By Abhijit Iyer-Mitra
The Moscow talks on Iran’s nuclear programme ended in deadlock – in a sense they had to. What was being offered to Iran in return for its compliance targets the symptoms but not the disease. Ground realities dictate that any ‘solution’ will at best be temporary and Iran will go nuclear – hook or crook.
The drive to weaponise
There is a powerful rationale for Iran to go nuclear – essentially multiple balancing. Throughout West Asia, supporting Shia minority rights is equated with supporting Iranian revisionism/expansionism, and consequently ignored by the West. Sunni sects have also successfully radicalised Iran’s periphery in effect creating a Sunni ring of encirclement. Added to this is that Iran’s neighbours are either nuclear, have alliances with nuclear powers or host deployments from nuclear powers – exacerbating a deeply skewed conventional imbalance. The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries for example have well over 500 modern combat aircraft while Iran fields obsolescent models at best, all of doubtful serviceability. Iran therefore has to balance, ideologically, militarily and geopolitically, while the conventional avenues to do so are progressively eliminated.
Carrots and sticks
Contrast this impetus with the ‘carrots’ on offer – nebulous assurances of sanctions lifting in return for giving up its right to enrich. Basically the West is promising guarantees to ensure previously promised guarantees (as per the NPT) are reneged on. Added to this is US’ goalpost shifting over the pre-2003 Iraq sanctions, which means Western credibility runs thin in this part of the world. By any stretch of logic the ‘carrots’ bear no correlation to the opportunity costs Iran has to bear.
Western thinking seems to be that backing Iran into a tight corner will ultimately ensure the Iranians cave. One analogy put out to support this viewpoint is Khomeini’s ‘I drink from the poisoned chalice’ speech where he caved to unpopular terms on the peace treaty with Iraq. That situation was completely different. Iraq, having wiped out much of Iran’s ground assets, used chemical warfare with vengeance – crushing Iranian morale – and was poised to finally threaten the survival of the Iranian regime after 8 long years of fighting. If Khomeini ‘drank’ it was because he wanted to survive and not because of the 700,000 Iranians dead. Defiance even in the face of assured defeat (as the case of Husain and Ali at Karbala) is linked to their religious beliefs, and anti-Western rhetoric critical to the ideology of the ‘revolution’ – capitulation entails the loss of both religious and temporal authority by the regime. It is in effect being asked to commit hara-kiri. In this context, the choice given is between caving or sanctions – the former affects the regime the latter the people. Given that time and again the regime has proven it prioritises ideology and survival over the wellbeing of its people – the only logical conclusion is that Iran will not budge.
Cause and effect
Can any of the root causes ever be addressed? Accepting Shia emancipation would mean the weakening or collapse of several Western allies in the Arab world. Regional nuclear powers Pakistan, Russia, Israel and India cannot simply be willed out of existence and reduction in NATO troop levels would compromise other critical operations in the region. Creating a conventional balance in the region would either imply cutting off arms sales to Arab states (damaging Western industry and creating a dangerous vacuum) or allowing arms sales (even if only Russian) to Iran – both options would alienate the Arabs. Consequently America cannot give Iran what it needs and Iran gets little by way of concrete guarantees, and nothing by way of core demands to incentivise its capitulation. Even should Iran ‘cave’, it would be a deliberate tactical retreat, and viable alternate routes of proliferation will be activated. For example the pending and possibly inevitable isolation of Pakistan post 2014, combined with a collapsing economy, a porous border, Iran’s hydrocarbon surplus and Pakistan’s hydrocarbon deficit, a history of past clandestine cooperation, and the need to avoid further isolation sparring over Afghanistan, make for potent synergies. Incentivising Pakistan to resist has other spill-over consequences the US can ill-afford. The West therefore cannot afford to budge.
Both parties are trapped in a classic escalation scenario – where neither can give, and the only room for movement is up. The logical cost-benefit matrix for Iran is a strategy of hedging and carefully calibrated escalation. Similarly the only logical option for the Eest since it cannot offer anything concrete is to increase pressure – and given Iran’s cost-benefit matrix – elicit more escalation. The scope for strategic miscalculation here – on both sides – is severe.
Ultimately Iran has no choice, neither does the West, and the die is cast.
Research Officer, IPCS
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