x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Three elections that will decide Iran's nuclear fate

Elections in Iran, Israel and America this year will decide what will happen to Iran's nuclear programme.

When Iranian voters went to the polls earlier this month, Iran's purported nuclear programme was a bit player. It will be the same when US voters go the polls in November. But when voters cast ballots in Israel's parliamentary election in September, many will do so for the candidate they think will best confront Iran.

In all three countries, balloting will have very little to do with security and everything to do with politics. For when Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, calls an autumn election, as he strongly hinted he would in a speech on Sunday, he will be doing so for domestic reasons. But he will be campaigning on his ability to confront the threat apparently posed by Iran, a threat even his own security establishment thinks is overblown.

These three elections will decide what happens in the continuing confrontation between western powers and Iran over its nuclear programme.

The Iranian results this month - which saw setbacks for hard-line supporters of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - and the possible re-election of Barack Obama in November, could produce a less confrontational approach from those countries.

Yet the Israeli election, which is on course to return Mr Netanyahu for a second term, will likely make Israel more hawkish.

Here's why. For Mr Netanyahu, the threat of Iran is a political trump card. As one of the most hawkish members of his right-wing party Likud, he talks up the threat because he knows he can cast himself as the best man to confront it.

No matter that Israel's security establishment appears to be squarely against confronting Iran, and against Mr Netanyahu's leadership on the issue: in recent weeks, the former head of the domestic security service, the Shin Bet, called the prime minister "messianic" in his obsession with Iran, and the army chief of staff applauded Iranian leaders as "very rational" people who had not yet decided to build a nuclear bomb.

No matter that the largest opposition party of the centre-left, Kadima, has recently appointed as its leader Shaul Mofaz, a politician who not only used to head Israel's military but was also born in Iran. And no matter that, while Kadima remains sceptical about a unilateral strike by Israel on Iran's nuclear programme, that scepticism, according to a recent poll, is shared by more than half of Israelis.

No matter all of that, because Mr Netanyahu recognises his core supporters - right-wing Israelis and the far-right settler movement - are easily swayed by emotive talk of the "threat" coming from Iran.

The situation in Iran is more ambiguous. Supporters of President Ahmadinejad were diminished in this month's legislative elections, while conservatives close to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei did well. Ayatollah Khamenei, who retains the final say on all matters of state, has endorsed negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations, plus Germany) and said publicly this year that nuclear weapons are "a sin".

At the same time, Ayatollah Khamenei is a clever politician and recognises that the "nuclear issue" is merely one of several issues for the West. Fundamentally, Iran's foreign policy has set it at odds with America's view of how the Middle East ought to be run, and if and when the nuclear issue is resolved, there are likely to be further confrontations. If he can keep the issue bubbling without bringing it to a boil, it serves the Iranian regime well, or so the logic goes in Tehran.

The other election that matters is the US presidential one in November. It would be political madness for Israel to strike Iran without America's tacit agreement, and Mr Obama has made it clear he believes diplomacy and sanctions still have a chance of working.

It is possible - though unlikely - for Mr Netanyahu to use the brief window between his likely re-election and the US election to strike Iran, calculating that an electioneering Mr Obama would not want to be seen as weak on Israel's security. Yet it is a big risk - such a strike would expose US troops in Afghanistan and its citizens around the world to serious harm. It would threaten US interests in the region. And it would imply, given how clear Mr Obama was with the Israel lobby about Iran, that he is weak; none of these are messages an American incumbent would want so close to an election and there is strong possibility he would react to such a strike by casting himself as the defender of US interests against an impulsive Israel.

That risk is probably too great for Mr Netanyahu to take. Far more likely is that, with an increased mandate and a new coalition, he would seek to begin token talks with the Palestinians, demanding in return a more belligerent stance from America over Iran.

The issue of Iran's nuclear programme is not going away. It has supplanted Iraq and the Palestinian occupation as the most pressing international issue in the Middle East. Whether Iran and Israel will take a road of negotiation or confrontation will depend on the leaders elected to govern these complex nations.



On Twitter @FaisalAlYafai