Iran beginning of 2012: diplomacy or war?

By: Torgeir E. Fjærtoft

Most foreign policy analyses are flawed. They discuss issues and options on their own merit, as if actors’ behaviour were guided by our perceptions rather than their own. Actual behaviour is shaped by two factors: the actors’ motivation and their perceptions of constraints, external as well as domestic. To understand, we must try to enter their minds, admittedly a speculative venture.

The policy and the capacity of the United States remain the factors that weigh most heavily in the power equations of all regional actors in the Middle East. What motivation and sense of constraint is currently driving President Obama’s policy towards Iran? His number one concern is probably stopping nuclear proliferation, to discourage other countries in the region from acquiring their own nuclear arms in response to the Iranian nuclear program, which must therefore be stopped.  A nuclear balance of terror between Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey (already host to US nuclear arms under NATO) and possibly others would be unstable and dangerous, placing at risk vital but vulnerably energy sources as well as the countries themselves.
He probably sees the Iranian rebuff of his original offer of reconciliation in the light of the domestic power struggle in Iran which makes any change of policy extremely difficult to bring about. Obama’s original rhetoric failed to change Iran’s threatening behaviour, but a credible threat of attack could hopefully shake the current Iranian perception of superiority and impregnability sufficiently to induce contending factions to compromise. In other words, since Obama’s speech failed to change Iranian motivation, he now tries to change the Iranian perception of constraints.
Should also this last-ditch attempt at coercive diplomacy fail, he will resort to force. He has no hesitation about this, should diplomatic options fail. Obama has stated that he is influenced by the so-called “Christian realism” of Reinhold Niebuhr whose central message is that there is evil in the world that needs to be fought, but in a humble spirit. Nuclear arms are definitely evil.
His acceptance speech when he received the Nobel Peace Prize was held in the spirit of Niebuhr. He would as US President use military force when necessary (“Wanting peace is in itself rarely enough to bring it about”). But he will calibrate his use of force. Military experts point out that even an underground plant can be incapacitated by a small charge collapsing the entrance and destroying machinery, such as centrifuges, by shock waves.
Obama’s own constraints are
•    His potentially limited time-window created by the presidential campaign since he could lose the election. The bad record of the massive and costly, but largely failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by Obama’s Republican predecessor and the rhetoric of his Republican opponents, probably adds a sense of urgency to stopping the Iranian nuclear program lest a new Republican President once more resort to extreme policies that could create worse problems than those they set out to solve.
•    The twofold challenge by Israel: the need of any US president to neutralize the Israeli lobby against him in Congress and the US public, and in the current policy predicament prevent unilateral Israeli attack on Iran which could force him to deal with Iran in a different, more violent scenario, in which Israeli vulnerabilities could force him to conduct more comprehensive operations.
•    The need for Iran as a constructive partner in a post-conflict phase to stabilize the vital energy supplies of Saudi Arabia and Iran itself. Also for the political stability of Iraq and Afghanistan after US withdrawal is Iran’s cooperation needed since such stability can only be achieved by cooperation of the regional powers.

To overcome these constraints he has no alternative but to prepare surgical strikes, first as pressure and then, should that fail, as the ultimate recourse. However, to succeed coercive diplomacy and, if unavoidable, attack, need to be followed by military restraint and crisis diffusing diplomacy providing incentives for cooperation.

In Iran, the currently two main rivals, supreme leader Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad, by all appearances share the motivation of a combination of a revolutionary Islamic and anti-Imperialist ideology, and traditional nationalistic quest for power, prestige and recognition. The overriding concern of both is the protection of the revolutionary Islamic regime in Iran.
Their expansionist revolutionary vision is therefore constrained by their perception of any serious risk to the regime their ideology may give rise to. But they appear to differ over whether the nuclear program has reached that stage yet. When President Ahmadinejad initiated a compromise with the concerned outside world fall of 2009, the deal came to naught because the Supreme Leader Khamenei failed to support him when the President’s rivals seized the opportunity to undercut his position.  In fact, the main constraints perceived by any Iranian actor, may be even the Supreme Leader himself, is presumably the intense domestic power struggles which make anyone proposing to depart from the current course, e.g. the nuclear program, vulnerable to attack by rivals.
After all, an Iranian politician advocating compromise on the nuclear program will be faced by the argument that, seen from Teheran, the current pressure they experience along with their reading of the Libyan experience (Kaddafi toppled by Western military intervention after he had given in to pressure to renounce his nuclear program) combine to form persuasive arguments for nuclear arms as guarantee against forced regime change. Also, as in any nuclear state, there will be powerful vested interests behind a nuclear program, which offers position, prestige and income to those involved.
The crucial question now is whether the Supreme Leader Khamenei will have the power to change course, should he decide that compromise would be the smarter course for Iran. Despite whatever policy assets he may see in nuclear arms, the constraint may dawn on him that Iran will be stopped in its nuclear program because as the program progresses, the concerned outside world will increasingly see the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms, including the risks of proliferation, as worse than the collateral risks of a limited, surgical attack, should failed diplomacy leave the world with those options. Consequently, whatever the Iranian motivations for the nuclear program, nuclear arms will not be an option for regime protection. The only chance for diplomacy in the current confrontation is that the Supreme Leader and hopefully contending factions in Iran will be brought around to see compromise and a degree of cooperation as the only viable options for protecting the Islamic, revolutionary regime.

