The failure of yet another round of P5+1 talks with Iran on the nuclear issue has once again driven nervous Nellies in a dozen world capitals to worry about the rising possibility of a war with Iran.
They shouldn’t be all that concerned.
Both the Obama administration and the mullahs share a common objective: to prevent an Israeli strike. Even if they didn’t, the American desire to avoid war in an election year is compelling and powerful. The fact is that 2012 will bring neither war and nor a deal. Both are too risky now for either Washington or Teheran to contemplate. The actors in this nuclear drama are doing what they do best — buying time and space in the hopes that something will turn up to make their respective decisions easier and less risky.
Even for those committed to a diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear issue, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the obvious. The clever formulae for a deal may well exist on paper, but neither Teheran nor Washington have the incentive or capacity to bridge the gaps.
Even if this weren’t an election year, President Obama could not provide enough sanctions relief to induce the Iranians to limit enrichment, and Iran wants that right acknowledged to a degree that Washington can't and won’t accept. Without trust (there’s none) or the capacity to give the other side the benefit of the doubt (little of that too), the negotiating process will remain just that without much direction or result.
The fact is it’s becoming increasingly clear that two options exist for dealing with Iran and a potential bomb: use the military option to delay Iran’s acquisition of nuclear-weapons capacity, or accept it.
The middle ground — some deal on limiting enrichment, shipping Iran’s enriched stockpile out of the country and negotiating inspections so they won’t replenish it — seems out of reach. As does some grand bargain on other regional issues. There’s another reality too: Iran has learned how to enrich uranium to weapons grade and has sufficient centrifuges to continue the process. That can’t be unlearned; without real transparency and accountability, Teheran can continue its nuclear program — all or parts of it — at its own discretion.
If sanctions hurt but can’t be determinative and diplomacy doesn’t work, that leaves drift and the almost inexorable path toward a military strike. I say "strike" and not "a military solution" because it’s hard to imagine that an Israeli strike — akin to mowing the grass — can stop the mullahs' quest for a nuclear-weapons capacity, and it’s hard to imagine the Americans acting on a military option anytime soon either.
Obama may be a wartime president, but his entire approach is getting out of conflicts, not into them. And although he’s behind the sanctions against Iran, the cyber attacks and the rhetoric (we’re not containing Iran anymore but preventing it from acquiring a weapon), it’s hard to see this president as eager to move to a military solution.
That’s certainly the case for the remainder of this year. The idea that because it’s an election year, the president needs to beat the war drums under pressure from Republicans and pro-Israeli constituents who vote in closely contested states has it backwards. It’s precisely because it’s an election year that Obama wants to avoid war and the uncertainties (collapsed financial markets, higher oil and gas prices) that war would bring. In fact, this president will go to great lengths to keep the war with Iran covert and the negotiating process going rather than accept the alternative: an overt conflict that he and the Pentagon see as a potential disaster.
Israel’s calculations are different, of course. The Israelis have less of a margin for error and very little patience, particularly if the negotiations aren’t producing and the sanctions can’t stop the centrifuges (and they won’t; they can’t). That doesn’t mean Israel has a wide-open lane to pursue a military option. The public is divided. Recent comments from former intelligence chiefs have called into question the urgency and wisdom of a military option. And while some analysts play down the severity of the Iranian response, the fact is that an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear sites will be a big big deal. It may well make the last harebrained Israeli scheme — an attack in collusion with the British and French in Sinai and the Suez Canal in a bid to topple Egypt’s Nasser — look like a local dispute.
And that’s the point. Benjamin Netanyahu knows that right now, in the summer of 2012, there is only one country in the world that believes an attack on Iran is a war of necessity, and that’s his. Everyone else, including the United States believes it’s still a very risky war of discretion. Iran doesn’t have enough fissile material to make nuclear weapons nor the capacity to produce them; it doesn’t have a bomb and can’t test one. To go to war in these circumstances — using the justification that the bomb is where Iran is heading — just won’t hold up, maybe not even in Washington, where it must.
The fact is that nobody — not the Israelis, the Iranians nor the Americans — wants a war or a deal right now. The first is way too risky for all of them, and the second involves choices and concessions that are politically costly and far too uncertain. When faced with that kind of situation, the most likely response is to wait, tread water, and hope you can find a way to avoid going under. The bad news is the Americans and Iranians may not figure this out; the good news is they have some more time to try.
Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He was formerly an adviser to Republican and Democratic secretaries of State on Arab-Israeli negotiations. His new book, Can America Have Another Great President?, will be published by Random House this year.