Iran Crisis is More Stable than it Seems
10th March 2013
The long-running crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme has met its moment of truth. This is the year when war or peace will break out – or so at least a remarkable global consensus seems to suggest.
Far more likely, however, is a 2013 defined by another period of sustained stalemate, one driven by an unspoken preference on the part of all the key participants for a pragmatic equilibrium that excludes both war and peace. The see-saw of threats and talks, escalation and negotiation continues, inevitably leading to warnings of showdowns.
This is mostly all theatre. The reality is that for each of the principal parties, the status quo – Iran isolated diplomatically, crippled economically, boxed in militarily – is preferable to the available alternatives.
An all-out war including weeks of strikes on suspected nuclear installations and widespread Iranian retaliation through conventional and unconventional means is, for most, anathema. It is also true, though unacknowledged by the west, that a genuine peace with Tehran is equally unattractive.
For the Iranian regime, which seized power and has maintained it for more than three decades using a mixture of internal repression and external belligerence, the prospect of a country that is open, democratic, at peace and integrated into the global economy holds little appeal. In fact, the personal, political, security and financial interests of the elites are deeply dependent on sustaining Iran’s pariah status. For them peace, not war, is the existential threat.
In Washington, the policy parallels are striking. Having declared that the US will not countenance a nuclear-armed Iran, President Barack Obama has in effect waged a war to prevent a war. Only by the definitions of armed conflict set in another era is the US in anything other than a state of war with Iran. A raft of devastating measures has been launched at Tehran, with only the financial and economic sanctions visible above the surface.
Beneath the surface, a vast, secret and systematic campaign of sabotage and cyber warfare is under way to prevent Iran from reaching nuclear breakout capacity. This also reduces the need to negotiate with allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia over the terms of a “grand bargain” with Iran that would bring it in from the cold and remake the strategic future of the Middle East.
For Israel’s security establishment, which recognises the limits of its ability to inflict significant damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure unilaterally, the status quo assures its interest in sustaining its own conventional and unconventional regional superiority.
For Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Co-operation Council allies, too, the status quo is preferable to conflict. Their Persian rivals are decimated economically and distracted politically by their allies in the west as they themselves struggle to resist the region’s protest movements. For Russia and China, US preoccupation with Iran is strategically valuable. And, as long as they do not have to endorse (or block) overt military action in the UN Security Council, they can focus on security and economic priorities closer to home.
Add to this what each of the main parties knows about the others’ genuine interests and capabilities and the status quo looks far more sustainable than unsustainable.
Iran knows the west is neither willing nor in effect able to lift the sanctions that matter, even if Tehran capitulates. America knows Iran’s regional ambitions are incompatible with a lasting US presence designed to prop up Gulf kingdoms and sheikhdoms as bulwarks against Tehran’s proxy allies. No amount of talks in the current context are likely to alter this dynamic.
Where does that leave western policy? First, with “containment” as the only accurate definition of what is transpiring strategically. Second, with a policy of containment on this side of the nuclear-weapons threshold, not the other. Third, with a veneer of diplomatic activity meant to assuage public concern about the risk of another armed conflict in the Gulf and market concerns about disruption to global oil supplies.
There are, however, dangers in what might otherwise seem a stable, if perverse, equilibrium of controlled enmity. Short-term, the risk is of miscalculation, misunderstanding, misperception and incompetence in the management of a fragile balance of war by unconventional means.
Long-term, the danger is that sanctions fail in their stated aim of bringing Iran into compliance with the demands of the Security Council and their unstated aim of buying time against a unilateral Israeli attack – but succeed in destroying the fabric of a vibrant, dynamic, youthful society.
Escaping this dynamic is the task of statecraft beyond the strategic reach and imagination of the principal actors engaged in the diplomacy on Iran today. The question is whether a hot war can be averted long enough to allow their successors to rise to the challenge.