CoverStory

The standoff

Who will blink first in Iran's nuclear poker game?

By Robert Merry

As war agitation intensifies over Iran’s nuclear program, much of the world’s attention naturally focuses on the three men at the centre of the storm—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Barack Obama. Each brings his own attributes, impulses, sensibilities and limitations to the lingering crisis. But each is also buffeted, as all politicians are, by the political pressures and forces swirling through his own national polity. Hence, to understand the three leaders’ manoeuvrings, it is helpful to probe as well the political milieus in which they operate.

Ahmadinejad presides in a country whose identity is indistinguishable from its religion. And the most solemn protector of that identity and religion is not Ahmadinejad but Ayatollah Khamenei, whose aim is to sustain the revolution that keeps him and his clerical establishment in power. He does that by fanning the flames of ideological fervour, which means he must control every aspect of Iranian life that is related even minutely to the state’s religious and ideological identity. That includes foreign policy.

Netanyahu must contend with a demographic revolution that occurred in his country during the past couple of decades, when a million and a half immigrants arrived in Israel, 85 per cent from the former Soviet Union. These newcomers, some ultraorthodox but many secular, brought to Israeli politics a more stark and uncompromising outlook regarding West Bank settlements and also the Iranian threat. Netanyahu shares this outlook, but his coalition until recently relied on a number of highly ideological splinter parties that rendered his government unstable. Thus, Netanyahu’s primary political challenge was to fashion a more stable and potent governing alliance, which he did.

For Obama, the preeminent political challenge in this election year is his country’s anaemic economic recovery, which could upend his incumbency. Just behind that is his effort to craft a new US foreign policy that pulls his country away from the kind of expeditionary adventures that George W. Bush pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two efforts are intertwined. As he seeks to boost the US economy, Obama certainly doesn’t need any dire foreign policy crisis, particularly one that would blow a hole in his economic efforts. But such a crisis could emerge with Iran, perhaps triggered by his nettlesome ally, Netanyahu.

The political realities faced by these three leaders come into play starkly as they seek to manoeuvre their countries through the deepening crisis. Complexities abound in all three instances.

Ahmadinejad emerged in Iran’s 2005 presidential election as a kind of counterforce to the reformist impulses of his predecessor, Muhammad Khatami. In addition to his policies of domestic liberalisation, Khatami unfurled a “good neighbour” approach to other Gulf regimes, improved relations with European states, and even softened his rhetoric toward Israel. After the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on America, he also sought to exploit a perceived opportunity to reach out to the United States.

Khatami moved cautiously and deftly, knowing opposition conservatives harboured intense concerns that his reformist agendacould erode the foundations of the Islamic state. It didn’t help when president George W. Bush, in January 2002, included Iran in his famous “axis of evil” designation. This proved highly valuable grist for the conservatives. Also around this time a new breed of conservative emerged—highly reverent young veterans of the Iran-Iraq War who were stung by the war’s outcome and angry about the country’s reformist direction. Islamist and nationalist in outlook, this New Right contingent felt deep suspicion toward the West, particularly America.

As the leader of this group, Ahmadinejad rose to the presidency. His emergence was welcomed by Ayatollah Khamanei, but along the way Ahmadinejad angered the Ayatollah with his efforts to expand his political powers at the expense of the clerical elite. The Ayatollah also grew tired of Ahmadinejad’s messianic rhetoric, his redistributive economic policies and his lack of deference toward the Supreme Leader. Meanwhile, Iran’s sorry economic state, rendered all the worse through a matrix of economic sanctions imposed because of Iran’s nuclear development, has undercut Ahmadinejad’s popular support.

In parliamentary elections in March 2012, Khamanei gained a sufficient majority to bring Ahmadinejad under control. He revealed a plan to eliminate the presidential position when the incumbent’s second term expires in June 2013. Thus the Ayatollah has undermined the President’s political standing and his clout. Even if Ahmadinejad wished to halt Iran’s nuclear efforts and negotiate a crisis solution with the UN and the West, and there is evidence he does wish to do so, it isn’t clear the matter resides in his hands.

Netanyahu looks at all this with immense trepidation, which generates an iron resolve. To him, Iran represents an existential threat to Israel akin to the one faced by European Jews in 1939. He is bent on neutralising this threat by whatever means necessary. Politically, he is in sync with the hardline sentiment that emerged in Israel in the wake of the recent immigration wave and seriously attenuated the power of the country’s liberal Labor and Meretz parties. In 1992 they commanded 56 seats in the 120-seat Knesset—enough to form a governing coalition dedicated to a two-state solution for the occupied lands in the West Bank and Gaza. After the most recent elections, these two parties commanded only 16 seats, and polls indicate that more than 70 per cent of Israelis identify themselves as right wing.

But Netanyahu could never quite extricate himself politically from the small, right-wing groupings that were necessary for him to secure his coalition. This constricted his freedom of action and rendered him vulnerable to the often-erratic sentiments of these fringe coalition elements. The Prime Minister recently solved all this with one brilliant stroke—establishing a unity alliance with the Kadima Party’s Shaul Mofaz. This gives Netanyahu’s government 94 Knesset seats. It also marginalises the fringe parties and gives the Prime Minister wide latitude of manoeuvre on all matters, including the question of whether to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Netanyahu has one lingering problem: he’s not sure he can count on Barack Obama to take the kind of hard line on Iran that he wishes to see from America. He sparred with the US President a year ago on the question of a West Bank Palestinian solution, and some felt he humiliated the President later with a forceful speech to the US Congress that generated abundant applause from lawmakers and with a subsequent address before the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Netanyahu’s confidence in his ability to sway American public opinion is well known. As he put it in an unguarded moment, “I know what America is. America is something you can move easily and push to the right direction. They won’t stand in our way. So let’s assume they’re saying something, let them talk. Eighty per cent of Americans are on our side.”

When Netanyahu returned to America in March for this year’s AIPAC conference, Obama seemed bent on preventing another such episode. But, in an apparent attempt to stave off a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran, the President stiffened his own position considerably. He removed from the table any US acceptance of a deterrence policy following Iranian development of nuclear weaponry. That was tantamount to a war commitment if necessary to prevent a nuclear Iran. It can’t be stated definitively that the spectre of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran, which inevitably would draw America into another Middle East war, induced Obama to embrace his own tougher stance. But it is clear that Obama’s political imperative is to prevent a war with Iran if at all possible—and, if not, to forestall it as long as he can.

And so attention is focused on the ongoing negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 powers (the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and Germany). These talks may be the three leaders’ final chance to defuse the crisis. In any event, with Obama’s recent rejection of deterrence, there seem to be three possibilities, and only three. Either Iran backs away from its current course and accepts serious curtailments on its nuclear enrichment program; or Obama retreats from a solemnly expressed resolve; or there will be war.