Iran Again: Is Everyone Bluffing?

Commentary No. 266, October 1, 2009

Iran is back in the forefront of public diplomacy. President Obama, jointly with Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, held a press conference in which they seemed to give Iran one more ultimatum: conform to their demands, what they called the demands of the “international community,” by December of this year or face new sanctions. Obama said that Iran is “breaking the rule that all nations must follow.”

The immediate occasion was the fact that Iran has announced – or in the view of the three Western leaders, Iran has “admitted” – that it is constructing an installation near Qom in which there will be 3000 centrifuges to enrich uranium. According to Obama, this is far too small a number for the ostensible purpose – electricity generation – but of the right size to produce material for nuclear warheads. Ergo, Iran is lying about its intentions.

It seems that Western intelligence discovered the existence of the construction some time ago and feels it is now convincingly verified. The Western view is that Iran announced the existence of this construction only because it became aware that Western intelligence had uncovered it and was about to reveal this fact to the world. President Ahmadinejad says that, under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), Iran is only required to announce the existence of such construction six months before it becomes operational, and that is why he announced it only now.

In any case, Obama is making a big thing of it, and is using this new agreed-upon fact (the construction of the plant) as the basis on which to obtain further U.N. sanctions on Iran. It seems clear that Obama is hoping this new fact will be enough to persuade Russia and China into either supporting or at least not opposing a new sanctions resolution of the U.N. Security Council.

The U.S. right and the Israelis are saying in effect, “we told you so.” In their view, Iran has always been lying, is lying now, and must therefore be seriously punished. They are obviously thinking not about mere sanctions but about bombing the plant (and no doubt other known nuclear plants).

So, are we on the verge of further sanctions? or even more, of bombing Iran, either by the United States or by Israel with the tacit consent of the United States? Possibly, but I don’t really think so. I think that what is happening is a gigantic bluff by all and sundry.

Let us start with Iran. I have always agreed with the U.S. right and the Israelis that Iran intends to achieve the status of a nuclear power. My difference with them has simply been that this seems to me normal, inevitable, and not at all a geopolitical disaster.

From Iran’s point of view, there are three nearby nuclear powers – India, Pakistan, and Israel – who not only have never signed the NPT but actually have nuclear weapons, many nuclear weapons. They are not however being accused of violating the norms of the “international community.” So the Iranians say, why pick on Iran? Iran has, unlike these three nearby countries, signed the NPT, and has up to now not violated its specific provisions. Nonetheless, it is being publicly denounced for a far lesser violation of international norms than that of the three other countries. President Lula of Brazil points out that Brazil is also enriching uranium and sees nothing wrong with Iran doing that.

Why did Obama make his announcement just now if he has known for some time that Iran was building this plant? He claims he just wanted first to be absolutely sure of the quality of his intelligence. But it is also clear that announcing it at this very moment is quite helpful domestically. Obama is under attack from the U.S. right for his health care proposals and for his seeming hesitation to send more troops to Afghanistan. Talking tough to Iran protects his right flank a bit and may strengthen his hand politically for these other questions.

The same might be said for Iran. Ahmadinejad, like Obama, is having some internal political difficulties. Talking tough to the West is obviously something that enables him to consolidate Iranian nationalist sentiment for his regime, especially if the West obliges him by also talking tough.

Russia and China have always argued that tougher sanctions would be counterproductive. Both of them have both economic and geopolitical interests in maintaining their reasonably good relations with Iran. Of course, they also don’t want to go too far in antagonizing the United States. So they will probably continue to move slowly and carefully, and ambiguously. President Medvedev of Russia may make a statement to Obama in September that is critical of Iran, one that makes Obama smile. But that doesn’t mean that Russia will vote for a truly serious sanctions resolution in December. For one thing, the Russians (and the Chinese) don’t really believe further sanctions will be effective in changing Iran’s basic stance, and neither do a large number of serious analysts in the Western world.

As for military action, consider the following: Obama is being faced with a demand by General Stanley McChrystal for a significant escalation in U.S. military commitment in Afghanistan. The degree to which Secretary of Defense Robert Gates will endorse this is still unclear. There is already significant opposition among Democratic politicians. And the U.S. public seems to be extremely dubious. Obama is reflecting on long-term strategy.

I think Obama will probably give in, at least partially, and authorize further troops. I think also that it is extremely unlikely that there will be any similar increase in troops from other NATO countries. Indeed, further withdrawal seems to be far more likely on their part. Given the situation in Afghanistan, who in the United States is going to support real military action against Iran? Obama? The Joint Chiefs of Staff? The American public? I’d say such military action is extremely unlikely. And the Israelis, whatever their anxieties and wishes, will not be accorded the necessary overflight rights.

So, where does all this leave us? It leaves the world in a stalemate. Lots of words and very little action. Is that what Ahmadinejad wants? Probably. Will the U.S. right and the Israelis denounce it? Probably. Can Obama do anything to change the situation? I don’t see what. This will be noted by future historians as just one more piece of evidence of the declining geopolitical clout of the United States. What future historians might also say is that Iran, in defying resolutions of the U.N. Security Council, is acting just like a large number of other countries have acted in the last fifty years. No more, no less.

Hype is not the same thing as reality.