Wednesday, December 14, 2005

A Looming Showdown With Iran?

The most recent, intemperate remarks by Iran's president have raised fears that Iran is now squarely on a collision course with Israel and the West.

Drudge is linking to this AFP report, outlining growing diplomatic concerns about Tehran's increasingly harsh rhetoric, and refusal to compromise on its nuclear program.

As someone who's followed Iran for almost 20 years, I believe the concerns expressed in the article are valid. But I'm not prepared to predict an impending Israeli strike on Tehran's nuclear facilities, or an effort by the west to refer the Iranian nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. In fact, I'll go out on a limb and forecast more of the same in the coming months, with Tehran continuing its rhetoric (and nuclear activity), while the west casts about for diplomatic options and Israel focuses on domestic politics.

Unfortunately, that approach will do little to improve regional security and--possibly--encourage Iran to up the ante. The western alliance (including the U.S.) missed an important opportunity when they decided not to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council. And while it's doubtful that the council would have taken decisive action against Tehran, the referral would have represented an important, symbolic step--signalling that there are limits to western patience. Instead, the west has signed on for more rounds of diplomacy, allowing Iran to maintain the illusion of negotiations, while its scientists work frantically to develop nuclear weapons.

Likewise, Israel deserves part of the blame for the current situation. Not too many weeks ago, some Israeli officials were differentiating between an Iranian nuclear research program (which might be tolerated), versus a nuclear-armed Iran. Such comments were apparently designed to placate Israeli voters, in advance of next year's election. Unfortunately, those comments also gave a green light to Tehran, although the rhetoric from Tel Aviv has been noticeably tougher over the past couple of weeks. But there are still no signs that the Sharon government is preparing the Israeli public for the possibility of military action, a likely prelude to any strike against Iran. Running as part of a new centrist party, Sharon has tread carefully on the Iran issue, and avoid antagonizing liberal voters that he needs to win re-election. Facing the fight of his political life, it is difficult to envision Sharon ordering a strike on Iran before the election, unless he had unambiguous evidence of a looming Iranian nuclear threat.

By definition, a showdown requires two or more parties, with defined limits on what will (and won't) be tolerated. So far, the situation with Iran is a standoff in name only, because the west (and the Israelis) have only vaguely defined the limits on Tehran's behavior. In that environment, the Iranians will continue to push back, while the west continues to dither.

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