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Will threats of war compel Iran to make a nuclear deal?

January 14, 2013|By Doyle McManus
  • Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant in central Iran.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad inspects the Natanz nuclear plant… (Iran's Presidency Office…)

In my Sunday column, I predicted that 2013 will bring another round of brinkmanship with Iran over its nuclear program. The United States and its allies will press Tehran to stop enriching uranium, Iran will say no, Israel will warn that its patience is running out, and sabers will be rattled all around.

Among those who agree are Dennis Ross, who was President Obama’s top advisor on Iran for three years.

“I think 2013 is going to be decisive,” Ross told me last week. “Time really is running out."

In Ross’ view, one of the main tasks facing the Obama administration -- including former Sen. Chuck Hagel, if he wins confirmation as secretary of Defense -- is convincing Iran that Obama is serious about going to war if Tehran builds a nuclear weapon.

“For diplomacy to have a chance of success, the Iranians need to understand that if diplomacy fails, force is going to be the result,” Ross said.

“We still have a challenge to convince the Iranians that we’re quite serious about the use of force,” he said. “In the first term, the administration didn’t always speak with one voice on this issue. So what Hagel says can make a difference.”

Not everyone agrees that threats of force are the best way to nudge Iran toward limiting its nuclear program. In a thoughtful essay in the National Interest, former CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar argues that saber-rattling is likely to make Tehran want nuclear weapons even more -- as a deterrent against foreign attack.

“The more that the brandishing of the threat of military attack makes such an attack seem likely, the greater will be the Iranian interest in developing nuclear weapons,” Pillar wrote.

Maybe. But U.S. saber-rattling isn’t aimed solely at compelling Iran to back down. It’s also aimed at persuading Israel’s hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to refrain from starting a war himself.

Here’s one piece of good news: according to the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has quietly been converting some of its enriched uranium into a powder form that’s useful for scientific research, but not very useful for weapons development.

That may reflect a desire in Tehran to avoid bringing the nuclear issue to a crisis point. When Obama has warned Iran, he has carefully defined the U.S. “red line” as Tehran obtaining a nuclear weapon, as opposed to merely enriching more uranium.

So yes, we’ll almost surely face another crisis with Iran this year. But it’s also entirely possible that 12 months from now, after Iran’s presidential election, we’ll still be talking about sanctions, negotiations and threats of war.


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