Diplomatic Dead End
In Heavy Waters: Iran’s Nuclear Program, The Risk of War and Lessons from Turkey
International Crisis Group, 23 February 2012.
This report is an excellent tool for anyone who wishes to understand the current crisis over Iran’s pursuit of nuclear technology, and the attempts of the US and Israel to stop it. Nonetheless, it also makes for depressing reading, conceding that a comprehensive diplomatic solution is a distant prospect.
Regarding the current American approach to Iran and its pursuit of nuclear technology, it offers a bleak picture of the prospects of success for the current policy. It points out, correctly, that sanctions to date have been completely ineffectual in achieving their main purpose: deterring Iran’s leaders from investing in and developing its technology in this field. Iran went from having no operational centrifuges in 2006 to having several thousand in two enrichment sites, a sophisticated nuclear infrastructure, and a stockpile of enriched uranium today.
Its conclusions on possible Israeli military strikes are also illuminating, especially at a time when tensions are high and every day seems to bring a new statement from Washington or Tel Aviv that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable” and that “all options are on the table” to prevent this. The report points out that it is impossible to simply destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities with a brief airstrike, which would be a repetition of the Israeli raid on the Osirak reactor in Iraq in the early 1980s. The dispersal of the Iranian facilities, the fact that Iran could reconstitute its program afterwards, and the depth and intensity of Iran’s air defense network would make this a long, costly and difficult business that is probably beyond Israeli capabilities.
The report also offers useful insights into Israeli strategic thinking. It highlights a duality that has confused some observers and continues to add a dangerous element of uncertainty to the situation. Israeli officials and politicians have been warning of the threat from a nuclear Iran since 1982. But decision-making in Israel’s national security establishment is at times opaque, with mixed signals about the necessity and desirability of striking Iran’s nuclear program before it reaches a ‘point of no return’: is it a serious threat, a means of applying pressure to Washington and the West to deal with the situation, or both?
In terms of recommendations for solving what seems to be an insuperable problem, the report advocates looking to Turkey and its approach to Iran for inspiration. As a result, its authors spend some time delving into the bilateral ties between Iran and Turkey, a relationship that will become increasingly important in the future. It describes how Turkey has sought to use the good relationships it has with both the US and Iran to play a moderating role over the last two years. Based on its analysis of Turkish-Iranian ties, it suggests taking a leaf out of the Turkish book and advocates taking a deep engagement strategy, interacting with all of the power centers in the byzantine Iranian political system—not just the president and the supreme leader—in an attempt to gain maximum traction.
But is this a realistic option? The report goes into detail in its description of the links between the two states, especially the growing economic ties, but also discusses how the relationship has not been without friction. Turkish attempts to mediate led to it “stumbling” into a “controversial role”, and its success (together with Brazil) in reaching a deal on nuclear fuel with Iran reportedly surprised even the officials who brokered it.
The report’s authors admit that Turkey’s intervention came “from the sidelines:” the center of gravity of the dispute is the Iranian-American-Israeli triangle, and the links between these three states are of a different nature between those of Iran and Turkey, links which made its diplomacy possible in the first place. This suggests that Turkey’s model of engagement may not be replicable on a larger scale. The report also concedes that much of the tension between Iran and the US has its roots in domestic politics in both states, and it is not at all clear that this situation makes a deep and sustained diplomatic offensive possible
Despite these issues, it is a useful and timely piece of research that deserves to be widely and carefully studied, both as a warning and a guidebook. Its core conclusion is undoubtedly correct: diplomacy is the only solution. Worryingly, the report also demonstrates that those best placed to pursue diplomacy with Iran are trapped on the sidelines.
You can read the full report here