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Five Middle East crises: 4. Iran

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COMMENTS

16 February 2009 09:51

Parts one (Arab-Israel conflict), two (Iraq) and three (Afghanistan-Pakistan) in this series. 

The fourth crisis confronting the Obama Administration in ‘West Asia’ rivals the third (Afghanistan/Pakistan) in difficulty, but is of greater long-term significance – Iran. Since Iran’s revolution in 1979, US-Iran relations have been marked by unremitting mutual suspicion punctuated by occasional bouts of open hostility or abortive rapprochement. 

From Washington’s perspective, Iran has been central to a revisionist and rejectionist axis in the Middle East that threatens US interests and allies and has repeatedly challenged US policies, including through violence and terrorism. For Tehran, the US is a direct threat to the survival of the regime and a check on Iranian efforts to find what it sees as its rightful place as a major regional and even global player.

Iran’s efforts to master the nuclear fuel cycle, equipping it with the means to build a nuclear weapon, has the potential to bring this conflictual relationship to a destructive head. Of course, the Iranian nuclear effort is not new. But as this report underlines, the nuclear program is approaching a point where few technical and industrial hurdles now lie between Iran and a nuclear weapon.

Against this background, and with sanctions seen as, at best, a slow-working option, the Obama Administration has argued that it will try to engage Iran directly. The ground for such an approach was prepared by the Bush Administration when it turned away from a military option and softened its opposition to engaging Iran in mid-2006. (It remains moot whether the Bush Administration ever seriously considered a military option, though if this report is correct, it may have vetoed an Israeli strike.)

Already both Washington and Tehran have softened their rhetoric toward each other. Should the reformist former President Mohammed Khatami win this year’s presidential election, the atmosphere will improve still further, though the actual policy settings on the nuclear and other issues will remain firmly in the hands of Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Even with these more positive signs, it is by no means certain that Tehran-Washington relations will improve. The history of US-Iranian engagement — two countries that have not had embassies in each others capitals for almost 30 years — is not encouraging. 

The steady progress of the Iranian nuclear program means that the Washington will need to make progress relatively quickly. For Tehran, however, the imperative (and certainly the practice in the past) will be to go slow, drawing out any direct talks while continuing work on enrichment. (The one possible exception to this go-slow imperative for Tehran is the dramatic drop in oil prices in the last six months. This has left the country short of money that is now extremely difficult to borrow internationally and dangerous to print domestically. While inflation has fallen recently, it is still at 24 per cent.)

Watching all of this with a sceptical eye will be Israel, with its fears that if the Iranian nuclear program cannot be slowed or stopped this year, it will not be stopped at all. 

Iranian-US engagement will also occur against a background of a significant increase in Iran’s regional influence in recent years. This is a doubled-edged sword for the US. On the one hand, Tehran will feel secure enough to engage the US. On the other, it may well be too confident to agree to significant compromises.

The good news for the US is that for all of Iran’s increased influence, the power relativities have not really changed. Iran has not suddenly become a rich country like India, or major military power like China. Its increased regional influence has largely been circumstantial, resulting, for example, from the failure of the Israeli-Arab peace process, which has pushed Syria and Hamas closer to its orbit, and from US failures in Iraq that have opened the field for Iran there.

So the bad news is that, as the US tries to engage Iran, it will also have to work on the things that have made Iran stronger. As previous posts in this series on the Israeli-Arab conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan have already noted, this is not going to be easy.

Photo by Flickr user Matthew Winterburn, used under a Creative Commons license.

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