In the latest in a series of New York Times front-page features on U.S. policy toward Iran based on anonymous sources within the administration, the newspaper proclaimed today the chances of armed conflict with the Islamist state had markedly declined. The unnamed American officials did no more than state the obvious when they noted that the current diplomatic process initiated this month in Istanbul which will recommence in Baghdad after a long break in late May has made it less likely that anyone would attack Iran anytime soon. However, presenting this conclusion as an objective analysis begs the point. The reason why “the temperature has cooled,” as one anonymous Obama administration put it, is not because the West is any closer to actually persuading the Iranians to desist from their nuclear ambitions. Rather, it is the result of policies that have no larger goal than to ensure that there will be no confrontation over the nuclear issue during the president’s campaign.
None of the factors the administration officials put forward as evidence of a cooling of tensions give much hope of securing a non-nuclear Iran. The sanctions, diplomacy and the encouragement of dissent within Israel against the Netanyahu government aren’t likely to convince the Iranians they have no choice but to give up. Though the sanctions are taking their toll on the Iranian economy, that hasn’t stopped Iran’s nuclear program, and its Islamist leadership have every confidence they can outfox Obama and his partners in the P5+1 talks as they have in the past without giving up anything valuable. These factors all have a more immediate goal: rendering any attack on Iran out of the question, and thus enabling the president to face the voters without either a huge spike in oil prices or another Middle East conflict.
As the Times points out, a couple of months ago when the president said he did not consider containment of a nuclear Iran a viable policy, speculation about the use of force against Iran skyrocketed. But by holding out hope for a “window of diplomacy,” Obama has given himself a convenient escape hatch from his ringing rhetoric on the topic. The negotiations merely provide Iran more time to continue refining uranium with impunity so long as the talks continue. The reports emanating from Tehran about the ayatollahs being willing to compromise is exactly what the person who is running the talks — E.U. foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton — wants to hear. All the positive atmospherics may make it possible to drag out the process all through the spring and summer if not the fall.
The Europeans are desperate for any sign of give on the Iranians’ part that will provide them with the excuse to back off their threat of an embargo of Iranian oil. And both the administration and the Iranians have the shared goal of keeping the talking going until after the November election when the president might have the “flexibility” to reconsider his promises.
As for the criticism against Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu from within his country’s security establishment, that is not something that is likely to affect his decision making process for a couple of reasons.
First, though Netanyahu’s concerns about the futility of the P5+1 talks are justified, there is very little chance that he would order a strike on Iran while they continue. An Israeli attack on Iran, assuming one ever happens, will only be possible during a period when there is no ongoing diplomatic process. Second, even if he were free to act now, it isn’t likely that the carping of a few disgruntled former officials would stop him. While the Israeli public would prefer an international coalition to take on Iran rather than to do it alone, Netanyahu knows he has public support for a proactive policy so long as he can show there is no alternative.
In this context, it is important to note that Netanyahu may choose to move up Israel elections to the fall from next year. With another mandate from the people (and polls show him to be an overwhelming favorite to lead the next government), he will have even more freedom to do as he thinks best.
But as even the Times noted this morning, Obama has potentially laid a trap for himself by embracing the P5+1 talks. Though it is possible the Iranians will be clever enough to string the West along for many months, they have also shown they are just as fond of embarrassing their diplomatic partners by reneging on their commitments or by simply refusing to go on negotiating. Though a break in diplomacy is seemingly not in their interests, it wouldn’t be unusual for them to seek to confuse or flummox the West by cutting the process off at some point. If they do, then Obama will be faced with the choice of reneging on his promises to stop Iran or to act. If that moment comes before November, it will be a very difficult choice indeed.