NEW YORK - The United States has the Iranian tiger by the tail. Washington doesn’t know whether to hold on or let the big beast go.
The Mideast diplomatic thaw begun by Russia’s clever Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s democratic change of presidents, opened the diplomatic path to progress over Syria, Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and, lest we forget, the question of Palestine.
For the first time since 1979, senior US and Iranian officials are holding talks in Geneva. Joining them are nuclear negotiators from Russia, Britain, France, Germany and China.
Ironically, the only two nations in this group that are not in violation of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty are Iran and Germany. The other members have never fulfilled their pledge to rapidly eliminate all nuclear weapons. Five decades later, they still hold 22,000 nuclear warheads. And that total does not include the nuclear arsenals of Israel, Pakistan and India.
Washington now faces a very difficult problem. It has waged economic and political warfare against the Islamic Republic of Iran since its 1979 revolution. Iran has been badly damaged by sanctions. But like that other disobedient bad boy, Cuba, Iran has managed to hold out.
But what will happen if punishing US-engineered sanctions against Iran are eased? Oil-rich Iran will rebuild its ravaged economy and infrastructure, and quietly enhance its military power. A key priority for Tehran will be modernizing its decrepit civilian air fleet that routinely crashes from mechanical problems or pilot error. Good news for Boeing and Airbus, as well as US energy companies.
If Iran regains its former role as a major Mideast power, this important development will run head-on into current US strategy to keep it weak and isolated until a pro-US government comes to power in Tehran. A strengthening Iran will generate fear and anxiety in Saudi Arabia and some of the less flexible Gulf states, and increase Tehran’s influence over Iraq.
An Iran with the capability of producing a few nuclear weapons within a year also deeply alarms Washington, its Arab allies, and Israel. An Iran with even a few nukes, like North Korea, would sharply limit US Mideast power and its ability to use military forces against Iran.
Israel knows that Iran has no intention of launching a nuclear attack on the Jewish state, which is a major world nuclear power with an invulnerable triad of land, sea and air-launched nuclear weapons.
But Israel’s constant alarms about Iran’s so far non-existent nuclear weapons serves to distract attention from its rapid absorption of the West Bank and Golan, and generate potent political and financial support from its North American partisans. Or maybe Israel’s leader, Benyamin Netanyahu has actually come to believe his own Jeremiads about Tehran’s supposed suicidal “mad mullahs.”
Today, Israel has no serious enemies in the Arab world: Egypt has been bought off; Iraq and Syria destroyed. Saudi Arabia is in secret alliance with Israel. The only nation that can hope to challenge Israel’s increasingly dominant role in the Mideast is Iran. That puts Israel, Iran and Saudi Arabia in a three-way competition for regional hegemony.
If Iran is kept isolated and assaulted by trade sanctions, electronic attack, sabotage and ethnic subversion in its Arab and Azeri regions, Iran will very likely continue its slow but steady development of nuclear breakout capability – meaning being able to assemble nuclear components into a warhead and deliver them on fairly short notice.
A deal limiting Tehran’s breakout capability would seem the best recourse. My own long-standing proposal is the “Margolis Plan:” let Iran and Israel to inspect one-another’s nuclear facilities.
But that, of course, won’t happen because Israel won’t admit it has nuclear weapons, a fairy tale backed by all US administrations. How about the US, China, Russia, France and Britain opening their nuclear plants for inspection? Add India and Pakistan to this list.
While what appear to be fruitful talks progress in Geneva, powerful special interests in America are trying to thwart any agreement with Iran. The US Congress, profoundly corrupted by political donations, is moving to impose new, draconian sanctions on Iran while Israel’s rightists and their allies in the US media thunder about the alleged dangers from Iran. The Republican Party leads the call for harsher sanctions on Iran.
President Barack Obama knows that any deal with Iran must be struck before the next US presidential season gets under way, otherwise it will fail.
Iran’s new leadership, led by President Hassan Rouhani, clearly wants a deal. The nationalist pride Iranians feel for their so far civilian nuclear program cannot outweigh the damage and pain of crushing sanctions. However, as in the past, the US-led western powers may keep moving the goalposts ever farther from a lasting agreement.
If there’s a deal with Iran over nuclear power, can pressure for a deal over Palestine be far behind?