To those still hoping for a peaceful way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the current standoff gives reason to despair. Tehran continues to develop its uranium-enrichment program at full speed, a key step toward developing an atomic bomb. The president of the Islamic Republic, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, remains defiant as ever. And the United States is increasingly sending signals that its patience for a nonmilitary solution is running out.
But look closer and you will find plenty of signs that diplomacy, the preferred option for most Europeans, is working better than expected.
According to numerous reports from Iran, discontent with Ahmadinejad is growing among the elites and among the masses. Ahmadinejad’s closest associates did surprisingly poorly in this past December’s elections to the Expert Assembly, the congressional body that appoints the country’s supreme leader. On the streets of Tehran and elsewhere across the country, the mood toward the government is turning increasingly negative, mostly because of the deteriorating economic situation.
Iran may be the country with the biggest combined oil and gas reserves in the world, but most of its 70 million citizens can hardly make ends meet. Prices are rising, jobs are scarce and Ahmadinejad has failed to bridge the gap between rich and poor. Much of the problem can be sourced to misguided economic policies that hark from the early days of the Iranian revolution, and that have been exacerbated by Ahmadinejad’s populist efforts. Iran is importing most of its fuel because it does not have enough refinery capacity, and it spends a good amount of its export revenues on fuel subsidies. The recent drop in oil prices has also forced the government to curtail social and investment spending.
All that matters far more to the masses that their government’s nuclear plans and Ahmadinejad’s persistent Holocaust denial — and by all indications, a growing number of Iranians are realizing that the country’s international isolation is affecting their personal well-being.
There is very little foreign investment, so Iran lacks the technology and the capital to boost oil production and develop its huge gas fields. Even Russia has slowed down its supply of technology and parts to the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, because the Iranians are not paying their bills. And due to massive pressure by the American government, most internationally active banks have stopped dealings with Iran, raising the cost of foreign trade for Iranian companies. Imports have become more expensive, and inflation has gone up even further.
Many Iranians voted for Ahmadinejad simply because they wanted a better life. The chance of that happening just got a little bit smaller, now that the latest highly critical report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has increased the likelihood of broad economic sanctions being imposed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council. Ahmadinejad’s fellow countrymen may soon tire of his nationalist grandstanding and turn against him and his nuclear ambitions.
So, too, may Iran’s clerical elite. They share Ahmadinejad’s nuclear ambitions and his hatred of Israel, but their main priority is the preservation of religion in everyday life.
All these internal political developments could convince the Iranian leadership to abandon its uranium-enrichment program, or at least put it under strict international supervision, and thereby substantially reduce the risk of an American or Israeli military strike.
The success of diplomacy, of course, is far from guaranteed. If the U.N. fails to agree on a set of sanctions, Iran may regard it as a green light. Or if strict sanctions are imposed, many Iranians may shift the blame for their economic woes from their government to the American-led international community. And continued military threats by the Bush administration may very well rally the masses around Ahmadinejad.
It is just such risks that have led those who believe that Iran may directly attack Israel or pass on atomic bombs to terrorist groups to support a military option. Even though most experts do not believe that air attacks could destroy all of Iran’s dispersed and deeply buried nuclear facilities — and even though an inconclusive military strike might further radicalize Iran without removing the threat it poses — some still argue that the menace justifies taking the risk.
But a great many more political analysts in Europe and even the United States take a less panicky view of the Iranian nuclear threat. The country is still years, and maybe decades, away from building an effective nuclear device. Its enrichment program has fallen behind schedule, and North Korea, which is far more advanced in its atomic quest, has not yet been able to build a usable weapon, last summer’s nuclear test notwithstanding.
And what if Iran does get the bomb? It would clearly make the Middle East less stable and increase the risk of further proliferation, but even a nuclear-armed Iran could be effectively contained. Despite its radicalism, the Iranian regime has always been concerned about self-preservation and is unlikely to risk severe retaliation by the United States or Israel.
French President Jacques Chirac was probably right when he told a group of international journalists last month that the world can live with one or two Iranian nuclear bombs. That he was probably right, however, does not make up for the fact that his statement was a major gaffe. Any sign of complacency about the Iranian nuclear program, Chirac must have known, may weaken the global front against Tehran and give hope to the Iranian leadership that it can get away with building a bomb.
The world needs to keep up the verbal alarms about the Iranian threat, but to act cautiously — to, contrary to what Teddy Roosevelt said, speak loudly and carry a relatively small stick. That’s just what is happening today, and even though it may appear as if the world is giving in to Iran, it may nonetheless be the best bet for preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.