Expect no major changes other than possibly some moderation in positions. Iran will continue enhancing its nuclear program, but probably not actually assemble a warhead. The US will continue using negotiations and sanctions to try to dissuade Tehran from deploying atomic weapons. Perhaps even Iran “breaking out” may not result in US taking military action.
Three days after winning re-election US President Barack Obama wrote to the Congress: “I have determined that it is necessary to continue the national emergency declared on November 14, 1979, with respect to Iran, beyond November 14, 2012.” Less than two weeks later, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei chided, in a speech to the Basij or volunteer paramilitary: “Does America have the right to put itself in the position of prosecutors of other nations and governments? This is a shameless claim. The same is true of France and England.”
The United States and its allies have clashed with the Islamic Republic of Iran for thirty-three years with no end to tensions let alone normalization of relations in sight. Yet, despite all the harsh talk and posturing, neither side wishes the nuclear issue to trigger warfare.
The US Stance
The decision to continue the state of emergency vis-à-vis Iran notwithstanding, President Obama was re-elected on a platform that includes continuing his actions toward fully ending American ground wars in the Middle East and West Asia. Likewise his administration has publically committed itself at the United Nations General Assembly to resolving the nuclear problem with Iran through non-military means like “greater pressure and isolation.”
Although not ruling out the use of force, the US government has been utilizing a strategy that combines sanctions—against Iranian governmental agencies, institutions, subsidies, and officials—with multi-national negotiations that also involve the EU and IAEA. A moderate approach has increasingly been offered, with warnings against “too much loose talk of war.”
The US administration has taken this path even though decades of crippling restrictions have not forced Tehran’s leaders to yield to the West’s will. And years of negotiations have bought them time to enhance nuclear and conventional weapons technologies while diversifying and fortifying strategic locations to better protect from attack. In addition when the US and its partners like Israel mount cyber and other covert operations that hinder Iran’s progress, Tehran retaliates using similar methods.
But the US is facing socioeconomic retrenchment at home. US politicians, diplomats, generals, and intellectuals are divided as to whether attacking Iran would result in a swift victory or draw their nation into another protracted and unwinnable war. Many Americans are not convinced that military strikes are necessary or would be effective, whether conducted by the US or Israel or even with UN Security Council authorization, unless absolutely necessary for domestic security.
Likewise, among America’s allies, substantial numbers of Europeans are reluctant for their nations to join the US in a war against Iran even while recognizing the Islamic Republic’s unsettling roles in nuclear proliferation and terrorist sponsorship. Several EU states have widespread unemployment and diminishing fiscal resources—and so citizens there, like their American counterparts, feel domestic issues need to take precedence over international ones.
Customarily rivals of the US on the global scene, Russia and China, on the other hand, have long held to a policy of not intervening militarily, regard sanctions as largely counterproductive, and insist on negotiations as the only viable path to resolve the West’s and especially Washington’s outstanding issues with Iran. Leaders in Moscow and Beijing seem to be reflecting broad consensuses among their citizens in holding to their stance.
Iran’s Calculated Gamble
The Iranian government has not raced toward breakout nuclear capability—i.e., reaching the threshold where it can rapidly assemble a nuclear bomb. But, it has been taking steady steps in that direction such as increasing the percentage of enrichment in its nuclear materials, running computer and other simulations of nuclear weapons, and even developing conventional missiles not prohibited by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that could be adapted to carry nuclear payloads. At the same time, Iran has stayed a signatory to the NPT and continues talking with the IAEA, EU, and US. And it continues claiming only peaceful nuclear goals plus willingness to resolving disputes diplomatically.
Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iranian politicians seem to be still weighing the benefits and disadvantages of nuclear weaponization. After all, while nuclear weapons may confer protection, Iran is far away from achieving the mutually assured destruction that stayed triggers in the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. A conventional weapons attack against Iran by the US and/or its allies would bring about large-scale destruction, attenuate the Tehran regime’s hold over its people, and even provoke populist anger against leaders whose actions trigger foreign intervention.
But Supreme Leader Khamenei’s position is not based on expediency alone. Iranians have long been internally divided about the state of relations with the West generally and the US particularly. Moreover, while there has consistently been widespread support for a nuclear-based energy program for civilian uses, they are more ambivalent about their nation pursuing the nuclear weapons option.
Quickly-aborted on-line surveys in July 2012 by Iranian news media suggest a majority of their readers have concluded the government should negotiate with the US to freeze its nuclear program so the sanctions that are impoverishing every aspect of life could end rapidly. That data rammed home another important point to Iran’s politicians and spies: many Iranians want international hostilities to cease while salvaging national pride through continuing a civilian nuclear program and abrogating a nuclear weapons one. If they opt for such a solution, Iranian leaders would still be preserving the possibility of recommencing nuclear weaponization if deemed essential for regime or national survival.
The Path Ahead
So for its own domestic and international reasons, Washington most likely will continue using current strategies unless changes in Iran’s behavior generate an immutable consensus for military strikes. The Obama administration can be expected to accede to requests for substantive bilateral negotiations too if Tehran demonstrates willingness to talk directly.
Actions by Iran which could precipitate martial confrontation include acceleration in uranium enrichment, unilateral termination of negotiations, or possibly even Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on the US mainland. The red line spelled out by the Obama administration, however, is irrefutable evidence that a nuclear bomb is being assembled. Then strikes against Iran’s nuclear sites and military centers may occur via conventional missiles fired from American aircraft and vessels stationed in the Persian Gulf, Indian Ocean, and bordering nations. No foreign troops are likely to occupy Iran even if attacks occur—for events in Iraq and Afghanistan still loom large in American and European minds, and Israel lacks the capacity for an on-the-ground presence far from its borders.
Yet, as the nominations of Charles Hagel for Secretary of Defense and John Kerry for Secretary of State hint, even if Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons it is by no means certain the second Obama administration would unleash military force. The new team in Washington very strongly favors diplomacy over all else. So the US may decide it can live with a nuclear Iran, concluding that there are “key rational actors in high positions of responsibility” in Tehran. In so doing, it will be following previous US responses to other friends and foes who achieved nuclear weapons capability. Washington may even be able to persuade Jerusalem to hold its fire by promising to further enhance Israel’s defensive capabilities.
In sum, the status quo is likely to prevail and Tehran will keep getting closer to the bomb even though doing so is taking an awful toll on the daily lives of Iranians and testing the nerves of Americans, Europeans, and Israelis.