By Richard Javad Heydarian
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As hopes for a speedy resolution of the Iranian nuclear crisis fade, potentially postponed until the conclusion of upcoming American presidential elections, pundits and policy-makers are scratching their heads in search of a culprit.
On the one hand, many in the West, especially the more hawkish elements in the government, are blaming Iran’s intransigence for the ongoing diplomatic hiatus. Based on their narrative, Iran is using protracted negotiations to buy time and push back the barrage of sanctions that have shaken the very foundations of its economy.
They point out Iran’s (apparent) refusal to suspend high-grade enrichment and ship out its accumulated stockpile; closedown its heavily-bunkered facility in Fordo; and, subject its nuclear program – and associated facilities such as the Parchin military complex – to comprehensive and verifiable inspection.
On the other hand, many moderates have argued that – despite Iran’s continued expression of interest to make necessary concessions – the West’s unwillingness to make concessions on two key issues has bedeviled the negotiations: (a) unilateral sanctions; and, most crucially, (b) explicit recognition of Iran’s rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to peaceful nuclear enrichment.
A third school of thought would go even further and argue that unless the negotiations go beyond the nuclear issue, and encompass a whole array of strategic-security disagreements between Iran (as a revisionist power) and Western as well as other status quo powers, there is no way of resolving the Iranian nuclear conundrum.
Yet, what is missed from the ongoing discourse is how Israel has been the main obstacle to the diplomatic resolution of the issue on two levels: (a) The use of the threat of unilateral intervention to curb Iran’s “nuclear capability” per se; and (b) Aggressive lobbying to “demonize” Iran, tighten regime-threatening sanctions, and pressuring Western leaders against any kind of accommodation of Iranian interests, no matter how legitimate and/or legal.
Why diplomacy matters
As Iran inches closer to the so-called “zone of immunity” – the increasing invulnerability of nuclear facilities to an aerial-surgical strike – many are beginning to nervously consider the ramifications of a bolt-from-the-blue Israeli attack.
Depending on the scope and nature of any prospective Israeli attack, the Iranian regime will be hard-pressed to respond (independently and/or through surrogates) against all actors perceived to be complicit in the attack.
Thus, one could expect Iran – lacking conventional power-projection capabilities to directly target Israel – to translate its reservoir of recurrent bombastic rhetoric into an actual lethal combination of ballistic and asymmetrical retaliation against Western interests across the region, especially in the Persian Gulf theatre.
In such event, there would be stark global implications: as far as oil prices and the recovery of a fragile global economy is concerned, once we enter an apocalyptic phase of region-wide large-scale warfare, all bets are off. Moreover, the humanitarian tragedy would be incalculable, foreshadowing all recent conflicts in the region.
This is precisely why the West is intent on using the so-called carrot-and-stick approach – a combination of incentives and sanctions to induce cooperation – to strike a diplomatic compromise with Iran. After all, looking at facts on the ground, the world powers have correctly identified diplomacy as the sole and most reasonable solution to issue.
Israel’s real Iranian problem
What makes the Iranian nuclear conundrum an issue of international significance isn’t really the possibility of Tehran acquiring a nuclear warhead to purportedly wipe out the state of Israel from the face of earth. This narrative – most aggressively forwarded by the Benjamin Netanyahu government and his hawkish allies in the West – is primarily a propaganda exercise to intensify international pressure on the Islamic regime.
First of all, there is a consensus among all major Western intelligence agencies – including Israel’s own security establishment – that Iran has not made the decision to develop nuclear weapons. Crucially, Iran has neither established a decision-making structure around a prospective nuclear weapon program, nor has it developed a credible delivery system.
Second, Iran will be shooting itself in the foot if it develops a nuclear-weapon capability, because that will eliminate its regional conventional superiority once weaker neighboring states start to develop their own nuclear deterrence in response.
Most importantly, Iran will stand no chance of survival if it decides to target Israel with nuclear missiles, given the latter’s superior stockpile of nuclear warheads (and rapidly-advancing second-strike as well as pre-emptive nuclear strike capacity). In an event of an (impending or actual) Iranian strike on Israel – directly or through surrogates – America will not hesitate to ‘wipe-out’ the Iranian regime to protect its most vital regional ally.
So, the Iranian nuclear issue is fundamentally about the balance of power in West Asia. Israel is essentially concerned with the emergence of a “virtual” – possessing a “break-out” capacity to develop a warhead on a short notice – nuclear-armed state in Tehran, eliminate Israel’s regional nuclear monopoly. This would undermine Israel’s four decades of strategic impunity to shape the regional environment to its own liking.
Thus, it is crucial for Israel to prevent any Iran-West diplomatic compromise, which will give Tehran a free hand to enhance its regional influence and maintain a robust nuclear infrastructure.
So far, after several rounds of high-level negotiations between Iran and World powers, or the so-called P5+1, followed by mid-level technical discussions, the fate of the negotiations is still in limbo. At this juncture, the only agreement, specifically between Iran and the European Union (EU), is a provisional understanding on allowing the talks to continue until the atmosphere of negotiations takes a qualitative shift – perhaps after the conclusion of upcoming American presidential elections.
Looking at the dynamics of recent nuclear talks, what is increasingly clear is that there are two essential conditions for diplomacy to work: (a) Proper timing, meaning parties are given sufficient time to consolidate their negotiating positions and prepare the domestic political environment for any prospective deal; and (b) Flexibility in negotiations, meaning the willingness of both parties to trade enough concessions to strike an acceptable and workable compromise.
Israel’s “threat of action” – buttressed by a vociferous pro-sanctions lobby in Washington and Europe- has undermined the realization of both conditions, which are so crucial for the peaceful resolution of the Iranian crisis.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Phillipines-based foreign affairs analyst specializing on Iran and international security.
(Copyright 2012 Richard Javad Heydarian.)
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online’s regular contributors.