Iran, the US, and the Middle East

A number of interesting, off the record, perspectives came up at the IISS conference in Geneva, Global Strategic Review in September 2010.

However to understand them you need to understand some background: the vast majority of the members of the strategic studies community believe that Iran will acquire a nuclear weapons capability (it may never declare such); the policy response which is now being enunciated and considered is “containment and deterrence”; deterrence-to deter a nuclear attack, and containment to contain possible Iranian expansionary moves and policies.

Whatever your views on this, there is little doubt about the views of Iran’s neighbours, which are increasingly being expressed in either clear verbal signals or concrete terms. Here are relevant quotations from the IISS Strategic Survey 2010 The Annual Review of World Affairs, issued in September 2010.

  • “… United Arab Emirates foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah compared Iranian occupation of three disputed islands located at the entrance to the Strait of Hormuz with Israeli occupation of Arab lands. The Gulf states also grew increasingly nervous about the nuclear and missile threat from the eastern side of the Gulf [Iran], and most of them sought to strengthen their defence ties with the United States, including introducing Patriot anti-ballistic-missile batteries.”
  • “…  speculation that Saudi Arabia and Israel had forged some sort back-channel agreement to cooperate in the event that Israel decided to attack Iran to destroy the parts of nuclear infrastructure that Israeli intelligence had identified. The Saudi role in this scenario would be to turn off its air-defence radars to ensure that Israel’s over flight of Saudi airspace en route to Iran was unimpeded. Speculation along these lines was revived in mid-2010 when Saudi Arabia conducted air-defence drills that were thought to have included practice in turning radars on and off quickly. Viewed alongside the permission Egypt granted to Israeli warships to transit the Suez Canal and steps some of the Gulf Cooperation Council states were taking to upgrade their defence with US help, it did appear that some sort of tacit arrangement, aimed at facilitating an Israeli strike rather than persuading or compelling Iran to comply with UN Security Council resolutions regarding its nuclear programme, was emerging.”
  • “…  [The UAE] ambassador to the United States was willing publicly to contemplate the possibility of military options in the event that nothing else was able to prevent a confirmed acquisition by Iran of a nuclear-weapons capability and lamented the drift towards containment and deterrence options, which he believed were insufficient.”

Any crisis involving the US and Iran, with respect to Iran’s nuclear weapon’s developments, would be a seismic event in the Middle East and the world, as seismic as the 1967 war.


It was noted that all efforts by multiple parties to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear issue to date, have failed. The assumption that Iran can be negotiated with on matters such as this is just that – an assumption. It is time, in my opinion, to question that assumption. Iran’s Byzantine internal politics, the need for an external enemy, and a huge dollop of paranoia (some justified by its history) may mean it cannot be successfully negotiated with on some issues. It is widely understood and agreed that with Iran, internal politics always trumps external relations and agreements.

Reminded, correctly, that the Iranian nuclear programme is a marathon not a sprint (the good news), but that it appears to be on automatic pilot (the bad news), which with the Iranian internal politics, could easily mean it just happens because no one says stop. This is a reasonable to strong possibility. When the fuel swap deal was announced by the West/ US, the Iranian President, Ahmadinejad, accepted the deal. This acceptance continued through one or two subsequent international meetings, and then was derailed by his presidential opponents, effectively outbidding him in hard-line rhetoric. In other words the best chance of a confidence-building deal (the real purpose of the fuel swap) was killed not by the hardliners, but by the so-called moderates or centrists. Internal Iranian politics killed a possible nuclear deal  – a point almost totally missed in the West.

The Turkish/Brazilian  deal  was ” too little too late.” The original Western deal would have removed sufficient enriched uranium to ensure Iran could not produce a nuclear weapon in the short term. When the Turkish /Brazilian deal was signed (after the usual Iranian delays), because of continued Iranian production, it affected only 50% of Iranian uranium, giving it a continuing ability to produce nuclear weapons. Currently that number is about 35%, giving Iran total flexibility in its plans in this area.


War with Iran is seen as a massive mistake, worse than any non-war situation. This in essence means that the world will have to contain/deter Iran. A  deep  irony  – one of Iran’s key policy objectives is to remove the US presence in the Middle East. Very clear that Iran’s nuclear “rise” requires a heightened US presence in the Middle East.

Noted that trust between the US and Israel has significantly eroded. This could have significant implications with respect to Israel’s perceptions of Iran’s activities in the nuclear area and its actions with respect to same-it may lack confidence in US support and so go it alone.  

Some views that containment and deterrence could work with  Iran  – but would require very clear red lines.  Also  noted that Iran’s nuclear programme recently has been slower than expected -possibly due to Western intelligence efforts to “disable” certain nuclear plant, and possibly because of the discovery of the secret facility at Qom. Also apparently greater confidence in the US in its ability, using new non-nuclear munitions, to take-out buried Iranian nuclear facilities.

Sanctions in this area against Iran are beginning to bite and having a serious impact. However the key is the Iranians’ view on likely future sanctions movements. This is the opposite of what many expect. Hard-line talk here from the West, China, India etc just might get Iran to reconsider negotiating seriously. Nice soft, liberal rhetoric makes a deal much less likely, with all that implies.

The real objective now should be to stop Iran “going the last mile”. This is a reasonable objective, but waiting in the wings is Israel with likely support from Iran’s Arab neighbours for an attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

An alternative seen, including potentially for  Israel, would be deterrence and defence, the approach adopted by Japan with respect to   North Korea. This would involve a variety of defence mechanisms, including Patriot and other anti-missile defences.

Can deterrence work with Iran generally and particularly with Israel?

A “wildcard” ” concern raised by a number of people at different sessions: If, for example, Hezbollah launched a rocket attack on Israel that happened to kill hundreds, some reckon   that Israel would attack what it sees as the master, Iran, with possibly catastrophic implications. [ One of the many reasons why nuclear deterrence between Israel and Iran may just not be possible.]

There is a strong view, held by a number of individuals including Henry Kissinger, that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapons capability would be a catastrophe, in terms of the likely reaction in the Middle East and Gulf, its impact on the  Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT),  and the elimination of the possibility of complete nuclear disarmament. I would have shared these views until recently, but believes a rethink is now appropriate.

Iran as a bogeyman

Some  interesting comments on the perceptions of Iran in the Middle East/Gulf. Some possibility it has become a “bogeyman” to Israel, the US, some Europeans, and interestingly many Arabs. Its power, and the threat from it, may be overstated. It also probably is not as popular as it seems – be  careful of   opinion polls. It seems popular in the Arab world because it opposes Israel and the West. However when the same opinion polls ask where people would like to live, Iran is not mentioned. Turkey is seen in a much more positive light.

Note  the major change in Iran in its approach to the Israel/Palestinian peace process. While Iran opposed the peace process in the past, it did say it would accept it if a Palestinian referendum accepted it. Now Iran says it  opposes the peace process and will try to stop it. (Obviously Iran considers its views on the Palestinian issue as more important/relevant than Palestinian views or interests.)

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