Iran is staying on the offensive, and why not? The Iranian government has rejected the UN Security Council’s legally binding demand that it suspend uranium-enrichment activities, as a way to restore international confidence and allow negotiations on the long-term future of Iran’s nuclear program to proceed. Tehran expresses willingness to negotiate on many issues, just not the major one – whether there are conditions under which it would be welcomed internationally to operate facilities that could produce fuel for nuclear weapons. The Iranian government assumes that no one, least of all the UN Security Council, can stop it. Floundering wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and the ambiguous outcome of Lebanon war have given Iran momentum.
The futures of Lebanon and nuclear weapons in the Middle East now intertwine, and Iran is the common link. Iran’s cooperation is needed to implement UN resolutions 1559 and 1701 on Lebanon, and 1696 on the nuclear issue. But Tehran will rebuff pressure in one area by indirectly threatening to make things worse in the other. Iran’s counterparts must step back and develop a more comprehensive diplomatic strategy.
The Iranian government assumes that Russia and China will not join the US, France and the UK in imposing major sanctions on Iran when it rejects Security Council demands. Military threats by the US or Israel without broader international backing ring hollow, especially given the recent experiences in Lebanon and Iraq and the fierceness of Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite fighters. Most governments can’t stand the idea of another international crisis over enforcing UN resolutions; Iran claims that tough UN sanctions will cause a crisis, and that’s enough to intimidate the rest.
This suggests that diplomatic maneuvers in the coming months will converge around an implicit compromise in which Iran does not cause problems in one area in return for not being pressed on the other. Most likely, Iran will limit its re-supply of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and endorse Hezbollah’s cooperation with the Lebanese Army and an international force patrolling the zone between Lebanon and Israel, in tacit exchange for further Security Council dithering as Iran continues its uranium-enrichment activities, free from sanctions.
Acquiring nuclear-weapon capability, though not necessarily bombs, is most important to Iran. Since Ahmadinejad’s ascent to the presidency last August, Iran has hardened its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment and resume negotiations on long-term conditions on which Iran’s nuclear program may proceed. Each time the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Security Council, and the major powers have threatened Iran with consequences for proceeding with suspect nuclear activities, Tehran has countered brazenly.
Iran first agreed in 2003 to suspend uranium enrichment to induce the IAEA not to report Iran’s violations of nuclear rules to the UN Security Council, as called for by the IAEA statute. But Iranian engineers soon started work on centrifuge components, prompting sterner warnings by the IAEA. Iran and France, Germany and the UK then clarified matters in a November 2004 agreement in which Iran once again volunteered to suspend all activities related to uranium enrichment, while the three EU states and Iran explored a package of incentives on longer-term relations. In August 2005, just as the EU-3 proposed incentives to Iran, Tehran broke the suspension and resumed uranium conversion at Isfahan. In early 2006, Iran abandoned pretense and operated centrifuges to enrich uranium, daring the international community to respond. The international community sent Iran’s docket to the Security Council, but Russia and China held off sanctioning Iran, in order to present Tehran with an enhanced package of incentives.
Military action is the ultimate recourse for enforcing international rules and norms. Yet, the past year’s events in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Lebanon have dissipated Iran’s fear that military enforcement is forthcoming. Before the Lebanon war, Iranian leaders said that the US and Israeli military attacks on nuclear sites would unleash reprisals throughout the Middle East, and that Israel would be the first to suffer. Hezbollah’s arsenal of Iranian-supplied rockets and missiles was the leading edge of this deterrent, backed by Iran’s capacity to escalate violence in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Neither Iran nor Hezbollah sought to expend this deterrent as long as nuclear diplomacy continued. If Israel did manage to destroy almost all the medium- and longer-range missiles Iran had deployed to Lebanon, Western governments could chasten Tehran officials. Yet, the conventional wisdom emanating from Lebanon and Iraq portrays Iran and its protégés as victors. International support for military enforcement against Iran’s refusal to meet Security Council demands is unimaginable.
Iran’s ongoing enrichment of uranium and Israel’s failure to disarm Hezbollah damages international security. But these results seem the most likely outcome of the current unfortunate balance of power between Iran and its protégés on one side, and the US, Israel and likeminded states on the other. Right now, the US and its partners lack the power to compel Iran financially through sanctions or militarily to enforce UN resolution 1696’s demand for Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and to press Hezbollah to give up its arms.
There are scenarios in which Iran could be compelled to accept both demands. If Syria were induced to cut assistance to Hezbollah, including the transit of weaponry from Iran, Tehran would then have to consider seriously the prospect of Israeli or US military action. Splitting Syria from Iran would also dampen Iranian confidence that the Arab street’s enthusiasm for its defiant posture would prevent Arab governments from quietly working with the US to constrain Iran. Denying Hezbollah and Iran assistance from Syria is an objective worth paying for, and Washington’s righteous refusal to deal with Assad is self-defeating. And if Russia were induced to support sanctions to enforce compliance with the Security Council’s nuclear resolution, Iranian leaders might consolidate their recent gains and pursue accommodation.
Alternatively, if Tehran felt it could accomplish its objectives by other means with less risk, it might become more willing to hold off on uranium enrichment and give the international community the opportunity to prove that its offers of nuclear cooperation are reliable. The Iranian government seeks above all to solidify its standing as the sovereign authority of a great nation recognized as the leading indigenous power in its region. It abhors US threats to topple it or deny Iran respect as a technologically advanced regional power. Were Washington to swallow hard and pretend to respect the Iranian government, it could test Iran’s willingness to reduce threats of violence from Afghanistan to Lebanon, as eminent realists Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft have recently argued.
In the absence of breakthroughs in building a tougher coalition to pressure Iran and a more realistic strategy in Washington to confront the unpleasant leaders in Tehran and Damascus, the best that can be imagined is muddling postponement of further conflict over Lebanon and Iran’s march toward acquisition of nuclear-weapons capability. The US and Israel have waged bold military actions against their enemies in Iraq and Lebanon with little gain. Strangely, political leaders act as if it is riskier to wage bold diplomacy than war; do any have the courage to try bold diplomacy toward Iran and Syria?
George Perkovich is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-author of “Universal Compliance: A Strategy for Nuclear Security.”
This piece was also published on OutlookIndia.com.