Friday 24 August 2012

And the gold goes to…Western procrastination

Michael Young

Ehud Barak and Leon Panetta met for talks in Israel recently that included Iran. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images.
It’s Summer 2012, the Games of the XXX Olympiad are finally upon us after an agonising seven year wait, and it’s finally official…the House of Lords is NOT going to be reformed. But there is still one thing that keeps lingering on, something that isn’t so clear cut. What are we going to do about Iran?
The most recent of the P5+1 (all five UN Security Council members plus Germany) talks with Iran have been a step in the right direction, despite the fact that little progress has been made. Iran has seemed more willing than ever before to sit down at the negotiating table with the same powers that have been seeking to cripple the Ahmadinejad regime – a sign that sanctions may be starting to bite, and that domestic opinion could well be turning against the government’s nuclear ambitions. In fact, a recent poll conducted by state media suggests that 60% of Iranians may be in favour of the country ending its Uranium enrichment programme which is rapidly approaching 20%, or ‘weapons grade’. Yet any attempt at Iranian denuclearisation by either side all too often seems half-hearted.
What makes the situation unclear at this point is the fate of the incumbent US administration come the November election. Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney clearly has the peaceful, sensible and diplomatic intentions that you would expect of a Republican nominee, namely bombing Iran into submission if it comes to it. His recent first test of Middle Eastern diplomacy even got off to a flying start when he labelled Jerusalem the capital of Israel. However Democrat nominee Barack Obama has showed pragmatism and rationality throughout the crisis in his initial four year term – opting to stand back, silently observe and hold back from making any crucial speech on the issue. His approach is simply logical - let’s not commit the US to a conflict which could cost re-election - there’s no harm in waiting until after November 6th. Indeed, the outcome of the recent meeting between top-level US and Israeli officials, including US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak, suggests that the US may be willing to attack Iran unilaterally, or assist Israel in attacking Iran, but only when ‘the time is right’, meaning not until next year at the very earliest
This just adds to the frustration for Israeli PM Netanyahu, who is rapidly running out of options. As much as it seems that the PM would like to take military action tomorrow, he knows there is little support both at home and abroad on a premise that lacks concrete evidence and is based on what is, in reality, nothing other than a hunch. He has maintained all along that economic sanctions would have next to no impact against the Iranian regime and would allow Tehran to continue with its nuclear programme with little hindrance. This presumption is starting to become even clearer with the news this week that Standard Chartered has been secretly enabling Iran to continue making financial transactions despite the economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic by the US. 
The US officials that visited Israel recently would have been begging the government in Tel Aviv not to make any moves over the next couple of months. Symptoms of conflict in the Middle East are the last thing Obama wants to be diagnosing at the moment as he starts thinking about the campaign trail ahead – a healthy state of affairs in the region is vital. As Romney looks increasingly likely to be the one sitting in the Oval Office next year, a free podium to criticise the current President over his handling of such a crisis would only bolster the Republican’s campaign prospects.
The Syrian crisis is clearly the biggest issue in the Middle East at the moment, and that resonates in the World media. Perhaps the West is waiting for things to settle down there before it has to devote attention back to Iran, although it must be remembered that whatever the US and UK eventually decide to do in Syria (with or without the support of Russia and China) will have a large bearing on future bargaining power with Iran. Iran has recently pledged its support to Bashar al-Assad in the crisis there, offering solidarity with the Syrian President, and has also sought to frame the conflict in the wider picture of the US and the West yet again squaring up to a small Middle Eastern state.
The Olympic Games always bring a welcome breather to international relations. Whilst the UK government sticks to its on-going criticism of the current administration, Iranians are winning gold on the world stage just a few miles from Westminster. Come next month and the political arena will be back to normal – yet it’s about as safe a bet as Usain Bolt dominating the 100m Final that the nuclear question will still remain unresolved in the coming months.

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