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August 21, 2012

The Thread Misses the Needle on Iran

by Mike M

A flurry of recent articles continue to raise the prospect of an Israeli strike on Iran in the fall.  There is, to be sure, no consensus on action, and the most recent developments may have slowed the race to action.  Major Israeli opinion leaders, including President Shimon Peres, have spoken out against a near-term strike, and recent public opinion polls show a more Israelis opposed to the idea than in favor of it.Aaron David Miller makes a compelling case that the breathless pronouncements of an imminent strike are overblown, and that Israel mostly wants the U.S. to act.  One persuasive article even argued that recent developments, including the Peres comments, had decisively defeated, within Israel, the short-term consideration of strikes—if only “for now.”  Still, the consensus of opinion still admits that Netanyahu and his closest advisors resolutely believe that the window of opportunity for Israel is closing, Iran is racing toward a “zone of immunity” from Israeli military action, and Tehran isn’t really interested in negotiating anyway.

But the issue is no longer what happens in the next three or four months.  The question now is whether, quietly but firmly, the process has crossed an indefinable Rubicon where a military clash has become inevitable.  Because the only real alternative has long involved the threading of a negotiated needle:  An accord leaving Iran with enough nuclear capacity to satisfy its nationalist urges and deterrent cravings, but not enough that Israel views as merely a slow-motion stroll into the same “zone of immunity.”

Given Iran’s apparent faith in its ability to slow-roll this process and Israel’s growing desperation, it’s hard to see how that circle ever gets squared.  A large civilian nuclear program under IAEA inspections satisfies Iran but surely not Israel.  Innovative notions for a highly constricted nuclear cycle could work in theory, but Tehran seems no longer to be interested in such draconian constraints.  And just about any deal would require bolstering the existing inspections system to a degree unlikely to be tolerated by Iran.

The purpose of sanctions and now escalating threats of strikes, of course, has been to get Tehran to scale back its desires to the point where the circle can indeed be squared.  This was an entirely reasonable strategy—there wasn’t much else to do—but it seems to have run its course.  The circle-squaring just can’t be accomplished, as much because of Israel’s self-defined demands about how far Iran must come as for Iran’s reluctance to do so.

Tehran may try to play another card to generate another delay by “agreeing” to something or other between now and late fall.  At this point, however, it would have to be a serious concession to satisfy the doubters in Tel Aviv.  And if the analysis here is correct, this Fabian strategy is destined to reach a point of diminishing returns; in fact it would appear that, if reports are accurate of the depth of Israeli official alarm, it has already run its course.

So the question for U.S. policy and strategy is what to do when the thread has missed the eye of the needle, and we’re into the next phase of events.

A leading suggestion—made in a number of recent pieces, including one by Middle East all-everything Dennis Ross—is to take the steam out of Israel’s drive for a strike by assuming the burden of the ultimate choice ourselves.  Promise U.S. military strikes in the event Iran doesn’t buy into some negotiated solution, this option suggests, while offering expanded military aid to enhance Israel’s willingness to wait.  Such an approach, the argument goes, would “extend Israel’s clock” and buy more time for a solution.  (Of course many believe this is precisely what Israel intends with its current policy—force Washington into the firing line by behaving as if it is about to go rogue.)

Except that, if the analysis outlined above is correct, this proposal makes no sense at all.  It continues to operate as if the circle can be squared, the needle can be threaded.

But if instead the endgame is underway—if we are past the point when the interests and goals of Iran and Israel can be rationalized in some brilliant and complex settlement over the fine details of the doorknobs and paint colors and design accessories of Tehran’s nuclear complex—then the only question now is who will hit those sites, and when.  Tehran won’t agree to constrain them below an ambitious threshold, and Israel will not live with that threshold.

In such a context, threats have lost their purchase.  There is no meaningful time left to buy, just pointless time.  And the only significant upshot of the buy-Israel-time approach would be to make the United States the one to start a war, not Israel.

(There is one remaining route away from military action.  Some of the recent critiques of Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, including by former Israeli intelligence professionals, have been searing.  If his government ends up pushing a confrontation past the point that the Israeli public believes is responsible, the result could be backlash that would eventually bring to power different perspectives, perhaps more willing to accept more elaborate versions of Iranian civilian nuclear architectures.  Imagine that:  The circle squared through regime change in Tel Aviv rather then Tehran.)

Meantime the irony is nobody actually wants what is apparently becoming inevitable.  Most Israelis don’t want it.  Washington certainly doesn’t want it.  Some radicals in Tehran may enjoy the opportunity for retaliation but cannot delight at the loss of substantial nuclear infrastructure.  Gulf monarchies would be happy to see Iran lose fissile-producing capacity but might not like the more belligerent, nationalistic, unpredictable regime that comes out the other end.  China could chuckle at America getting its head caught in a nasty vise, but will regret violence engulfing its fourth-largest supplier of crude.

As suggested in an earlier post, then, if U.S. officials believe that circles and squares have diverged, then the main focus of strategy is now to best position ourselves for the post-strike moment.  That can mean a lot of things—organizing the coming weeks to appear to give Iran every possible chance to agree to a favorable deal, thus preventing it from pleading victimhood afterwards and escaping sanctions.  Being willing to show an aggressive distance from Israel afterwards, to distinguish U.S. interests from theirs.  Developing a clear strategic concept of crisis management and denuclearization toward which to lead the world:  what is our theory of how we reenergize multilateral efforts to draw an angry, wounded Iran into conflict resolution dialogues afterward?

Ultimately, there is only one truly comprehensive answer to this challenge:  When the nature of the regime in Iran mellows.  That, then, must also be part of any thinking about post-strike strategizing.  Putting aside any lunatic parallels to Iraq 2003, we must ask how can we use the post-strike moment to promote, rather than retard, the natural—and inevitable, over the long-run—transition to a more democratic, liberal, globalized and cosmopolitan system of governance in Iran.  Until that happens, the history of our nuclear dealings with Iran is likely to remain stuck in an endless rut of ultimatums, crises, and confrontations.

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