As Assassination Plot Becomes a Sideshow, U.S.-Iran Tensions Hinge on the Nuclear Issue

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Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad tours the Natanz nuclear plant, 2007 (Photo: EPA)

A used car salesman, a Mexican narco snitch, and an Iranian spook walk into a bar. What is this, says the ex-CIA barman, some kind of a joke?

Let’s just say that the ostensibly Iranian plot to blow up Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Washington is not yet proving to be the smoking gun that allows the Obama Administration to rally uncommitted governments to the cause of isolating Tehran. Sure, the Saudis have brought the matter to the attention of the U.N. Security Council, although they have not as yet indicated that they intend to call for any specific response. But with skepticism rife even in Washington about this plot having been authorized by the Iranian leadership, the narco-proxy terror scheme may not change the minds of Russia, China, Turkey and other opponents of any new sanctions. After being briefed on the plot by U.S. diplomats, those countries and others have said they want more information before making up their minds — as have the Iranians, although Tehran has also tossed out a curveball by suggesting that the fugitive accused in the case is, in fact, an operative of the Mujahedeen e-Khalq, an exiled opposition group currently listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department.

But the Administration is reportedly unlikely to provide further evidence, for fear of compromising sources and methods.

So, as things stand, the Saudi ambassador plot looks unlikely to be a game-changer. Of course, the same hawkish crowd in Washington that agitated for the Iraq invasion are demanding military action against Iran, but despite President Obama’s tough talk last week about imposing “the toughest sanctions” and keeping the proverbial “all options” on the table, it’s the five-year nuclear stalemate, rather than the alleged assassination plot, that will frame the international response to Iran.

Iran’s continued enrichment of uranium in defiance of U.N. Security Council demands for a suspension until it can satisfy concerns over its intent to the satisfaction of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has been defined by the U.S. as a key strategic challenge — and it’s on that issue that Washington will hope to bring new sanctions pressure to bear.

The U.S. is reportedly pushing the IAEA to release classified information that purports to show Iran doing design, theoretical and experimental work on what could be components for a nuclear tipped missile. While the IAEA has raised suspicions over the purpose and lack of transparency of some of Iran’s nuclear activity, it continues to certify that no nuclear material has been diverted for military purposes thus far. The Obama Administration is clearly pushing the U.N. agency to more clearly align itself unambiguously with the view of those countries accusing Iran of using its civilian nuclear activities as cover for a secret weapons program. But pressing for the IAEA to give its imprimatur to intelligence reportedly garnered from Western intelligence agencies that supports a more damning conclusion on Iran’s intent is a risky strategy: The bogus intelligence on Iraq presented to the U.N. Security Council by former Secretary of State Colin Powell to make a case for war is fresh in the memory of much of the international community. Iran insists the documents that Obama wants released are forgeries. Countries such as Russia, China and Turkey which oppose Iran developing nuclear weapons but don’t believe there is any evidence as yet that Tehran is doing so are very much in play. But Washington risks a backlash to the extent that is perceived to be trying to pressure the IAEA into as doing U.S. bidding.

The Washington Post, meanwhile, reports that Iran’s nuclear program is beset by technical setbacks, amid breakdowns in its centrifuges, the assassination of four top scientists, and the after effects of the stuxnet computer worm that attacked its systems last year. “Without question they have been set back,” former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq David Albright told the paper. And most importantly, this “hurt Iran’s ability to break out quickly” — Iran is not believed to be currently building nuclear weapons, but instead to be assembling the means to do so relatively quickly if it chooses to break out of the non-proliferation regime.

Still, with the U.S. going into an election year no closer to its goal of stopping Iran enriching uranium than it was the last time Americans voted, expect to see President Obama’s rivals present it as a minutes-to-midnight scenario on which the incumbent’s own policy has failed. The flip side of the public displays of affection for Israel that are now de rigeur on the U.S. campaign trail, is talking tough on Iran. And that’s exactly what President Obama has been doing over the past week, warning of “the toughest sanctions” and “all options” (code for military action) remaining on the table.

But Iran is also entering an election year, with a parliamentary poll in March followed by presidential elections early in 2013, and no change in Tehran’s nuclear stance is likely before then — if at all. As things stand, the cost-benefit analysis of Iran’s leaders appear to dictate that they hold firm. A rhetorical hardening of positions on both sides is  therefore the likely outcome in the near term, as the President outflanks his rival by making the more confrontational posture on Iran his own, while over in Iran, conservatives in Iran look to unite the fractious regime against an external threat

Neither side wants a war, of course, which would have potentially devastating effects on Iran, and prompt potentially catastrophic consequences for the world economy and for the fragile stability of the Middle East. And until now, each side has assumed that the other shares this aversion to a confrontation. But Iran and the U.S. have a desperately poor record of understanding each other’s intentions, and it’s far from unthinkable that a posture of escalation on both sides could see them stumble towards a place neither had intended to take things.