x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Narrow US-Iran nuclear talks miss the strategic realities

It should be obvious that squeezing Iran ever more tightly is not the way to make that country feel less imperilled and isolated.

When Iran, in previous talks with western powers, has come to the table wanting to discuss everything besides its nuclear programme, it has been accused of changing the subject and playing for time. But as the next round of talks looms, with the Israelis loudly banging the drums for a war that President Barack Obama and other western leaders are desperate to avoid, there may be something to be said for playing for time. After all, Mr Obama and even the Israelis concur that Iran is not currently racing to build nuclear weapons; nor has it taken a decision to do so.

The pressure is created by the Israelis, who insist that time is short before Iran's nuclear progress puts the capability to produce nuclear weapons too close for their comfort. They would go to war to set back the clock.

Sure, starting a potentially catastrophic war simply as a delaying tactic seems absurd, but rationality is hardly coin of the realm in the climate of apocalyptic hysteria. Mindful of the consequences of war, which US military planners fear could result in a regional war and the loss of hundreds of American lives, as The New York Times reported yesterday, Mr Obama and other leaders find themselves trying to calm things down to a mere panic.

That means leaders enter nuclear talks under heavy domestic pressure to quickly demonstrate Iran's capitulation. Failing that, they are pressured to impose sanctions so far-reaching that Tehran reads them as signalling the West's goal as regime change - and that simply raises the incentive to acquire a nuclear deterrent.

While avoiding a hot war remains a goal shared by both sides, covert and proxy warfare are intensifying. Iran has been the target of a sustained campaign of sabotage, cyber-attacks and assassination directed at its nuclear programme and military infrastructure, while Tehran has been accused of launching attacks on Israeli diplomatic facilities in various countries. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also insists that Iran is behind the recent rocket campaign in Gaza by its key Palestinian ally, Islamic Jihad.

That's not implausible, although it does weaken Mr Netanyahu's long-standing insistence that Hamas is Tehran's proxy; on the contrary, Hamas is being undermined by Iran's ally in Gaza.

Moreover, Iran and Hamas have publicly fallen out over Syria, where the Palestinian Islamists support the rebellion, while Iran is sending advisers, money and materiel to prop up President Bashar Al Assad. Syria is now ground zero in the regional Cold War that pits Iran's camp against one led by Saudi Arabia - but aspects of the same conflict are being played out in Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon.

So, the Iran "problem" is not simply about nuclear weapons; indeed, concern over Iran's nuclear capacity is, in fact, a symptom of the strategic conflict that has been underway since the revolution of 1979. No framework has evolved, despite three decades of conflict of varying degrees of intensity, for integrating Iran into a set of security understandings that can manage and contain that strategic competition. That absence has been felt more intensely over the past decade as Iran's influence has grown as a result of the US invasion of Iraq.

It is strategic competition, rather than "existential" fears, that drives Israel's response to Iran's nuclear programme. While Mr Netanyahu waxes demagogic about a new Holocaust, other Israeli leaders all the way up to his hawkish defence minister Ehud Barak state bluntly that even if Iran had a nuclear weapon, it would not risk certain obliteration by attacking Israel.

Instead, goes the argument, a nuclear-armed Iran would have immunity from being attacked by others - the brutal truth is that nobody would be talking about bombing it if it had a nuclear deterrent - and that would upset a regional strategic balance of power in which Israel enjoys vast military superiority. Immunity from attack would amplify Iran's regional menace, the Israelis warn, and would prompt key rivals such as Saudi Arabia to seek their own nuclear deterrents.

But Iran's nuclear programme isn't the source of regional strategic competition, and that wouldn't disappear even if the programme were stopped. Grasping that simple truth might also point the way towards a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue.

Curiously enough, under the Bush administration, the US sought cooperation with Iran based on a common strategic interests of getting rid of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and, initially, of getting rid of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Both of those efforts have been bedevilled by mounting competition for influence in the region, and the tensions over the nuclear programme, but Washington recognised that one way to start a dialogue was to focus on matters on which the two sides could agree.

But the Obama administration has focused narrowly on the nuclear issue, and largely through the "Permanent Five + 1" format, which focuses on pressing Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions on its uranium enrichment programme.

It's long been suggested that resolving the nuclear issue will require a "grand bargain" framework for addressing all issues of conflict between Iran and its western adversaries. That may be a bridge too far right now, because of domestic politics in both the US and Iran. But that shouldn't preclude broaching the wider discussion - ultimately, the nuclear issue is unlikely to be resolved if Iran believes it is in a mortal struggle.

Mr Obama recently noted that the only long-term solution to the nuclear standoff was for Iran to decide against building nuclear weapons. But it is Iran's perception of threats ranged against it that would prompt it to seek a nuclear deterrent.

The corollary, of course, is that persuading Iran that it doesn't need nukes requires changing Tehran's threat perception. And that means engagement on a wider range of issues than the nuclear one - that, after all, is a symptom of the conflict rather than its cause.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York

On Twitter: @TonyKaron