A Long Way From the Point of No Return With Iran

>This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

We're nowhere near the point of no return. Far from it. Jeff Goldberg laid out the worst-case scenario, but not necessarily the most likely. His exhaustive reporting also assembled part of the picture, albeit a pivotal part, but by no means the entire intricate mosaic.

The United States and the many other parties now consumed with Iran's controversial nuclear program have at least a year of intense diplomacy -- and possibly much longer -- before they even consider military options. And that assumes diplomacy totally collapses, the Iranians can be clearly blamed, and reliable intelligence proves Tehran's program has crossed a critical threshold.

With Iran, the state-of-play is rarely that straightforward. First, Iranians are masters at brinksmanship. Diplomacy always gets dragged out, and even negotiations that appear dead have a way of miraculously reviving -- like an Iranian merchant chasing a customer down the dusty alleyways of Tehran's Grand Bazaar to renegotiate a price and avoid losing the sale.

Iran has called for talks with its Western interlocutors after Ramadan, the holy month of fasting that ends in mid-September. (Last week, The New Yorker published an interview with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad delivering that message yet again.) The Obama administration is currently preparing for those talks -- and taking them seriously. The main focus would be an interim deal, which would in turn open the way for comprehensive talks on Iran's nuclear program. If Iran is also serious, this two-phase diplomatic process could go into late 2011 or longer.

Second, the Islamic Republic is also adept at not saying no. If diplomacy ultimately breaks down, Tehran has a long history of making it appear (sometimes accurately) that the impatient West walked away first -- and should be blamed for failure. The perception about who is to blame is critical to the next step -- returning to the United Nations for another resolution imposing more stringent sanctions or endorsing other punitive action. For the United States and its European allies to win backing for meaningful measures -- and not face a Russian or Chinese veto -- Iran must be seen as the guilty party. The shrewd Iranians know that. It's hard to see the Obama administration ordering waves of bombers to strike Iran--or turning a blind eye to an Israeli attack -- without at least trying another round at the United Nations. The last U.N. resolution took a full year to negotiate. The next one could be even tougher.

Third, among the many things being debated in many capitals is just what the threshold for military action should be. Should it be Iran building a bomb, like Pakistan? Or having a quick turn-around capability, like Japan? Or achieving a certain number of centrifuges? Or gaining some murkier level of knowledge? Capitals currently disagree.

Amassing accurate intelligence on any of these questions is also tough, one reason for the delay in a new National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, which was originally due last year. Since 2003, when Iran was forced to admit it had secret facilities, much of U.S. intelligence has been based on deductive reasoning rather than tangible proof. Revelations last fall about another secret facility in Qom to enrich uranium changed that somewhat -- but not on a lot of other fundamental questions about what Iran is really up to. After the intelligence fiasco over Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction, hopefully the United States will not again undertake an act of war on the basis of guestimates [sic] and questionable sources.

The bottom line: It's not nearly as simple as this article portrays.

For starters, there are a lot of other players involved. "The Point of No Return" frames the tough decisions ahead from only a single prism -- Israel and its hawkish prime minister. Throughout most of the piece, Operation Strike Iran is portrayed as a virtual fait accompli. Only at the end does it acknowledge that the Israeli army chief of staff has doubts about the usefulness of bombing Iran (as do many in the American military) and that Israeli President Shimon Peres is "uncomfortable" with unilateral action and thinks Israel "can afford to recognize its limitations." Israeli politicians are not naïve about the costs and consequences of attacking Iran, which Goldberg rightly suggests stand "a good chance of changing the Middle East forever." Other Israelis surely accept that the real danger is unleashing an even graver existential threat from a wider array of sources than Israel already faces.

Sure there's a clock. In fact, there are lots of clocks, all ticking at different speeds. Israel's is just the fastest. Its alarm has been close to ringing for at least a decade. And Iran's clock is the slowest.

But for the tough decisions that lie ahead, it would have been useful to do the same extensive reporting in Beijing, Moscow, Ankara, and Riyadh, as well. Unlike the previous administration's decision on Iraq, the Obama administration appears intent on developing international consensus on Iran. Each of the four will have an important say in finding common ground. They also reflect how the world has changed since Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's Osirek reactor and why attacking Iran will be far different than Israel's 2007 bombing of Syria's secret reactor.

China is now one of Iran's most important trading partners (as well as one of the largest holders of U.S. debt). Its companies could help Iran circumvent sanctions. Beijing also views Iran as an issue it can leverage to enhance its position. Russia built Iran's light water reactor that is about to open at Bushehr. It views Iran as a growing market for conventional arms. And the Islamic Republic has become one of its few Middle East allies in the post-Cold War world -- and one it does not want to lose. Turkey borders Iran and recently brokered a deal with Tehran that was rejected by Washington. It, too, views Iran as an issue to prove the importance of rising middle powers. All three countries firmly oppose the military option. All three are also on the U.N. Security Council, two with veto power.

Saudi Arabia certainly doesn't want Iran to get the bomb. But the kingdom is just as traumatized over prospects of yet another conflict in the world's most volatile region that pits the West against a Muslim land -- and potentially unleashes nightmarish political, economic, and security consequences.

Last but not least, Iran itself needs to be factored into the equation. "The Point of No Return" assumes that the Iranians have no real interest in negotiations -- and are only willing to engage to buy more time to develop a bomb. Maybe. It's easy to draw that conclusion from their exasperating failure to cooperate with the international community over the past seven years and their often childish negotiating tactics. But maybe not. Tehran understands the consequences of being caught red-handed with the bomb. For the right price, the theocrats may still be willing to do a deal. Iranians love to barter, but any transaction has to be seen to profit both sides. The more basic problem may be simply knowing how to read each other -- a problem that has characterized most dealings between Washington and Tehran since the 1979 revolution.

I'll concede that I've never been as pessimistic about the prospects of success. Suspicions on all sides run so deep. For Iran, negotiations have also become a heated internal issue that has little to do with the nuclear program itself. It's simply more grist for internal factions to attack each other.

Yet I still think Goldberg's piece is way ahead of history. It reminds me of a debate I had with the late William Safire on the 2002 New Year's edition of "Meet the Press." Tim Russert asked us to make a prediction for the coming year. Safire said the United States would invade Iraq in 2002. I said there was at least a year of diplomacy ahead of us, and that he was literally jumping the gun. We went back and forth heatedly on the air. After the show, Tim formalized our differences into a bet. The loser had to autograph his/her book to the winner: "I was wrong, you were right." A year later, Russert had both of us back on the new year's show -- and replayed the clip. Safire graciously sent me not one but two of his books, although he fell short of writing the bet-losing inscription.

I would now like to make that same bet with Goldberg. By July next year, I'll wager that neither Israel nor the United States will have bombed Iran.

Patrick Clawson responds here.