The continuing saga of nuclear Iran

Some international crises erupt suddenly; some come and go at intervals; others seem to just stay in the headlines without ever really going anywhere. The question of Iran’s nuclear program is in the third group. I’ve been meaning to write about it for a few weeks, but something new always comes up, which then turns out to not really be new at all.

This week, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Yukiya Amano, summed up for his board of governors the status of the dispute:

Iran is not providing the necessary cooperation to enable us to provide credible assurance about the absence of undeclared nuclear material and activities. The Agency therefore cannot conclude that all nuclear material in Iran is in peaceful activities.

… the Agency and Iran have had three rounds of talks since November 2012. However, it has not been possible to reach agreement. Access to the Parchin site has not been granted. I am therefore, once again, unable to report any progress on the clarification of outstanding issues, including those relating to possible military dimensions to Iran’s nuclear programme.

… the Agency remains committed to engaging in constructive dialogue with Iran in order to resolve all outstanding issues … It should be stressed, however, that agreement on the structured approach must be consistent with effective verification. Also, negotiations must proceed with a sense of urgency and a focus on achieving concrete results in the near term.

Meanwhile, US secretary of state John Kerry was in Saudi Arabia, and of course the same subject came up:

The [Saudi] Foreign Minister and I also discussed our shared determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. And we both prefer – and this is important for Iranians to hear and to understand – we both prefer diplomacy as the first choice, as the preferred choice. But the window for a diplomatic solution simply cannot, by definition, remain open indefinitely. There is time to resolve this issue, providing that Iranians are prepared to engage seriously …

Broadly speaking, the Americans and the IAEA are on the same track. Neither is happy with the current state of play, but both insist that negotiation can work.

The Israeli government, not surprisingly, is on a somewhat different track. Here’s Benjamin Netanyahu, addressing (by video link) an American conference on Monday:

Iran has made it clear that it will continue to defy the will of the international community. Time after time, the world’s leading powers have tabled diplomatic proposals to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue peacefully. But I have to tell you the truth. Diplomacy has not worked.

We have to stop its nuclear enrichment program before it’s too late. And I have to tell you, and with the clarity of my brain: words alone will not stop Iran; Sanctions alone will not stop Iran. Sanctions must be coupled with a clear and credible military threat if diplomacy and sanctions fail.

I hold no brief for the Iranian government. I think it’s most unlikely that its nuclear program is intended, as it claims, entirely for peaceful purposes. Most probably it wants the same sort of nuclear capacity that, say, Japan has: not a nuclear weapon, but the technological ability to assemble one at short notice should it seem necessary.

Nor do I think one should underestimate the genuine fear on the part of Israel’s Jewish population at the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran. No doubt that fear has been stoked by unscrupulous politicians, but history has taught the Jews, with awful clarity, to assume the worst of their enemies.

Nonetheless, Benjamin Netanyahu is an educated man, with highly professional sources of intelligence to draw on. He must know that the idea of Iran launching a nuclear strike against Israel is sheer fantasy. Iran’s rulers may be crafty and unscrupulous, but there is no evidence at all that they are suicidal. Deterrence works. (Which of course is why the Iranians would like some of it themselves.)

So if Netanyahu has no intention of actually starting a war, why does he keep talking as if he does? Part of the answer no doubt is in domestic politics: still engaged in the delicate task of building a coalition, he wants to appear a strong leader, essential for his nation’s security.

But I think there’s a more important foreign policy angle. It’s important for Netanyahu that he delegitimise his opponents; he wants to paint the Arabs as terrorists, tyrants and religious fanatics, so that the rest of the world will not examine their actual grievances. The Iranian regime (even though Iranians are not actually Arabs) is a priceless asset in that enterprise.

While actual war would be a disaster for Netanyahu, regime change in Iran would be almost as much so. Just as Daniel Pipes famously said he would vote for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel’s own extremists need to keep their enemies looking as disreputable as possible. That’s why having the nuclear affair stay on the boil without ever being resolved suits Netanyahu perfectly.

*ADDENDUM* (Added a few hours later)

I’ve been rude about the BBC a couple of times lately, but for those who are interested in just where the international talks are at the moment I’m happy to recommend this piece by their chief international correspondent, Lyse Doucet. It’s very thorough. She seems cautiously optimistic.

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