Tensions with Iran

Published: 
March 8, 2012

As tensions between Iran and Israel heat up, and with the announcement that world powers will resume nuclear talks with Iran, USIP’s Dan Brumberg assesses the latest state of play, and whether the use of force is inevitable.

As tensions between Iran and Israel heat up, and with the announcement that world powers will resume nuclear talks with Iran, USIP’s Dan Brumberg assesses the latest state of play.

 

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Barack Obama met on Monday, March 5, Iran was the central foreign policy concern for both countries, obscuring other regional issues such as the Arab Spring and the Arab-Israeli peace process. A day before their meeting, President Obama spoke before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC], laying out the U.S. position. What were the highlights from these two events? How did the two leaders talk about the challenges posed by Iran and its nuclear ambitions?

President Obama’s speech to AIPAC was designed to reassure Israel – and our Arab friends in the Gulf, who share many of Israel’s concerns regarding Iran — that while the U.S. still believes there is room for diplomacy, it remains prepared to use force if and when it becomes clear that Iran is moving toward developing nuclear weapons. Washington sees its policy of coercive diplomacy as increasingly effective: punishing sanctions designed to undercut Iran’s oil exports are exacting a heavy economic toll, and what is more, from the vantage point of the administration, the U.S. has been remarkably successful in widening the international circle of support for sanctions.

With the exception of Russia and China (and Venezuela), the international community seems on board.

And with the evolution of the Arab Spring in general, and the clear regional and global isolation of Syria, the administration feels that it has isolated Iran in ways that will eventually elicit a more cooperative stance from Tehran.

Thus, the administration clearly signaled its position, namely that diplomacy is working, and that the time for the use of force has not arrived.

The announcement by the six global powers –including Russia and China—that talks will resume with Iran, and Tehran’s apparent readiness to allow the IAEA to inspect its sensitive military installation known as Parchin has been welcomed by the administration.

 

Does Israel share this view?

I think it is very clear that the Israelis are worried that the opportunity for the effective use of force may come and go quickly, and that as a result, the international community will not be able to compel Tehran from meeting the IAEA’s many and oft repeated demands and concerns. This conclusion is also driven by concern that even the most punishing sanctions will not compel Tehran’s cooperation.

There is also a widespread perception in Israel that Iran’s nuclear program could come to represent an “existential threat” for Israel. The problem is not merely the program, but, of course, the statements of Iran’s leaders –which have called for the removal of the “Zionist regime.”

 

With these fears echoing in the background –if not foreground—it seems that the discussion revolved around the question of “red lines,” i.e. at what point does Iran’s nuclear program justify the use of force?

For the states in the Middle East most concerned about Iran, there is a sense that the only way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons is to define that red line in terms of building some kind of “capacity” to assemble a nuclear weapon in some undefined –but presumably fairly rapid – time frame.

For Washington, the red line may be further down the road, at a point, for example, when the evidence suggests a decision to focus on weaponization itself, rather than on enrichment. By emphasizing this distinction, it seems to me that the international community is signaling Iran could have room to backtrack on its program, and/or to fashion a solution on enrichment that would include sufficient safeguards – intrusive inspections, for example -- so that the international community would conclude that the security benefits far outweigh the potential costs of either accepting containment, or even more so, moving to a war footing.

The problem is that any agreement, in the end, requires an assessment of how much ambiguity we can tolerate, particularly given a history that engenders so much mistrust and apprehension.

 

But would the use of force by Israel or the U.S. yield more or less security? Will the benefits outweigh the costs?

I think this is one of the issues the Obama tried to address in his AIPAC speech. His message, and the message of our allies, is that at this point, the use of force could elicit a regional war, would splinter the international coalition against Iran, and most of all, would likely lead Iran to exit the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), without dealing a lethal, final blow to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

These points inform the USIP-Stimson Center report we published in October 2010, a report whose main conclusions remain valid today. The report suggested that even the U.S.—quite apart from Israel—faced huge hurdles in undertaking any military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

What is more, the experts in the USIP-Stimson Center strategy group suggested that such an attack might only slow down, but not destroy Iran’s nuclear program. This assessment had to be weighed against the many potential downsides of an attack, and on that basis the report concluded, very clearly, that launching what would inevitably be an extended series of attacks lasting several weeks at the minimum, would entail security costs far outweighing any potential benefits.

The report stated that, “A U.S. decision to attack Iran, absent compelling evidence of an imminent Iranian attack on a U.S. ally or facility, would destabilize the entire Middle East in ways that could do grave harm to U.S. strategic, economic, and political sanctions on Iran, cement Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons, and doom the democratic movement in Iran indefinitely. “

This assessment, which is clearly supported by our government, is not necessarily shared by our friends in the region, and Israel in particular.

This fact alone suggests difficult weeks and months ahead, as President Obama himself pointed out on March 5 following his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu.

March 8, 2012