The failure this week of G5+1 negotiations with Iran in Almaty, Kazakhstan, raises the question of the viability of Western efforts to stop the Islamic Republic from getting a nuclear bomb.
On paper, the Western policy seems logical: negotiations with Iran coupled with hard sanctions and possible further sanctions. Given the tremendous imbalance in economic, military and political power between the two sides, this policy should be working.
But, it isn’t—and the question is why. First, it ignores the importance of nuclear weapons for an embattled Iranian regime with elections in June, the likely loss of its main Arab ally — Syria — in the next year and a shrinking economy. Obtaining nuclear weapons would make Iran the ninth member of the exclusive nuclear club, promote nationalist chauvinism, improve its status as a leader of the neutralist bloc, deter any American or Israeli attack and may allow it to dominate the Middle East.
Second, Iran, with $80 billion in hard currency reserves, the help of Russia and China — foreign countries profiteering by helping it to evade sanctions — and strong Shiite support in the Middle East, can, in all likelihood, survive the economic isolation.
Finally, Iran sees America as a declining power hampered at home by a broken Congress and a failing economy. It sees a US winding up its involvement in Middle East wars, abstaining from intervention in Syria and focusing on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. Iran sees America showing weakness at this stage — the US dropped its demand for Iran to close down Fordow — before the game even gets interesting.
In fact, Iran believes the game is nearly over and it has won. Yet, all is not without hope. In 1987, the Grand Ayatollah Khomeini agreed to “drink from the poison chalice” and end the war with Iraq. And in 2003, when American troops occupied Baghdad, it slowed down its nuclear programme.
This does not necessarily mean an attack. Putting on more major naval exercises in the Persian Gulf — as the US has done — might well do the trick. Increasing economic pressure by seeking a total embargo of Iranian oil exports could provoke popular unrest. A no-fly zone over Syria and sending weapons to the secularists in Syria might also drive home the point.
All have the same goal: to show Iran the game is not over, that the West has overwhelming military and economic capabilities and the willingness to use them. At that point, as in earlier crises, Iran might well decide to postpone its nuclear ambitions.
If not, there are always other possible courses of action. Only time will tell how far Obama is willing to go to stop Iran — or whether he accepts it as a nuclear power in the next year or two.