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April 10, 2012, Tuesday

Iran--compromise or war?

Early on in his presidency, US President Barack Obama reached out to Iran. Unfortunately, he was not successful, and today war with Iran seems closer than ever. Repairing relations was never going to be easy, and Obama found himself under pressure from many different quarters, particularly Israel and Congress, which allowed him little room to maneuver. Iran’s 2009 fraudulent elections did little to help, and Obama failed to get the sort of result he had hoped for. Iran carried on with its nuclear program and has remained defiant as round after round of sanctions have been enforced.

Today the situation is frightening with Israel, which claims Obama has failed to do anything about Iran’s accelerated nuclear program, trying to drag the US into a war. The recent visit of the Israeli prime minister to Washington underlined that Obama’s efforts to sell continued diplomacy are falling on deaf ears, while there are also rumors that the US is dispatching a second aircraft carrier to the Persian Gulf. While talks with Iran are due to resume in Turkey this coming Saturday, for them to progress further it seems that Iran has been asked to carrying out some “confidence building measures”: give up its Fordo enrichment plant outside the holy city of Qom, cease production of 20 percent enriched uranium and give up its stockpile of 20 percent enriched uranium. Apparently this negotiating position will be the opening move in what President Obama has termed Iran’s “last chance” to resolve the problem diplomatically.

In a spirit of compromise -- because Iran does seem to want to go back to talks -- Tehran may well be willing to return uranium enrichment to the lower levels required for power generation once it had amassed enough 20 percent material to produce medical isotopes for cancer treatment and other research. Moreover, according to Iran expert Trita Parsi, if the West would provide Iran with fuel pads, Iran would have no reason to continue enriching at this level nor would it need its stockpile. And since Iran planned to use Fordo for enrichment at this level, demanding that those plans be set aside also seems reasonable.

However, because what Obama is willing to put on the table in return remains rather vague, it seems unlikely that Tehran would be ready to close down the Fordo plant, which would probably be viewed as humiliating, and increases the political infighting already under way. Indeed so far, US officials have only indicated that Iran would receive fuel pads to produce medical isotopes and a promise not to impose new UN sanctions on Tehran. This package seems to be a non-starter simply because there is a significant imbalance between what is being demanded and what is being offered in return.

However, while the West may promise no new sanctions, there has been no word about dropping the oil sanctions that are due to be brought into force in June. Further the idea of dropping already agreed upon sanctions (which would be very difficult) would also affect Obama’s re-election campaign, with Iran being one of the few foreign policy issues that Americans are interested in. If Iran rejects these demands the international community could soon face a serious crisis in the Persian Gulf that will also impact Obama’s re-election bid. Washington may be entering these talks asking too much. Therefore, there is an overriding need to find some sort of middle ground and compromise.

What happens next could determine whether or not Washington will be able to quash Israel’s threats to carry out military action this year. Although it is almost impossible for Israel to carry out the operation without US support over Iraq and the Caspian region, the US would be involved. Even if there is the remote chance Israel would move ahead without US backing, it would seem unlikely that the US would shoot down an Israeli aircraft.

Furthermore, because of the distance to be covered from Israel to Iran, the ”surprise” element would probably not be a surprise. Moreover, recent suggestions that Azerbaijan, which has close ties to Israel but a very tricky relationship with Iran, is ready to allow Israel to use an airbase on it territory, has been denied by Baku. In addition, because the targets are underground it would not simply be a “one strike and they are out” operation. It may require numerous strikes and a reliance on air-to-air refueling. However, history has shown us that Israel should never been underestimated and is capable of conducting operations that are off the beaten track. And with Israel and Iran both paranoid with regard to each other, anything could unfold. Certainly one thing can pretty much be guaranteed. Iran would hit back, and the consequences would be disastrous for the entre region. Therefore, let us hope that what happens in İstanbul will be enough to satisfy all parties, and the diplomatic option will remain alive.

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