Cold feet over striking Iran

Given the economic cost of war, the West may be toning down its carrot-and-stick attempts to bring Tehran to heel

Cold feet over striking Iran
Image Credit: Illustration: Ramachandra Babu/©Gulf News
Gulf News

Signs point to the US and its European allies in the process of adopting an ‘if you can't beat ‘em, join ‘em' stance vis-à-vis their long-time stand-off with Tehran over its nuclear programme, one that is starkly out of sync with Israel's.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has written off the Iranian engagement with P5+1 as a deliberate time-wasting exercise on Iran's part. The last thing Netanyahu wants is an agreement that would bring Tehran back into the international fold, which is how the cookie may be crumbling.

On Friday, US President Barack Obama hosted the leaders of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Japan, Italy and Canada at a two-day G8 summit at Camp David to discuss various global topics of concern including Iran. Obama reiterated G8 worries about Iran's failure to convince the international community that it wasn't pursuing nuclear weapons but, on this occasion, added a positive note. "We're hopeful we can resolve this issue in a peaceful fashion with respect to Iran that recognises their sovereignty but also recognises their responsibilities."

A strong indication that the tide may be turning in Iran's favour was the absence of US sabre-rattling, in particular no mention that all options are on the table. On the contrary, the US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta took the moment to declare that the US is not weighing a military option at this juncture in direct challenge to a message from the US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro that "a US military option is at the ready".

Of course, Panetta's statement may have been little more than wise diplomacy geared towards a cordial atmosphere when representatives of the US, Britain, France, Germany and China hold talks with the Iranian leadership in Baghdad tomorrow.

Much depends on whether Iranian leaders genuinely covet detente. Sanctions are cutting deep into the Iranian economy and have propelled Iran's currency into freefall. Iran is currently managing to ride the storm, but the situation is poised to worsen in July when American and European sanctions on the country's oil industry are due to take effect.

Yukiya Amano, director-general of nuclear watchdog the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), was scheduled to travel to Tehran for discussions with the chief Iranian negotiator yesterday over increased access to ‘suspicious' sites such as Parchin, which Iran insists is a military base and is, therefore, outside the IAEA's inspection remit.

In the event Parchin opens its doors to weapons inspectors, this would be a clear indicator of the Iranian government's new willingness to compromise. Parallel with progress on the diplomatic front, relations between Iran and the IAEA seem to be warming. A meeting between Iranian and IAEA officials held in Vienna last week was characterised as "a good exchange of views".

Saturday's New York Times quoted senior Obama administration officials as saying "the United States and five other major powers are prepared to offer Iran a series of incentives to suspend its efforts to enrich uranium", as a gesture to encourage Iran's compliance with western demands without losing face.

From America's perspective, some kind of accommodation with the Iranians, viewed in Israel and elsewhere as shaking hands with the devil, may be the only viable option since repercussions from military strikes on Iran are unfathomable. One thing is certain. War would tip still struggling global economies teetering at the brink down into the abyss.

Moreover, just as the West's hands are bound by Russia over the ongoing bloodbath in Syria, the same applies to Iran. Last Thursday, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev told delegates attending a conference in St Petersburg that "hasty military operations in foreign states usually bring radicals to power", adding, "At some point such actions which undermine state sovereignty may lead to a full-scale regional war, even, although I do not want to frighten anyone, with the use of nuclear weapons".

It's interesting that just a week ago, the usually gung-ho RAND Corporation, an influential think-tank known to advise the Pentagon, advises against attacking Iran on the basis that strikes would be detrimental to Israel's security, might propel Iran to develop nuclear weapons if it's not already doing so — and would increase pro-Iranian sympathies "in newly democratising societies, such as Egypt, where public opinion has become less fettered".

The report recommends that the Obama administration should try to "quietly influence the internal Israeli discussion over the use of military force".

For all parties concerned with the ongoing carrot-and-stick attempts to bring Tehran to heel, time is of the essence. Everything could change on a dime if a Mitt Romney gets his feet under the Oval Office desk. He has accused Obama of being too soft on Iran. "While Obama frets in the white House, the Iranians are making rapid progress towards obtaining the most destructive weapons in the history of the world," Romney wrote recently.

Electioneering rhetoric for his conservative base, the pro-Israel lobby and the messianic Christians he's struggling to woo? Maybe! But unless diplomacy results in an agreement, signed, sealed and delivered well before the end of the year, there's a good chance we'll find out.

 

Linda S. Heard is a specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She can be contacted at lheard@gulfnews.com. Some of the comments may be considered for publication.

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