December 13, 2012

Iran's sense of vulnerability casts a wide net

The Gulf expects more from the United States, and less from Iran. Surprised?

On the military side, admirals and generals want to know our plans and protocols for managing the threat from Iran, on tactical as well as strategic levels. Politically, diplomats and bloggers alike blame us for letting Mubarak fall in favor of the new Islamist Pharaoh, Mohamed Morsi. On Syria, opinion is divided on whether the United States ought to directly intervene militarily or simply provide advanced weapons to the rebels. But then maybe, judging from the current blowback on Morsi and his ascendant Muslim Brotherhood, we should be stepping in to prop up Syrian President Bashar Assad... Stability vs. democracy, or secular vs. religious autocracy.

Reflecting the outdated relevance of Wikileaks, Gulf regimes are no longer itching for a U.S.-Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Instead, they are acutely aware that if Iran gets lucky with just one anti-ship mine, all oil shipments will come to a standstill. The closer Iran gets to achieving "breakout" capacity, or to crossing one of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ever-shifting "red lines", the more regional leaders understand that neither diplomatic nor military options promise an easy resolution. And once again, regardless of the nuclear file, Iran's ongoing opportunism is evident in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, and potentially Bahrain. The regime in Tehran is as happy to take advantage of popular Arab unrest as it was to seize full control of Abu Musa from the United Arab Emirates 20 years ago (or to regain its former sovereignty, according to the Iranians).

For all their defiance and bluster, Iranians remain concerned about their own rights to security and national self-defense: The entire punitive premise of international nuclear negotiators and the sanctions backing them up leaves Iranians feeling humiliated and cornered. This is not merely posturing -- it's a genuine feeling.

I do not discount Iran's violation of international treaties and conventions on the transparency and verifiability of its nuclear program, nor its propensity to support terrorism and undermine diplomatic solutions, especially where the Israelis and Palestinians are concerned. Sure, Iran is responsible for its current dilemma. But so long as Iran feels deep down that its very sovereignty and survival are being threatened, it is unlikely to willingly give up what has become its nuclear insurance policy.

While the West cannot afford to back down, it is increasingly likely that Iran will nevertheless succeed in attaining nuclear weapons capacity within the next five years. Leveraging the existing and future sanctions and other measures, it may be possible to fashion a process and terms of reference that acknowledge and allay Iranian fears and also establish a framework for taking the centrifuges off line.

An Iran that WANTS to own nuclear weapons can potentially be deterred. An Iran that feels it NEEDS to own nuclear weapons will be truly dangerous and unpredictable. If our efforts to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran are able to address both points, we just might succeed in the short term and also open the door to a long-term process of normalization.

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