x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Iran has a road map, but the rest of the world appears lost

Tehran feels no pressure to change course on its nuclear programme.

The Iranians must be shaking now that the US has asked them to choose between cooperation and confrontation, as a two-week deadline for halting the installation of uranium enrichment centrifuges in exchange for a promise not to issue more Security Council resolutions against them, nears...

Tehran feels no pressure to change course on its nuclear programme. It is aware of the limitations of its adversaries and their inability to take any action strong enough to force it to give up its nuclear ambitions. The Iranians are engaging in negotiations with the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany from a position of strength. Talk they will. But freezing uranium enrichment is not on the table.

The stand taken by the Iranian chief negotiator, Saeed Jalili, at the Geneva talks last Saturday reflects Iran's confidence in its ability to resist Western pressure. Jalili fulfilled the requirements of positive diplomacy. But he re-emphasised his country's defiance. Immediately after the Geneva meeting, he declared that suspending uranium enrichment was not on the table.

This stand came in sharp contrast with the tone of the European negotiator, Javier Solana, who invoked meaningless diplomatic terms to cover the failure of the negotiations. The discussions were "constructive", he said of the Geneva talks: a diplomatic code for failure.

It is obvious that the West is running out of options in tackling the impasse. The belated American awakening to the need to meet the Iranians, even in the role of a silent negotiator, highlights the depth of confusion in the Western approach to Tehran's nuclear intransigence. Diplomacy is not working. Military action is too risky, too costly and too dangerous to be employed as a credible threat.

America and its allies have no strategy that could induce Iranian compliance with their demands, at least in the short or medium terms. On the other hand, Iran appears to have a well thought out road map and the tools to arrive at its final destination: positive engagement in multilateral negotiations and steady investment in the technology necessary to join the nuclear club. In implementing its strategy, Iran is counting on its own strengths and its adversaries' weaknesses.

The international community has already imposed sanctions on Iran. It can hit it with more. These measures have hurt Iran, but not enough to force a policy change. The Security Council can further punish Tehran. But the Iranians believe the sanctions would not be effective, given contradicting global interests. High oil revenues are also emboldening its stance.

Tehran is not genuinely worried about a military attack. The US is in no position to open a new front with its military stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the majority of Americans opposed to another military adventure. Israel is less predictable. It sees an existential threat in a nuclear Iran, but the chances of it acting unilaterally do not look credible either, given the ferocity of an expected Iranian response.

Iran possesses powerful tools that force American and Israel to steer away from the military option. An Iranian response to an attack would certainly include disrupting oil supplies and unleashing powerful allies in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine, as well as launching missile attacks against Israel and American interests and regional allies.

The situation appears hopeless. Iran is progressing towards acquiring a nuclear capability, and it looks as if nothing can stop it. Against such a backdrop, maybe it is time the West re-thought its strategy along the lines of allowing Iran to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes but doing every thing possible, including a serious threat of war, to guarantee the end of its aspirations for military nuclear capabilities.

Of course, there can be no guarantees that Iran will honour its commitment not to build the bomb. But equally uncertain is the success of the current Western strategy. The fact is that the Middle East and the rest of the world might have to live with a nuclear Iran.

What is absurd is the apathy of the Arabs. Arab countries stand to lose most from the Iranian debacle. If hostilities erupt, they will be in the heart of the storm. If Iran becomes nuclear, Arabs will be dragged into a costly arms race. Saudi Arabia and Egypt will be compelled to balance the Persian power. The region will be resorting to mutual deterrence policies long after the world has moved beyond them.

Yet the Arabs are neither pursuing their own efforts to resolve the impasse nor playing a role in international negotiations with Tehran. Iran is counting on gaining enough time to realise its nuclear objectives as the world sinks into deeper confusion on how to address the crisis. In the words of Jalili, the diplomatic process is like weaving a Persian carpet, where progress "moves forward in millimetres". Jalili is approaching the negotiations with the patience his countrymen apply in making the best of their carpets, while Iranian scientists are moving at utmost speed to join the nuclear club.

A looming disaster. Almost an inevitable one. But it will not be the first time the world fails in avoiding catastrophe. Many disasters have proven unpreventable.


Ayman Safadi is a former editor of Alghad in Jordan and a commentator on Middle Eastern affairs