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.


Strategic advantage in a volatile world

The Firm

Nader Mousavizadeh and David Claydon founded Macro Advisory Partners in 2013 to provide a global client base with a competitive advantage in a complex world. Driven by a belief in the value of independent, long-term strategic counsel, MAP's co-founders created a firm that delivers actionable macro strategies to decision-makers in business, finance and government.

A volatile and fragmenting global landscape requires an integrated understanding of the political and economic drivers of change. Drawing on MAP's unique network, the firm’s partners — including Andrew Feldman and John Sawers — create tailored and innovative macro solutions mapped to the specific exposures, risks and opportunities facing the firm’s clients.

MAP's London and New York-based team of partners, directors and associates is supported by a Global Advisory Board and a group of Senior Advisors drawn from leadership positions in the worlds of business, finance, politics, diplomacy and technology.

Global Advisory Board
  • Louise Arbour

    Jurist in Residence, Borden Ladner Gervais LLP
    Louise Arbour is a jurist in residence at Borden Ladner Gervais LLP, and former UN Special Representative for International Migration.
  • William Burns

    President, Carnegie Endowment
    Ambassador Burns is President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and was the 17th United States Deputy Secretary of State.
  • Mala Gaonkar

    Co-portfolio Manager, Lone Pine Capital
    Mala Gaonkar is Co-portfolio Manager at Lone Pine Capital, and a former consultant at the World Bank.
  • Vikram Mehta

    Executive Chairman, Brookings India
    Vikram Mehta is a leading Indian businessman who was Chairman of the Shell Group of Companies in India.
  • David Miliband

    President, IRC
    David Miliband is President and CEO of the International Rescue Committee, following a distinguished political career in the United Kingdom.
  • Vali Nasr

    Dean, SAIS
    Dr Vali Nasr is Dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University.
  • Jonathan Powell

    Director, Inter Mediate
    Jonathan is Director of Inter Mediate.
  • Carl-Henric Svanberg

    Chairman, BP
    Carl-Henric Svanberg is Chairman of BP Plc.


Macro Advisory Partners provides corporate, investor and sovereign clients with the strategic insights to navigate the intersection of global markets, geopolitics and policy.

In a world defined by volatility and uncertainty — and an abundance of information, yet scarcity of insight — we identify the strategic implications for decision-makers tasked with maximising opportunity and minimising risk. The Archipelago World is characterised by fragmenting markets, populist politics, policy unpredictability, revolutionary technology, and weaponised arenas of finance, regulation and cyber.  The implications of this environment are dramatic and lasting. To help our clients anticipate and navigate these shifts in the macro landscape, we bring together deep on-the-ground analysis with long-term strategic judgement tailored to our clients' specific interests, exposures and concerns.

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