This week there is much wrangling within the media about the likely appointment of former Senator Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense. As a politician apparently immune to the usual herd instinct and the pressures of the lobbyists, such lobbyists are attempting to block the possible appointment. Some whisper the principal reason lies in his belief that a military attack on Iran would be a mistake.
Raising our sights beyond this week to the year ahead, Obama’s nuclear foreign policy next year will likely be defined by his approach to Iran’s nuclear program.
The two key Middle East regional powers involved have their own elections coming up – Israel in January and Iran in June. Prime Minister Netanyahu appears to have a big lead in the opinion polls, and no obvious challenger. As reported in last week’s BASIC Iran Update, signs are if anything the government could become more united in proposing drastic action in attacking Iran’s nuclear program. As for Iran, it is still too early to comment with any confidence on the possibilities around the Presidential election, and on any signs as to how this will impact upon the chances for talks in 2013. But a change may be an opportunity.
After last week’s meeting, IAEA officials are set to return to Tehran on January 16th, and talks between the E3+3 and Iran are expected around the same time. Many commentators appear to assume that because the Iranian economy is suffering so severely at present, its negotiators will now be willing to move their lines. Such an expectation is dangerous and complacent – the Iranians already believe they have made moves to show willing movement earlier this year (including offers to suspend 20 % enrichment in return for significant sanctions relief) and as these have gone nowhere, they could well sit tight. That certainly appears to be the case with the Europeans and United States – after some consultations there appears to be no evolution in their position. Having put so much effort into establishing and developing the sanctions escalator, and believing it now to be having impact, they are not yet ready to consider taking the foot off the pedal for some time yet. And certainly, if this week is anything to go by, the U.S. Congress is not interested in any policy options that do not include continual tightening of sanctions.
A deal, any deal, therefore seems unlikely before the Iranian elections in June. Meanwhile, newly-(re)elected Israeli Cabinet Ministers are likely to begin again their beating of the war drums if Iran’s stockpile of 20% U235 grows during the year.
But wait, there is another dynamic worth paying attention in early 2013. The official Helsinki Conference on a nuclear weapon and WMD-Free Zone in the Middle East mandated for 2012 in the final document of the 2010 NPT Review Conference may have been delayed, but there remains guarded optimism that the Americans and Israelis can yet be persuaded to agree on a date in 2013. They will need to do this if they are to avoid accusations of wrecking the initiative, and more broadly harming the NPT Review cycle which itself contains so many other areas of disarmament and non-proliferation commitments that would strengthen global security considerably. The Israelis may still be smarting over the fact that they were not party to the decision to hold the meeting in the first place (not being signatories to the NPT), and demand that the process be a much broader one on regional security more generally, but they and the Americans must realise that they benefit as much as anyone from a strong and evolving non-proliferation regime.
These are the personal views of the author.