Why the Arab Spring Has Failed to Thaw the Iran Nuclear Standoff

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The Arab Spring has, over the past five months, largely eclipsed the Iran nuclear standoff on the global agenda — and that may have come as a relief from a strategic headache for Western decision-makers. Because as the issue begins to make its way back into the headlines, the stalemate is more entrenched than ever.

New sanctions legislation is currently making its way through Congress, and the U.S. is expected to push for a tightening of U.N. Security Council measures aimed at forcing Iran to suspend enrichment of uranium in order to satisfy the transparency requirements of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA’s latest report raises new questions about aspects of Iran’s program, warning that failure to cooperate in resolving them would prevent the agency from allaying suspicions of possible military intent in a nuclear program Tehran insists is simply for energy purposes. But Russia is pressing in the opposite direction, urging an easing of sanctions in order to create a climate for a diplomatic solution.

Despite the unprecedented sanctions the Obama Administration has put in place, Iran is not backing down. Successive rounds of negotiation between Western diplomats over the past year have yielded no progress, and no further talks are currently scheduled. Despite the economic pressure of sanctions and domestic policy mismanagement, Tehran’s ability to withstand economic pressure buoyed by rising oil prices — and by its expanding economic ties with some of the more dynamic centers of the global economy right now, such as China, Turkey and Brazil.

Except in the case of the challenge to its Syrian ally, President Bashar al-Assad, the  Arab Spring has been welcomed in Tehran. It has weakened pro-Western Arab autocrats allied with the U.S.-Israeli narrative of Iran as a rising danger to the Arab world, while the newly empowered Arab public has never bought into that schema. Egypt’s decision to restore diplomatic relations with Iran may be emblematic of where things are headed in the region: Not that Egypt has become an ally of Iran, or accepts Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons, but that it has followed the example of Turkey in breaking from the U.S.-led strategy to resolve the issue .

So, Iran  believes — not without reason — that time is on its side in the stalemate

Tehran’s assessment would likely be shared by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who used his recent speech to a joint session of the House and Senate to raise the urgency of confronting Iran: “Time is running out, and the hinge of history may soon turn. For the greatest danger facing humanity could soon be upon us: A militant Islamic regime armed with nuclear weapons.”

Netanyahu warned that only fear  of military action would force Iran to back down on its nuclear program. “The more Iran believes that all options are on the table, the less the chance of confrontation.” He urged the U.S. to send a clear message implying that force was preferable to failure in stopping Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and warned ominously that “Israel always reserves the right to defend itself.”

Netanyahu may have been hailed on Capitol Hill, but his belligerent talk on Iran drew a sharp public rebuke from a surprising quarter: Meir Dagan, recently retired as head of the Mossad intelligence service, last week again warned Israel’s leaders against any military strike on Iran — an option he had earlier described as “the stupidest thing I ever heard.” Dagan warned that a military strike wouldn’t eliminate Iran’s nuclear program, only delay it and propel Tehran’s leadership to rush ahead and build nuclear weapons. Right now, of course, the U.S. and Israeli intelligence assessment is that Iran’s leaders have not yet taken the fateful strategic decision to build a nuclear weapon, even if they’re working aggressively to attain the means to implement such a decision.

Dagan also warned that attacking Iran would create an “unbearable” security challenge by “dragging Israel into a regional war that it would not know how to get out of. ” The fact that Dagan has now twice spoken out publicly against what he perceives would be a catastrophic mistake by a government in whose sobriety and leadership he has made clear that he doubts, has some worried that an Israeli strike on Iran may be under consideration in Israel — although he stressed that he knew of no plans for such an attack in the next two years.

The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh last week caused a minor furor by comparing what he called the  “discrepancy between the available intelligence and what many in the White House and Congress believe to be true” about Iran to the Iraq WMD debacle. While the White House has pushed back, with one senior official telling Politico.com that “[A]ll you need to read to be deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program is the substantial body of information already in the public domain, including the most recent IAEA report”, the problem facing those making the harshest case against Iran is that it is based primarily on intent — that Iran is steadily accumulating the means to build nuclear weapons if it chooses to, and that some of the technologies it is testing don’t appear to have any relevance to a nuclear energy program.

But the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, as delivered to the Senate Intelligence Committee by Director of National Intelligence Admiral James Clapper in February is that Iran is “keeping the option open to develop nuclear weapons, in part by developing various nuclear capabilities that better position it to produce such weapons, should it choose to do so. We do not know, however, if Iran will eventually decide to build nuclear weapons.”

And, it’s a lot harder, outside of Washington, to present Iran as a “grave and gathering danger” when what it’s doing is using the ambiguities of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to put the nuclear weapon option within reach — as Japan, for example, has done — but not yet exercising that option. Indeed, even while Iran resists cooperating with a number of IAEA inquiries, its production of nuclear fuel, while in defiance of Security Council resolutions, is undertaken under the scrutinty of IAEA inspectors, who continue to certify that none of it has been diverted into any covert program.

Clapper’s more important point to the senators, however, was that  “Iran’s nuclear decision-making is guided by a cost-benefit approach, which offers the international community opportunities to influence Tehran” and that Iran’s leadership “undoubtedly consider Iran’s security, prestige and influence, as well as the international political and security environment when making decisions about its nuclear program.”

That conclusion prompts hawks to argue for tougher economic sanctions and military threats, while others suggest that dissuading Iran from building nuclear weapons would require a ‘grand bargain’ in which regime-change is taken off the table. But even that debate may be rendered moot by the arcane power struggle within Iran’s corridors of power, between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei. The nuclear program has long been a point of consensus across Iran’s political spectrum, and prospects for any strategic shift in Tehran’s foreign policy are even more unlikely now that the clerical Supreme Leader appears to be locked in mortal political combat with the controversial president.

On the basis of the current options, the Iran nuclear standoff, in fact, looks  set to join the Middle East peace process in Washington’s list of intractable foreign policy challenges.