Why the Iranian Nuclear Standoff Won't End Anytime Soon

Both sides are more comfortable with the status quo -- and it will likely endure.
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Talks on Iran's nuclear program in Almaty, Kazakhstan on February 26, 2013. (Reuters)

Heading into this past weekend's negotiations over Iran's nuclear program, U.S. officials were expressing cautious optimism. In the previous round of talks in February, Iran seemed willing to consider a new proposal that would constrain its ability to produce high-enriched uranium in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi touted the talks as " a milestone," and the prospects for a deal seemed better than ever.

But at the follow-up session held on April 5th and 6th, these hopes were quickly dashed. On Friday, Iranian negotiators essentially reiterated the general position they took last June in Moscow, insisting on recognition of their country's right to enrich uranium. This baffled the United States and its allies, who had expected Tehran to respond to the specific proposal put forward in February. When negotiations wrapped up on Saturday, the EU's top foreign policy official, Catherine Ashton, lamented that Iran and the world powers " remain far apart." No future meetings were scheduled.

Despite the rhetoric of crisis, the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program may have reached a balance.

However disappointing, the failure of the negotiations should come as no surprise. The seasonal predictions that the Iranian standoff is nearing a climax -- whether by compromise or by war -- are grounded in a misreading of the situation. What many have considered a crisis is starting to look more like a balance, in which each party is more comfortable with the status quo than with any available alternative. Despite the pressure of sanctions, Tehran is more inclined to stand its ground than make a deal, and Washington prefers the present impasse to war. Only if the Islamic Republic took concrete steps to build a nuclear weapon would the United States strike Iran -- a consequence Tehran understands well and will thus avoid.

Iran and the United States each profess an interest in compromise, but the fact remains that a grand bargain is improbable. That is because the Iranian regime believes it has more to gain from preserving the status quo than acquiescing to a deal that would effectively preclude it from ever possessing the ability to quickly build nuclear weapons -- a position that in and of itself can deter aggression. Encircled by wealthy Sunni monarchies and U.S. allies, Iran would rather hold on to its partial nuclear deterrent than cave to Western demands.

Moreover, although international sanctions have taken a severe toll on Iran's economy, there is little sign that they have weakened the Iranian regime. Tehran has pointed to the sanctions to justify its tightening stranglehold over the Iranian people. Meanwhile, according to a recent Gallup poll, nearly five times as many Iranians hold the United States, rather than their own leaders, as " most responsible " for the sanctions. Finally, for all its distortions of history, the Iranian regime knows that, in the past, economic self-interest has often trumped the international community's will to maintain sanctions over time. With surging demand for energy in such countries as China and India, multilateral sanctions against oil-rich Iran are more likely to fray than intensify in the years ahead -- especially if Tehran does not go all the way to building nuclear weapons.

Since sanctions will not bring about an agreement, one might expect the United States or Israel to use force to halt Iran's nuclear program. Speaking in Jerusalem last month, President Barack Obama warned Tehran that when it comes to nuclear talks, "time is not unlimited." To back up his words, the president has ordered a massive military buildup in the Gulf, and it is widely believed that Washington has operational plans for an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Last month, Time quoted a former senior U.S. official as saying, "we are entering the final stages of this drama."

But attacking Iran is hardly an inviting prospect. Even a limited strike could pave the way for a larger war, inflame the already unstable Middle East, and unravel the international coalition working to prevent Iran's nuclearization. The Obama administration has made it abundantly clear that it will not allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon. But so long as Iran refrains from taking clear steps toward that end -- such as enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels -- Washington will naturally prefer to avoid war.

Israel, for its part, might feel less comfortable with Iran's continuing to develop its nuclear program, particularly at the underground Fordow facility, which might be invulnerable to Israeli attack. This concern explains Israel's insistence that Iran be denied any sort of nuclear capability. Still, the diplomatic and military risks of a unilateral Israeli strike, coupled with the Obama administration's commitment to keeping Iran out of the nuclear club, will likely convince Israel to hold its fire. And at least for the moment, Israeli officials have acknowledged that Iran has stopped short of their red line.

Not all international standoffs trend inevitably toward either harmony or war. In reality, stability is often located somewhere in between. Just think back to the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear apocalypse did more than anything else to prevent military confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite the rhetoric of crisis, the impasse over the Iranian nuclear program may have reached a balance -- imperfect and fearful, to be sure -- but one that will prove resilient.

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Benjamin Alter and Edward Fishman are editors at Foreign Affairs.

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