a year or two, should it quit the treaty - as North Korea did in 1994.
Mrs Clinton's remarks suggest that a more rational diplomatic strategy is in the works, under which Iran is offered a deal in which it accepts tougher oversight for continued enrichment. Given the consensus on the enrichment issue across Iran's fractured political spectrum, a compromise on the West's "zero-enrichment" stance may offer the only prospect of a diplomatic solution. But Washington hawks are hoping to kill off that option too. Believing that Mr Obama might be loathe to campaign for re-election facing charges of being "soft on Iran", a group of prominent senators urged the president to reject what Mrs Clinton had advocated.
"It is critical that the United States and our partners make clear that, given the government of Iran's patterns of deception and non-cooperation, its government cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future," the senators wrote, warning that they would oppose any agreement that allowed Iran to continue enrichment.
So, getting to "yes" may not be any easier for Mr Obama than it is for the Iranians. The primary goal of the current talks may simply be to revive the interim fuel-swap deal first agreed a year ago in Vienna, but retracted by Iran when domestic political infighting brought the deal under a firestorm of criticism in Tehran. A similar deal with Iran was revived last spring by Turkey and Brazil, but the US and its allies baulked because it didn't address the main question of ongoing enrichment. Nor had the Vienna deal, of course; a fuel swap is intended simply as a confidence building precursor to a long-term agreement.
Whether the parties can agree even on interim confidence building measures remains to be seen. Mr Ahmadinejad's moves to take direct control over the foreign ministry may strengthen his hand domestically, but an escalation of sanctions and a covert dirty war on Iran's programme that includes assassination and kidnapping of scientists and cyber-attack by the potentially devastating Stuxnet computer worm may harden Tehran's stance. Mr Obama, meanwhile, is under pressure to avoid any deal that sidesteps the bigger enrichment question.
So, even in the best-case scenario, a diplomatic solution could be years in the making. That may also be why Mr Gates stresses that Iran is up to three years away from having the material to build a nuclear weapon, and significantly further away from being able to build, test and deploy a functioning strategic nuclear capability. In other words, alarmist claims notwithstanding, there's still plenty of time.
Tony Karon is a New York-based analyst. Follow him on Twitter @TonyKaron
Updated: December 20, 2010 04:00 AM