Based on the concerned parties’ positions recently expressed on the issue and relevant discussions by Iran experts in Washington, there seems to be numerous policy indications pertaining to Iranian nuclear development. The followings are the key points:
- The U.S. and Israel have subdued their apparent rift regarding a “red line” for Iran’s nuclear program.
- The timeline for Iranian nuclear capability is crucial and should be considered in conjunction with important dates such as the upcoming Israeli and Iranian elections.
- We must read between the lines regarding the disconnect between Israel and the U.S.’s criteria for military action in Iran.
- In a realistic final deal, if possible, we must have a clear understanding of Iran’s underlying real motives for developing a nuclear weapon.
Since the end of August through the middle of September, the U.S. and Israel seem to have subdued their apparent tensions, at least publicly, with regards to a red line or deadline on Iranian nuclear development. There are several possible reasons why these contentious discussions have been removed from the public eye. The U.S. and Israel may have reached an understanding that broadcasting differences in opinion is harmful to their mutual interest because of the risk that Iran could exploit this rift. In addition, the U.S. and Israel now share better understanding on the current nuclear development status in Iran and thus the timeframe for future development scenarios. Of course, even if the U.S. and Israel have a close approximation of Iran’s nuclear progress now, it should be noted that an intelligence gap is always a factor and therefore the situation is entirely susceptible to change. Lastly, the U.S. and Israel may be focused on developing their near-future action plan in a confidential manner. If the entirety of the near-future action plan (including diplomatic sanctions) is being discussed, it is likely that tensions pertaining to red lines and deadlines are at least temporarily subdued.
The timeline moving forward is an important issue to consider in any future policy discussions on Iran. Unless unknown activities that indicate Iran is nearing its final dash are revealed, it was regarded as highly unlikely that military action would occur before or around the U.S. presidential election on November 6th. There was a clear change of tone in Israeli position, seemingly because of the above-mentioned factors. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his speech at the U.N. General Assembly in September, indicated that Iran is six to nine months away from reaching a critical stage in nuclear development. Moreover, Defense Minister Ehud Barak recently commented in a newspaper interview that Iran had converted one-third of its available uranium to make fuel rods for a medical research reactor, delaying Iran’s development of nuclear weapon capacity by eight to ten months, although he also stressed that this is just additional evidence pointing towards Iran’s true objective of obtaining a nuclear weapon. If this analysis on an Israeli position shift is correct, dates to be considered in discussion of a timeline for future movement on the Iranian nuclear issue are the Israeli general elections in January 2013 and the Iranian presidential election in June 2013. After the recent change in climate surrounding this issue (the controlled tension between the U.S. and Israel), it neither a final deal nor an Israeli military attack is likely to occur by June 2013 because of the huge risks involved for political leaders on both sides leading up to the elections. Particularly in the case of Iran, since these risks are also accompanied by potentially great political gains, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei may allow renewed negotiations with the P5+1 or even initiate bilateral contact with the U.S., as was once reported but quickly denied by Iran watchers. This possibility still continues to be rumored, however, as a means of reaching some kind of deal to avoid or forestall military attacks and potentially even to encourage the lifting of sanctions against Iran in the coming six to eight months. Still, Khamenei is highly unlikely to give the final green light to conclude a deal before the Iranian presidential election so as not to lose his control of internal political management.
As for a pragmatic Iran policy on the part of the international community, continuing and even strengthening sanctions seems prudent in the run-up to the Iranian elections, especially considering the huge impact these sanctions are having now on exchange rates and important industry-related business people in Iran. Concerning military attacks, we must also touch on the criteria for military actions as stipulated by the major international players. There was and maybe still is a disconnect between Israel and the U.S. regarding the criteria for a military action against Iran. Israel seems to be solely focused on the real status of Iran’s nuclear development, which will, in their view, overwhelm political considerations and create “context” for a military attack when it eventually becomes unavoidable. The U.S. and the P5+1 are standing by their need for such context, which would serve as a legitimate and persuasive cover in the eyes of the international community to continue rigid sanctions even after military action in order to continuously prevent Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons in the future. Israel is aware of its limitations in terms of a military attack, and has no illusion of destroying Iran’s nuclear development program completely. The U.S. is much more suited for an attack capable of crippling Iranian nuclear facilities and infrastructure, so it seems more likely that we will see an Israeli military attack only when Israel is convinced that Iran is reaching a stage of breakout for acquisition of nuclear weapons capability and that the U.S. will not step in to prevent it.
Another key issue, which is often neglected in discussion of the Iranian nuclear question, is to understand Iran’s motivation in developing a nuclear weapons capability. In considering a realistic deal between P5+1 or the U.S. on one hand and Iran on the other, we must consider how to eliminate the motives underlying Iranian nuclear development. If the Iranian regime’s real goal of developing nuclear weapon capability is to safeguard the regime itself, we need to address this objective by making it clear that Iranian regime change is not the ultimate goal of any in the international community. Based on Iran’s public position, any potential deal with Iran may need to include Iran’s right to peaceful civil nuclear development accompanied by strict safeguard measures as accepted and followed by other countries like Japan. In order to stop Iran’s enrichment process before it proceeds any further, the P5+1 or the U.S. especially should consider resuming meaningful talks with Iran by putting final deal components on the table. Doing so enables the relevant parties to verify the intention behind Iran’s enrichment program and prevent the eventual calamity of a nuclear weapons capable Iran, which will further destabilize regional security in a time of already extreme uncertainty in the region.