Obama's dangerous Iran nuclear gambit
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
US President Barack Obama has engaged in a potentially dangerous gambit by stating categorically that in the US's view Iran is "over a year or so" from developing nuclear weapons. While it is bound to ingratiate his administration with the pro-Israel lobby, Obama's statement on the eve of his trip to Israeli may come to haunt him in the near future in the event the current diplomatic efforts to end the Iran nuclear standoff fail to reach a breakthrough.
In an interview with Israeli TV ahead of his visit on Wednesday, Obama said Iran is ''over a year or so'' away from being able to
develop a nuclear weapon and that the US will use ''all options'' to stop it. ''Right now, we think it would take over a year or so for Iran to actually develop a nuclear weapon, but obviously we don't want to cut it too close,'' Obama told Israel's Channel 2 on Thursday.
There are in fact two ways to interpret Obama's statement. On the one hand it could be calculated to extend diplomacy with Iran another year and, on the other, as the opposite; to short-circuit diplomacy and impose an artificial deadline directed toward the "military option". The Obama "doublespeak" cuts both ways, but the upper hand belongs to the hidden preference for a designed stalemate that would obviate the present efforts at negotiations, which have reached a crucial turning point, in light of this week's meeting of experts in Istanbul and the planned Almaty II talks next month.
Theoretically, all the main elements for a deal are falling into their places: Iran is ready to stop the 20% uranium enrichment and finalize a modality for cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), in return for a quid pro quo lifting of major sanctions levied by the Western governments. Since last March's meeting in Istanbul, both sides in the multilateral talks have agreed to adopt the framework of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and this has resulted in the slow but steady recognition of Iran's "inalienable nuclear rights". In a word, we are on the verge of the beginning of the end of the Iran nuclear crisis.
Yet such hopeful expectations are potentially jeopardized by a US-Israeli concert aimed at neutralizing the current negotiations and thus perpetuating the present stalemate. Their calculations may well be that the benefits of a stalemate outweigh those of a settlement of the nuclear dispute - in which case, first and foremost, we must interpret Obama's carefully-constructed statement as a sign of US obstructionism.
The irony is that this statement is not supported by the latest US global threat assessment and/or recent congressional testimony from the US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who reaffirmed that Iran is not building nuclear weapons and "could not divert safeguarded material and produce a weapon-worth of weapons-grade uranium before this activity is discovered''. All of Iran's enrichment activities are fully monitored by the UN atomic agency and there is no evidence of diversion of nuclear material.
Irrespective, the Obama administration has opted to up the ante against Iran precisely at a time when clinching a deal is on the horizon. Tehran has reacted by accusing Obama of playing political psychology, given Iran's known aversion to sign any deal under "the treat of gun'', to paraphrase Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Instead of self-imposing a moratorium on such overt military threats and giving diplomacy a real chance, the US administration is moving in the opposite direction of appeasing the Israeli hawks and their maximalist approach toward Iran - that is, it is unsatisfied with anything less than a complete suspension of all uranium enrichment activities by Iran. Indeed, Washington's and Tel Aviv's common denominator may be a "groupthink" on the many advantages of a nuclear stalemate.
Multiple US-Israeli advantages of stalemate
First, the current stalemate has put Iran on the defensive and restricted its regional power projection capability. Second, it has benefited US hegemony by dictating policies to other nations, such as forbidding them from engaging in oil-for-cash trade with Iran, thus fueling the US's quest for a post-Cold War unipolar order, in part by justifying a US power projection in the Middle East.
The third aspect of the stalemate is that it has benefited the US military-industrial complex, by exporting tens of billions of dollars of US arms to the oil rich Persian Gulf in the name of containing Iran. Fourth, the whole Western nuclear industry has benefited by the sale of nuclear technology to several Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, ostensibly emulating Iran's (peaceful) nuclear program.
Israel has superbly used the nuclear standoff to its advantage by deflecting attentions from the Palestinian problem and its land-grab expansionist policy. The stalemate and the accompanying "crippling sanctions" also serve the US regime's roll-back strategy that harkens back to the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the "loss of Iran'', which has been - without exception - unacceptable to Washington policymakers since.
This, in turn, points at the simplistic analyses, for example, of authors of a new book, Going To Tehran, who have made illicit comparisons between today's Iran and China of the early 1970s, overlooking the profound dissimilarities of the two cases. A more apt comparison would be Iran and Iraq, which is why US is pushing for a similar oil-for-food scenario in order to gradually weaken Iran, just as it did with Saddam Hussein's regime for a decade before attacking Iraq.
All indications are that just as US had no real fear of Iraq when it invaded in 2003, today there is no significant fear of Iran "going nuclear", per the recent admissions of US intelligence community cited above, thus making the "stalemate" scenario rather feasible.
The problem with the scenario is, however, that it makes war more and not less likely. That is a distinct possibility that Obama, who is at present playing brinksmanship with Iran, should be wary of. All he needs to do is to remind himself of the precious lessons of the US$2 trillion Iraq war.
In the final analysis, the disadvantages of a nuclear stalemate with Iran are greater than the advantages, and one year may be a terrifically short time to prove this. In retrospect, Obama may well bemoan his blunder of giving the Iran nuclear crisis a fake timetable.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy (Westview Press) . For further biographical details, click here. Afrasiabi is author of Reading In Iran Foreign Policy After September 11 (BookSurge Publishing , October 23, 2008) and Looking for Rights at Harvard. His latest book is UN Management Reform: Selected Articles and Interviews on United Nations CreateSpace (November 12, 2011).
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