A report issued Tuesday by the International Atomic Energy Agency presents more evidence than ever before that many aspects of Iran’s nuclear program are geared toward military purposes. Yet some analysts argue that overall, Iran represents less of a threat today than it did a year ago.
The IAEA report largely focuses on historical matters, and some observers say Iran is still having a great deal of difficulty in many areas of weapons technology. And it’s clear that Iran has experienced several other setbacks in recent months.
Its position in the Middle East has weakened in some regards, with regional rivalries against countries such as Saudi Arabia heating up. Syria, its main Arab ally, is also under some threat due to months of street protests.
Iran’s nuclear program was hindered by the Stuxnet computer virus, and the country itself is suffering from economic problems exacerbated by international sanctions imposed by the United States and other powers. There is also open conflict within the government between supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“There’s a serious split in the leadership of the Islamic Republic,” says Mohsen M. Milani, who chairs the department of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida.
“When you have that kind of problem, and then you’re dealing with sanctions that are really beginning to have an impact on Iran,” Milani says, “then you see we are dealing with a crisis that is more or less unique within the last three decades of the Islamic Republic.”
But Iran’s regime has been able to weather political conflicts in the past. And some analysts caution against viewing a few difficulties as evidence that the threat from Iran has diminished.
“I tend to be skeptical of an almost emerging conventional wisdom, this discussion in Washington that Iran is on the run or has taken a real beating as a result of its own missteps or changes in the region,” says Suzanne Maloney, a senior fellow in Middle East policy at the Brookings Institution.
Effects Of The Arab Spring
Maloney says she has no argument with those who say that “Iran as a model has declined as a result of the Arab Spring,” the region-wide, anti-government protests that began nearly a year ago. Iconic figures of protest in places such as Tunisia and Egypt, she says, have supplanted Ahmadinejad as a figure of resistance.
And in other countries, things have not broken Iran’s way. Months of protests have put at some risk Syrian President Bashar Assad, Iran’s most important Arab friend and its conduit to its allies in Lebanon.
An Iranian-backed protest movement in Bahrain, meanwhile, was quashed. Iran had hoped that a Shiite movement on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia would present a real challenge to one of its top regional rivals.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have slipped into a cold war, exemplified by the alleged assassination plot against the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. that was revealed last month. Turkey has also become a regional competitor.
“There’s no love lost between Iran and its neighbors,” says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s something that consistently checks Iran.”
Buying Some Time
But Rubin and other analysts caution against simply touting the cases where Iran has suffered some losses recently, and not examining the ways in which regional changes have benefited Iran.
The Arab Spring has caused headaches not just for Iran, but for rivals such as Saudi Arabia and the U.S.
“In the region, a new board is being laid out, and everyone is trying to adjust to the changes,” says Farideh Farhi, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
The international attention given to the upheavals in places such as Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has also bought Iran precious time to continue with its nuclear ambitions, says Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University.
The tempo and speed of its nuclear program is determined by technical issues — where Stuxnet was an impediment — but also by the “diplomatic clock,” Nasr says.
“The Arab Spring has provided Iran with a respite from the diplomatic pressure it would have faced had there not been an Arab Spring,” he says.
The big wild card within the region, experts agree, is the position of Iraq following the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of the year. No one is certain how that will play out.
“Iraq is going to be the centerpiece for the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” says Milani of the University of South Florida.
Iraqi leaders won’t want to be seen as Iran’s lackeys, yet Iran has clearly gained influence and closer ties with its neighbor since the U.S. invasion.
“I’m afraid that while Iran has been isolated, the withdrawal from Iraq has the potential to change everything,” AEI’s Rubin says.
What To Do About Nukes?
The U.S. and its European allies will likely want to press for further sanctions in the wake of both the assassination plot and the IAEA report. Israel has been making noises about a military strike to hamper Iran’s nuclear program.
But there may be limits to what outside forces can do to pressure Iran. A military strike would cause a regional conflagration, while the prospects for deeper sanctions are limited, says Maloney, the Brookings analyst.
“We can’t get the level of support we want from China and Russia,” she says.
Iran will look at the example of Libya, a country that denuclearized a few years ago only to undergo NATO bombing on its way to regime change, Maloney says.
Iran’s conclusion will be that even though its economic problems could be alleviated “by backing away from nukes” as a way of easing sanctions, Maloney says, such a move would not be worth the risk.
Ahmadinejad asserted Wednesday that Iran would not back down “one iota” from its nuclear ambitions.
“Despite the many reasons why they should negotiate, they probably won’t,” says Maloney, “and we’re not in a great position to give them reasons to do so.”