Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with President Obama has attracted lots of attention, mainly for his threat to use military force to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, about which the President said he is not bluffing. But what does it tell us about the prospects for a diplomatic solution to the impasse over Iran’s nuclear program? Not much, except for this key bit:
…the only way, historically, that a country has ultimately decided not to get nuclear weapons without constant military intervention has been when they themselves take [nuclear weapons] off the table. That’s what happened in Libya, that’s what happened in South Africa. And we think that, without in any way being under an illusion about Iranian intentions, without in any way being naive about the nature of that regime, they are self-interested. They recognize that they are in a bad, bad place right now. It is possible for them to make a strategic calculation that, at minimum, pushes much further to the right whatever potential breakout capacity they may have, and that may turn out to be the best decision for Israel’s security.
This is important because the President here is outlining the diplomatic solution he thinks possible, albeit in the vaguest terms.
What does he mean? Many countries have made the commitment that the President is referring to. They usually do it by signing and ratifying the Non-Proliferation Treaty (or in Latin America the Treaty of Tlatelolco) and agreeing to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. Brazil and Argentina made this commitment in the 1990s. So far as I am aware, no country has agreed to give up enrichment or reprocessing technology–it isn’t even clear what it would mean to do so, since the know-how resides in scientists’ brains and not in any given physical plant.
The trouble with Iran is that it has already signed and ratified the NPT, and apparently violated its commitments by undertaking uranium enrichment outside the inspection regime, according to the IAEA. So President Obama will be looking for additional commitments reflecting a genuine decision by Iran not to pursue nuclear weapons, presumably based on the calculation that they would be better off without them.
How could that be? Acquisition of nuclear weapons creates several security dilemmas for Tehran: the United States will target Iran (we have foresworn first use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states, but not against nuclear weapons states), Israel will not only target Iran but also launch on warning, and other countries in the Middle East (Saudi Arabia, Egypt?) are likely to begin seriously to pursue nuclear weapons. Acquiring enrichment technology but giving up the nuclear option would provide Iran with a good deal of prestige without creating as many problems.
U.S. intelligence leaks this past week claim that Iran has not in fact made the decision to acquire nuclear weapons, thus leaving the door open to an agreement along the lines the President seems to be suggesting. Iran would have to agree to rigorous and comprehensive IAEA inspections as well as a limit on the degree of enrichment it would undertake well below weapons grade, which is 90 per cent and above.
The question is whether the internal politics of the three countries most directly involved (United States, Iran and Israel) will allow an agreement along these lines. As Martin Indyk points out, they are engaged in a vicious cycle game of chicken: Israel threatens military action, the U.S. ratchets up sanctions to forestall it, Iran doubles down on the nuclear program, causing the Israelis to threaten even more….
If war is to be avoided, someone has to break this cycle, putting a deal on the table. Daniel Levy suggests that Netanyahu is not really committed to Israeli military action but is trying to stiffen Obama’s spine. Obama is constrained because of the American elections from appearing soft on Iran. He has to appear ready and willing to use military force, especially when he appears before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) tomorrow and then meets with Netanyahu Monday.
This leaves a possible initiative to Tehran, which is free to move now that the parliamentary elections have been held. They are likely to mark a defeat for President Ahmedinejad, who has appeared to be the Iranian official most willing to deal on the nuclear program in recent months. Supreme Leader Khamenei is more committed to the game of chicken. He may even think nuclear weapons are necessary to his regime’s survival, a conclusion Indyk thinks is rational in light of what has happened with North Korea on the one hand and Libya on the other.
I have no doubt President Obama is not bluffing, even if he is also trying to leave the door open to a diplomatic denouement. But of course Khamenei could come to the opposite conclusion. Even a successful bombing of its nuclear program will increase Iran’s commitment to getting nuclear weapons, without setting it back more than a year or so from the goal. Let’s hope one or the other–better both–decide to blink and cut a deal that ends Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions definitively and avoids a military effort that will have to be repeated at shorter intervals for a long time to come.