Despite guarded optimism and the promise of two more rounds of talks in March and April, the latest tranche of nuclear diplomacy between Iran and six world powers, which ended on Wednesday in Almaty, Kazakhstan, offered nothing new.
Iran made it clear it would not shut down its enrichment facility at Fordow — a key Western demand — and it would not abide by UN Security Council resolutions obliging it to halt uranium enrichment.
This week’s talks mark 11 years of diplomacy — evidence that Iran has achieved its goal of earning time without facing disastrous consequences.
The fact that time is a precious commodity in this game of constant brinkmanship was made plain when, earlier this week, the Daily Telegraph revealed that Iran’s Arak heavy water reactor was edging towards completion. Scoops aside, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s latest report, which was released last week, mentioned Arak’s steady progress and indicated that it could become operational by the end of this year or at the beginning of 2014.
Once the reactor is operational, it can no longer be a military target — unless one is prepared to bomb an active nuclear reactor, which would cause tens of thousands of civilian casualties. It is unthinkable that either Israel or the United States would do that.
Both Iran and Western powers therefore know that time is running out for a deal.
Iran may never have wanted one, and used diplomacy as a cover to buy time while sowing discord among its opponents. But for Europe and the United States in particular, it should be obvious that the elaborate diplomatic game played by Iran at regular intervals cannot go on forever.
Unless Iran slows down nuclear progress, as it has done in the past to fend off a showdown with the West, the next few months will therefore be crucial to determine whether a nuclear-armed Iran can be avoided.
And since diplomacy is unlikely to yield a deal and a military strike remains unpalatable, the sanctions’ regime must now be dramatically expanded.
Time for a peaceful resolution of this standoff is shrinking. And Iran’s dogged pursuit is unfazed by the economic stress increasingly felt inside the country by ordinary Iranians.
Western strategy must now be geared towards inflicting ever-heavier blows on the regime’s economic lifeline, lest we find ourselves still entangled in diplomacy with new irreversible realities on the ground, or forced to contemplate a pre-emptive strike to avoid them.