Obama Iran Policy Tested Ahead of Election 2012: War Unlikely

On Monday, Iran made headlines for moves seen as a responses to the increasing pressure from the U.S. and its allies. One day after the implementation of the European Union’s embargo against Iranian oil, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps commenced days of military drills with the firing of missiles capable of hitting targets as far away as Israel. Ibrahim Agha Mohammadi, a member of the commission on national security in the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, said that a bill that would threaten closure of the Strait of Hormuz had gained significant support in the parliament.

Such was the rather inauspicious run-up to the talks on Iran’s nuclear program that began this week in Istanbul, a follow up to the discussions in Moscow last month that had ended with Catherine Ashton, the European Union foreign policy chief, declaring that the differences between Iran and the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany) were so great that a further meeting of “technical experts” would have to be called to determine whether negotiators could again meet for high-level contact. A central issue is enrichment; Iran asserts that the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty guarantees it the right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, whereas the U.S. and its allies have said that the treaty provides for no such specific right to enrich, but rather general assurances about the peaceful use of civilian nuclear technology. In Moscow, the P5+1 proposal referred to as “stop, shut, ship,” which would require that Iran stop its enrichment of uranium to 20% purity (considered a grade below weapons capability), export its stockpile, and shut the underground Fordo production center, foundered on Iran’s demand for international recognition of its right to enrichment.

Although at the time of this writing the details of any agreements on technical details are not known, it does seem the talks in Istanbul were fruitful in one sense- they established that the conversation isn’t over yet. The Christian Science Monitor reports that an agreement has been reached for a meeting of top negotiators’ political deputies in the near future.

So what’s next? At the very least, with the promise of future discussion still in the balance, direct armed conflict between the U.S. and Iran may seem somewhat less likely, although it’s possible that too much was made of the news out of Iran to begin with. As the Wall Street Journal notes, Iran’s conducting such military exercises is fairly routine. And the move in the Majlis? It’s got the signatures of 100 MPs -- out of 290. It's also mainly symbolic, because the decision is ultimately in the hands of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameini. This isn’t the first time such a threat has been heard, and the U.S. has threatened to retaliate with greater force. All of that aside, it seems doubtful President Obama would really have that much to lose by refraining from starting yet another war in the Middle East mere months before the November election.

Perhaps there is another way to look at developments such as the bill in the Iranian parliament on the Strait of Hormuz, and that is to take seriously their symbolic value as a window into the domestic politics of the country. Clearly, demonstrations of resistance and strength are politically expedient; perhaps they are even necessary. How can a deal on the nuclear program that does not make some allowance for this need to show strength possibly be feasible?