The Iran Quagmire

March, 2012
By Ambika Vishwanath

In 2009, when Iran held its last round of national elections, it resulted in wide protests, detentions and the house arrest of two presidential candidates. Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is widely believed to have stolen the presidency. At the time of writing this article, Iran would have gone through another round of elections, giving the country a chance to elect a new parliament. The outcome of the elections will take some time to be known, but given the dearth of reformists on the ballot, it will only be a battle between the conservatives. A battle between supporters of President Ahmedinejad, and those who feel he has lost favour with the Ayatollah. It is also these elections that should determine the course of action of the international community with regards to the nuclear debate. The decision to go nuclear is more political than military and a new parliament will influence that decision, which ultimately rests with the Ayatollah. 

It is no secret that Iran has continued to enrich uranium, while practicing denial and deception and playing for time. Today it seems that the last resort of a military assault on Iran is imminent. Israel has been making all the noises, indicating that a strike as early as April is possible. The top leadership in the United States has attempted to curtail these noises, but beyond a point Washington cannot prevent a unilateral decision from Tel Aviv. And any attack from Israel will be followed by the Iranians retaliating, as they must, launching counter attacks from their own country as well as via their supporters in Hamas and Hezbollah. A call to arms against the west and the Jewish community will go up around the world and there is no way of judging how many terror cells will awaken. Even if America stays on the sidelines, its silence will be perceived as complicity and Iran, directly or through proxies, will go after American bases, oil installations and allies in the Gulf. The future could be catastrophic at best. 

In the immediate short term it is very important to think about the morning and days after. It is extremely unlikely that Israel will succeed in destroying all of Iran’s nuclear facilities, for the simple reason that many are still unknown and some of the more important facilities like Fordow are invulnerable to an attack. A direct attack will only serve to motivate the government to rally more support and legitimacy to the programme, reinforcing the ideology that a nuclear weapon is needed as a form of deterrence. Such an attack will only set the country back by a decade at the most. Iran is an extremely sophisticated country with well educated elite that has strong national tendencies, and even those sitting on the fence or the ones who quietly denounce the president will rally behind him. 

On the other hand, Iran, armed with a bomb, would pose a deep threat. Even if one were convinced that they only want the ability to build a bomb for protection, it will spur Saudi Arabia, Egypt and perhaps even Turkey to move in that direction. Many fear that this race could make the region even less stable. 

A potential way to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons is for the international community to craft a deal that the Iranians cannot refuse. A deal where Iran would agree to stop after achieving a nuclear-weapons capability; while the world’s leading powers would agree to reintegrate Iran into the international community by dropping sanctions, unfreezing assets and admitting Iran into the World Trade Organization. Utopian perhaps, and most certainly extremely difficult. But faced with the other two alternatives of an armed Iran or a full scale attack, this is the only viable option left to the international community.

The Russians, an old, sometimes warm ally of Iran, with the most to lose or gain are warily watching the game unfold. For them both options of a nuclear Iran or another US war so close to home are worrisome. Russian diplomats also believe that more stringent sanctions won’t necessarily affect the nuclear programme, as previous sanctions have not stemmed the flow of money to the research and scientific community. But these sanctions do hurt the public and serve to sow discontent against the regime. With a 70 percent decline of the economy in the last few weeks, and 22.5 percent inflation, the country has turned into an all cash economy with bags of currency being shipped over from Dubai, creating a greater bugle in corruption. The President has also been called by the Supreme Council and the parliament to explain the state of affairs. With Syria in a crisis, Iran has an uncertain ally in Assad, which should be taken advantage of. 

Diplomacy, it would seem, should be given more weight and another sustained chance. Any diplomatic negotiation will have to present a solution that presents Iran with credible choices and confidence building measures; it will also have to go beyond involving the members of 5+1. And therein lies one of the most difficult problems. The simple fact that there are clear internal differences between the 5+1, as well as with the Arab countries and others such as Turkey and China, will make any future negotiations and agreement extremely difficult. While it is clear that the existence of an offer does not guarantee success, conversely the failure of a clear credible solution will definitely guarantee failure. 

The Iranian view of diplomacy is largely to divide, delay and divert, while creating fait accompli for a bargaining chance. And the vocabulary in the nuclear negotiations is all about resistance and steadfastness, very much the vocabulary of the war, which was about holding out and resisting outside pressure. The international community must not allow the country to delay and divert and must use the opportunity presented by the Iranian Foreign Minister’s request to the EU for a meeting. But before there is any meeting with Iran, the parties involved must come to some form of agreement to prevent Iran from using the discord amongst them to its advantage. The period following the parliamentary elections in Iran will be crucial to both the regime in the country and America and the EU. If this window of opportunity is lost, the western world should start preparing their defences while Israel prepares the offensive.

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