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.