Evidence that Iran has been involved in “efforts to master the technology needed for atomic weapons” can’t simply be ignored or dismissed by the international community. Ten different intelligence agencies contributed to the Atomic Energy Agency's carefully vetted findings, which were leaked yesterday.
Although the chances of war remain small, the diplomatic and economic consequences of this latest report could be extremely serious for the Islamic Republic. With its economy in the doldrums, further sanctions and greater international isolation will make the job of running an increasingly corrupt regime even more difficult for Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And if Khamenei thinks that Obama is going to simply walk away from all this, he will almost certainly prove mistaken.
Of course the problems for Iran extend past the IAEA – the Americans are still fuming over what they allege was an Iranian plan to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador in Washington. Although the allegations have yet to be proven – and there have inevitably been claims that the whole thing was concocted by the U.S. government – the fact that the Obama administration is happy to lay its evidence out in front of the New York federal court suggests the U.S. side is confident of its claims. The Obama administration appears to have no qualms about its case being dissected in a civilian court, where it will come under close scrutiny.
This confidence is the main reason why President Barack Obama has recently felt able to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, including the announcement of plans for joint military maneuvers with the Israeli military. The Saudi assassination allegations and Obama's tough public response are in turn the most probable reason why the Israeli government has felt emboldened enough to test new missiles that can reach Iran. Israel has been buoyed by Obama, and can use the president’s anger to further increase pressure on Iran’s government.
Iran’s government, for its part, still subscribes to the view that “Zionists” control U.S. foreign policy, arguing that if not for Israel and its supporters, the United States would be taking a less hostile approach towards Iran.
Yet not only is this kind of thinking inaccurate and distorted, but it ultimately discounts the importance of its own hostile actions against the United States. The Iran hostage crisis at the U.S. Embassy in 1979 was only the earliest provocation by Tehran, a move that was followed by the bombing of the U.S. Marines’ barracks in Beirut in 1983, an attack that killed 242 U.S. soldiers. The fact is that then and since, Tehran has done a far better job of painting itself as the enemy of the United States than anyone else could have done.
And now for Tehran the reality is that the longer the current crisis rumbles on, the more it will hurt the country – in a number of ways. Although Russia and China may not want tougher sanctions against Iran, in the long run, unless Iran cooperates with the IAEA, these two backers are likely to continue to edge further from Tehran. After all, both are opposed to a nuclear Iran, Russia especially.
But there’s still a way out for Iran’s government. Cooperating with the IAEA, rather than dismissing its reports as a “fabrication,” and answering in good faith questions about the nature of its nuclear program would go a long way toward the country avoiding the upcoming diplomatic battles it faces.
Compromise won’t be easy. The Islamic Republic has built much of its legitimacy on its anti-U.S. rhetoric and its nuclear stance. Any compromise could therefore mean even more infighting in a regime that’s already beset with unprecedented strife. But building confidence, and removing doubts about Iran's nuclear program, would be the best way of ensuring that the Iranian people can have access to the nuclear energy they require.
The recent developments are certainly going to legitimize the voices of those who want a tougher line to be taken against the Iranian government. This is inevitable and logical, and those arguing Iran's nuclear program is for civilian purposes look to be standing on ever shakier ground.
Yet despite this, Obama would be well advised not to shut the door of diplomacy – keeping it open will not only leave the Iranian regime room to compromise, but will also secure firmer support from China and Russia.
The Iranian government has stated that it doesn’t give in under pressure. But a look back in time suggests that actually, the opposite is true. The regime isn’t suicidal, and despite its suggestions to the contrary, it isn’t willing to pay any price for the decisions it makes.
This has been no clearer than it was back in 2003 when, confronted with a U.S. invading neighboring Iraq, it sought a grand bargain. President George W. Bush ignored that opportunity, a mistake that Obama shouldn't repeat because sooner or later, Iran's most powerful man is likely to realize that the West – and especially President Obama – isn’t bluffing. And if the president plays his cards carefully, he’ll keep the international community behind him too.