While talking to Iran: the wider picture (an update)

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The Iranian government does not seem to have adopted a significantly different negotiating stance on its nuclear program as a consequence of direct talks with high level US representatives. Optimists may still point to the simple fact that, at least, negotiations have not collapsed. Yet whatever the substance behind the threat by President Ahmadinejad (in late November) to accelerate the program, there are no truly encouraging signs from Tehran.

What is clear is that, in any event, a successful strategic conversation can only happen if we keep in mind the larger strategic picture and have a full understanding of future dangers.

First, the limitations of international intelligence are severe and will remain so, which leaves us with great uncertainty: decisions will have to be made on the basis of incomplete information – and a few well-publicized (i.e. not very intrusive) inspections will not change this. Lack of reliable data will intensify the dilemma of the “Iraqi legacy” for most intelligence agencies: having almost unanimously assessed Saddam’s non-conventional program to be quite advanced in the lead-up to the 2003 invasion, they are now very reluctant to commit one way or the other in the case of Iran. This has an additional implication. Given the fog surrounding the details of Iran’s nuclear program, Israel absolutely becomes a key actor, yielding a sort of blackmail power and creating a heightened sense of urgency: at times it looks as if the whole timeline is set by the Netanyahu government simply by hinting that its patience is running out and that it might opt for a preemptive military strike. Washington appears to be in a rush against time not so much because of Iranian technical advances but rather because of Israeli threats to go it alone – however credible they may be.

In short, weak intelligence undermines diplomacy (as well as the potential technical success of a military option). In fact, conflicting interpretations of the state of the Iranian program are what give Israel its “wild card”.

The second strategic reality is that the diplomatic salad we are preparing has at least three ingredients: some serious negotiations (hopefully), some inspections, some new sanctions. The three will most likely have to coexist – until and unless, of course, Tehran surprisingly changes course.

We all know that sanctions are a tricky path: they cost money (especially European money) and, more importantly, their practical usefulness is very limited. They can buy some time but also help the hawks make a better case for military intervention. In fact, both the direct dialogue and the sanctions can be viewed as Obama’s deliberate moves to better position himself in case the crisis should precipitate.

In sum, the new dialogue track should be welcome, but spot inspections alone will certainly not suffice to change Iran’s calculation at this stage, and hard choices over additional sanctions will have to be made very soon.

Then there is a third strategic point, too often overlooked: many analysts around the world firmly believe that a nuclear-capable (thought perhaps not a nuclear-armed) Iran is in fact an “acceptable” proposition – despite tactical statements on the contrary in Washington and key European capitals.

However, even if we could manage Iran’s transition to a “threshold” status peacefully, major dangers would be just around the corner. Averting a rapid escalation is only the most immediate goal, but if the West is bracing for a semi-nuclear Iran it should think ahead.

The indirect consequences of an Iranian announcement that it has nuclear capabilities (at least a “breakout” capability) are pretty clear: more missile and nuclear proliferation, more quickly. This is true regionally, because the Saudis and others will not simply watch idly as Tehran pursues its power ambitions; and it is true globally, as the widespread suspicion will be confirmed that a determined nuclear bid cannot and will not be stopped.

All this means that there will be strong incentives for the United States and others to not just passively “contain” Iran, but to actually punish it at the first opportunity. It is not an inescapable outcome, but a likely one, given the persistent need to show that going nuclear does not pay. Some form of containment and deterrence now seems, understandably, a better option than war; but it is not risk-free if we assume, as we should, that Iran will not enjoy being “contained”. In other words, if there is no military clash when Iran becomes a threshold state or even a full member of the nuclear club, there will be a collective sigh of relief, but we will then immediately enter an era of confrontation with an emboldened regional power. Balancing a well-armed and ambitious country is never easy: remember the debate over a “rollback” of Soviet influence at various stages of the Cold War? The nuclear equilibrium was never a sort of boring stalemate.

In this respect, the advocates of containment should avoid depicting it as a simple task. Deterrence is a complex game involving psychological factors: understanding the other side’s intentions is as important as counting its weapons, and here Iran presents a special challenge, given the nature of its political system. Now more than ever. This leads us to the final point.

We really cannot pretend that the particular nature of Iran’s regime makes no difference. We can hope that some form of “nuclear caution” will prevail once Tehran edges closer to the nuclear status threshold, as the experience of China, and more recently India and Pakistan, suggest. But it is still legitimate to ask whether a more self-assured Iran would be good or bad for international security. Just ask the Arab states, which may make business with Iranian banks, but do not view the country as a “status quo power”.

The argument is rightly put forward that a military strike would have the effect of uniting the country and thus possibly save the regime from an advanced process of self-destruction. Yet, not striking the known nuclear sites will leave us with an internally divided “threshold state” – which will no doubt be tempted to pass that threshold. Since the West has clearly been unable to exploit Iran’s internal divisions since 1979, we should not count on doing better now.

Ultimately, the crux of Obama’s gamble is that the process of seriously opening a direct dialogue with Tehran will produce, at the very least, a more cohesive international front opposing Iran’s nuclear bid. And there is no doubt that the broadest possible alignment will prove crucial in support of any future policy course – be it a wide security engagement, prolonged nuclear negotiations, tougher sanctions, diplomatic-military containment, or even a military strike. We will soon know if Obama is a good gambler.

This original version of this article was published on October 26, 2009: Talking to Iran: the wider picture

Further reading
Non interference is back by Marta Dassù, Corriere della Sera