Anyone eagerly awaiting an Iran-US “great game” had better brace themselves for a potential long-term match postponement.
American President Barack Obama was elected to end and avoid future Middle East conflicts, not begin them, as demonstrated by the Syrian chemical weapons crisis and the American-Russian “diplomatic solution.”
The only Middle East imbroglio Obama has shown any inclination to engage in – apart from a very robust campaign against al-Qaeda involving drones and covert actions – is Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Obama has drawn a seemingly simple red line: “Iran must not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons.” But what looks at first glance like black letter clarity turns out, on second thought, to be somewhat murky. At least two key terms in that formula – “possess” and “nuclear weapons” – require defining.
Obama has insisted Iran must not build a nuclear weapon. By contrast, Israel insists Iran must not be capable of building nuclear weapons. Obama’s policy, while somewhat murky, nonetheless commits the United States to military action against the Iranian nuclear program at some point if Iran continues to proceed toward greater enrichment and weaponization of uranium.
Obama has pursued a policy of sanctions and repeated offers of diplomatic solutions. Over time, the sanctions took a heavy toll on the Iranian economy, to the point that those who had warned that they would be ineffective have almost certainly been proven wrong.
Enter new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
He presented himself as a reformist, especially on foreign policy. He has a broad mandate from the Iranian people who seem to blame their own government, more than the West, for the sanctions.
He claims the full backing of the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and both have said, unconvincingly, that Iran does not want a nuclear weapon.
Obama, naturally, would prefer to forestall this potential crisis and pass it along to his successors.
Even the military option itself can only be a temporary and delaying factor, since Iran – if it is absolutely bound and determined to do so – can and will eventually become a nuclear power. The only long-term solutions would be regime change – with a new Iranian government that is either internationally trusted or abandons nuclear ambitions – or North Korea-style “containment.”
So it’s not a matter of cowardice or weakness on the part of Obama to seek an agreement that essentially freezes Iranian nuclear research and development in its tracks, or slows it to a snail’s pace for the remainder of his term. It is actually the best plausible scenario for himself politically and for American foreign policy.
It would then be up to his successor to try to maintain this pattern of deterrence and thereby continue to avoid a confrontation nobody relishes.
At the start of his second term, Obama appointed a foreign policy team –John Kerry, Chuck Hagel and John Brennan – now augmented by Susan Rice and Samantha Power, that seemed that the time, and now looks even more, like a group assembled specifically with the Iranian problem in mind: “We will offer you the best deal you’ll ever get.”
Rouhani has matched Obama appointee by appointee. He has crafted a team ideally suited to dialogue with the West. Not only is he a striking contrast with the buffoonish Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, he appointed a group of reformers and technocrats to lead his government, most notably Mohammad Javad Zarif as Foreign Minister and Ali Akbar Salehi to once again head Iran’s nuclear program.
The contrast in tone and substance from the Ahmadinejad era is striking.
However, even a strategic shift would not necessarily mean Iran is ready to abandon or even suspend its nuclear program. But it might, in order to end the crippling sanctions and international and regional isolation, be willing to strike a deal with the Obama administration that essentially freezes things as they are.
There is a potential for a temporary win-win scenario for Iran and the United States here. The Syria chemical weapons agreement might even be a kind of trial run for what can be accomplished between the United States and Iran.
And in both cases, the credible threat of military force remaining on the table will be essential for diplomatic solutions to special weapons conundrums in order to have any hope of success.
Neither the diplomatic nor the military solution will work unless Iran voluntarily abandons its nuclear ambitions or is accepted as a trusted member of the international community. Both seem remote possibilities.
But both governments are strongly signaling they feel it is in their interests to postpone any confrontation on the question to some future date. And it is on that basis that a US-Iranian deal has suddenly become plausible. But it’s unlikely to be an agreement that resolves the matter permanently – rather one that buys everyone time.