Saudi Arabia
The Royal Family, the governing political elite of Saudi Arabia, is motivated by deep-seated suspicions and resentment of Iran, a sentiment shared by the majority of Saudis and consequently an integral part of the regime’s political legitimacy. These resentments are partly due to the religious Sunni / Shia divide, partly political because of the declared Iranian revolutionary intent to overthrow the pro-Western Saudi royal family.
But those of the Royal Family in responsible policy positions are known to differ over how to weigh the perceived Iranian threat against the constraints on Saudi anti-Iran policies. The King has blamed the US for invading the wrong country in 2003, toppling the stable Sunni regime in Iraq instead of the revolutionary Shia regime in Teheran, urging them to “cut off the snake’s head, not its tail”. But others in the ruling elite are known to think the risks inherent in the confrontation the King seems to be seeking, outweigh the risks currently emanating from Teheran, even with the perceived Iranian encirclement by proxies of Saudi Arabia (“the Shia crescent”, or even “full moon”) .
The Saudi constraints are the potentially disastrous implications of armed conflict for the vulnerable oil production in the Eastern provinces and oil exports through the choking point of the Strait of Hormus. In addition, conflict with Iran also carries serious opportunity costs for Saudi Arabia, in need of cooperation with the revolutionary Shia enemy to exploit shared gas fields in the Gulf. This is potentially serious since gas deficiency forces the Saudis to divert export earning oil to domestic purposes, such as desalination and power production. In case of armed conflict with Iran, the Saudis also fear for their domestic stability should, as a side effect of confrontation with Teheran, Riyadh’s conflicts escalate with its Shia minority in the oil producing Eastern provinces.
The Saudi interdependence with their indispensable ally the USA constitutes another constraint on Saudi policy. (The huge Saudi arms procurements are seen partly as a conscious policy of prepositioning equipment for US forces, partly as a means to strengthen alliances by creating commercial bonds with Saudi Arabia.) With Israel the Saudis share the feeling of having been let down by President Obama in his refusal to support the Arab dictators against the revolting people of the Arab spring (leading to the first independent Saudi military action in contravention of US policy, the intervention in Bahrain).  But in contrast to Israel, with whom the Saudis also share the view on the Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia lacks the capacity for independent military action against Iran To compensate, in case President Obama backs down from attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, the Saudis, to retain the option of attack should they find that President Obama let them down again, even seem to have a tacit agreement with Israel to offer operational cooperation in case of an Israeli attack on Iran, over which they would have virtually no control, but for which they may have to absorb the brunt of the collateral damage of Iranian counter attacks due to vulnerability by proximity.

Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu is motivated by an overriding fear of a nuclear armed Iran, for the psychological effects it would have on Israelis, the sense of invulnerability nuclear arms could induce on Iran, daring them to more active hostilities by way of proxies such as Hizbollah and Hamas, and of course the ultimate horror of nuclear war, by accident if not by design. He apparently sees the Iranian threat in the context of the collective Jewish trauma of pogroms and the Holocaust. This sentiment is shared by practically all Israelis (although some of them will see the legitimacy the Iranian regime bestows on the Iranian Jewish minority as evidence that the issue between Israel and Iran is political, not racist).
However, there is strong disagreement in Israel, openly aired, over how to weigh the risks emanating from the Iranian nuclear program against the risks inherent in military options.  This disagreement is also reflected in conflicting views in the Israeli coalition government. As a consequence, the differences over Israel’s policy towards Iran remain unresolved at this time of writing, with Defence Minister Barak supporting the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Liebermann leading the opposition.  But since the differences are over tactics, not goals, this balance is volatile. Small changes in risk perception by individual Israeli politicians could change the balance and end the stalemate, sending off Israeli planes or cruise missiles from the Israeli submarines known to hide in the Gulf.
Israel’s constraints derive from the uncertain success of a unilateral Israeli attack and potentially disastrous effects of Iranian counter attacks, which in response to Israeli attacks could be widely perceived as legitimate defence by Israel’s neighbours, thus adding a serious political cost in the current volatile political environment of the Arab Spring.
Adding to the Israeli constraints, Israeli policy makers, with Israel’s total military and political dependence on the US, can ill afford to ignore the strong US rejection of a unilateral Israeli attack, openly and strongly voiced by the Obama administration. So far Israel has had virtually unlimited political capital in the US; no US politician would stand much chance of election without practically unconditional support of Israeli policies. But in the current American political climate, wary of new military entanglements, even US support could wither if Israel were seen to drag Americans into a new war.
To the military risks inherent in a unilateral Israeli attack cautious Israeli politicians are therefore in the current climate forced to add the combined political risk of Arab and American rejection.
But despite the fact that for these combined military and political reasons, the option of unilateral Israeli attack remains hotly contested in Israel, also in the current government, the unanimous Israeli view remains that the risks inherent in Iranian nuclear arms exceed the collateral risks of military action, unilateral, if need be. The prevailing Israeli view is that if left alone, they will go it alone.

In other words, the prospects of diplomacy versus war over the Iranian nuclear program are determined by the actors’ motivations and sense of constraints as outlined here. But the relationship between the actors is dynamic in the sense that their perceptions of constraints change by mutual influence. Therefore, the ultimate course of events cannot now be foreseen, although a US surgical strike against Iranian nuclear installations seems the more probable scenario at this time of writing. With the strong commitment by President Obama to prevent Iranian nuclear arms, a commitment shared by all possible alternative Presidents as well as US allies, Iran will be forced to change its current nuclear program. This will be an important victory for the efforts to reverse the dangerous current trend towards nuclear proliferation.


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