It’s a Middle East war nobody seems to want. But with regional tensions ratcheting up over recent days, the challenge now facing all sides is to find a way to keep it from happening.
And they’re working against the clock, because at the heart of the escalation is Iran’s accelerating progress toward being able to make a nuclear weapon. Israel says the Iranians’ “breakout point” – when they will have sufficient fissile material to make a bomb – is now around 10 weeks away.null
The potential for conflict is clear. Israel views a nuclear-armed Iran as a major threat, both to its own security and to the stability of the region. Yet Iran last week inaugurated a new, hard-line president, Ebrahim Raisi. And he has military leverage of his own: Iran’s Lebanese Shiite militia allies, Hezbollah, massed with tens of thousands of missiles across Israel’s northern border.
Iran’s nuclear program has long been a potent Middle East flashpoint. That is why, to avoid conflict amid new warnings, U.S. and European diplomatic machinery is again rumbling into gear.
Defusing the situation won’t be easy.
Yet the hope among key outside powers – especially the United States and its European allies – is that a mix of diplomacy and internal political constraints on all the potential combatants will avert outright war.Where there’s smoke, there’s fire – and political unity
And with prospects for any early compromise with Iran over its nuclear program looking slim, it’s likely to be careful, calibrated, and largely closed-door diplomacy. The hope will be to calm things down and, especially in contacts with Israel, find a way of at least slowing the pace of Iran’s nuclear program that stops short of military action.
The rumblings have been getting more worrying. In the past two weeks, a pair of attacks reportedly mounted by Iran have targeted tankers off the coast of Oman, apparently in reprisal for Israel’s interception of alleged Iranian arms shipments. And last week, Hezbollah fired 19 rockets into Israel and, for one of the first times since its last full-scale war with Israel in 2006, publicly claimed responsibility.
Until recently, hopes for a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran had actually been rising. Talks were held in June in Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 international accord under which the Iranians agreed to limit their nuclear program in exchange for the removal of economic sanctions. After then-President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of that deal and imposed new sanctions, Iran abandoned the limits and began pushing ahead more quickly on its nuclear program.
The Vienna talks came in the wake of President Joe Biden’s decision to rejoin the nuclear agreement, and they seemed to be nearing a compromise under which Iran would revert to its terms in return for the removal of most sanctions.
Even after the Iranian election in June, negotiators for outgoing President Hassan Rouhani seemed confident they’d have the leeway to try to conclude an agreement. In fact, that was seen as a potential boon for Mr. Raisi: He’d be able to reap the benefits of sanctions relief for a badly struggling Iranian economy without the responsibility for concessions on the nuclear program.
But the talks never resumed. The Iranians have, meanwhile, been enriching uranium at higher levels of purity. They scrapped an agreement to keep international inspectors’ cameras and sensors operating after it lapsed in June. The range of facilities open to on-site inspectors has also been reduced over recent months.null
Mr. Raisi’s inaugural address did offer a glimmer of hope. He welcomed “any diplomatic solution” to lift the U.S. sanctions, a remark the State Department countered with a call for a return to the talks. But he made no mention of the nuclear side of a potential deal, leaving U.S. and European diplomats concerned that his negotiators would add new demands to the framework that seemed to be emerging before the talks broke off.
Diplomatic focus on Israel
The immediate diplomatic focus is now likely to center on Israel. Though it opposed the 2015 deal, especially unhappy over the fact it did not limit Iran’s program indefinitely, it shares deepening U.S. and European concern about the progress Tehran has since made toward being able to make a bomb.
Israel has mounted a series of unconventional attacks in the past few years to slow the Iranians’ progress: targeted killings of senior figures in the nuclear program and cyberattacks on key facilities. And while a direct military strike could present huge logistical difficulties, not least because critical parts of the nuclear program are well protected or underground, Israel has said that option remains on the table.
It’s against that background that Mr. Biden has this week sent his CIA director, William Burns, for talks in Jerusalem. The likely message: We, too, remain determined to keep the Iranians from becoming a nuclear-weapons state, and we’ll be closely monitoring their progress alongside you in the weeks ahead. But we’re not at present planning military action, and hope you’re not, either.
Still, Washington’s broader hope will be that not just Israel, but Iran and Hezbollah want to avoid a major confrontation.
Iran, already struggling under the sanctions, is being hit especially hard by the pandemic. Water shortages have also led to protests in a number of areas. Israel, after early successes in dealing with the pandemic, is now facing a sharp increase in cases, with prospects of new restrictions this month. Lebanon, where Hezbollah has become the leading political force, is facing pandemic pressures alongside a punishing economic meltdown.
And there’s a further possible disincentive: The last major Israel-Hezbollah war, a decade-and-a-half ago, raged for more than a month – with enormous damage and casualties on both sides, and, as a later Israeli inquiry concluded, no clear winner.
Still, the longer-term key to keeping the peace, however uneasy, is likely to lie in a process where all sides will want to be able to claim a measure of victory: the diplomacy to revive an Iran nuclear deal.