Skip to main content

A lull in the drift toward war with Iran?

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 5:41 AM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, right, poses with EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili, right, poses with EU foreign policy head Catherine Ashton.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron Miller predicts no war with Iran in 2012
  • Miller says no firm deal will emerge; Iran wants to be nuclear power too much
  • Miller: The regime distrusts the U.S. and won't give up
  • Israeli strike is still possible, he says. Only big breakthrough will stop Iran's quest

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. He is the author of the forthcoming book "Can America Have Another Great President?" Follow him on Twitter.

(CNN) -- The Baghdad talks over Iran's nuclear program concluded inconclusively with a decision to continue negotiating in Moscow next month. How could they have ended otherwise? Too much suspicion, mistrust and too many complex issues to imagine an early breakthrough. At the same time, the uncertainties reflect something else too.

Let me make a prediction. There will be no war with Iran in 2012 and no comprehensive deal on the nuclear issue either. Sanctions have forced the Iranians to alter the pace of its nuclear program but not to abandon it.

Right now it's in everyone's interest to defuse tensions, and to paraphrase Winston Churchill, to jaw-jaw rather than wah-wah. Unless Iran is prepared to give up its quest for nukes (and it isn't), we've averted war but not eliminated the threat. Think 2013.

For the past six months, the relationship between Iran and the West has been defined by covert war and much talk of an overt one. For the next six, the trope will be "let's make a deal."

Jalili: Iran nuke program is peaceful
Sticking points for an Iranian nuke deal
Israel to Iran: Time is running out

The reasons aren't hard to divine. First, sanctions are taking their toll and are on the verge of getting tougher. In early July, the Europeans will impose additional oil sanctions. Second, the position of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has been strengthened as a result of parliamentary elections and mullah maneuvering. If he were inclined to show flexibility, the decider-in-chief is in a better position to do it now. And third, let's face it, nobody -- not the Iranians, the Europeans, the Obama administration, not even the Israelis, particularly if they have to do it alone -- wants a war.

All of these factors have combined to create an opening for that almighty and much-revered diplomatic deus ex machina: the process. To be kind, that's just another word for describing how to manage a problem you can't resolve today. The desire to shift from talk of war to actual talk and negotiations is both logical and understandable. In fact, given the limited options right now, a process is much better than the alternative.

The hope is that negotiations can create an opening for a small deal on the nuclear issue in which Iran would agree to enrich uranium at much reduced levels, agree to inspections and perhaps even export its stockpile of weapons-grade material out of the country in return for an easing of some of the less onerous sanctions.

This incremental approach, tiny steps for tiny feet, would buy time and space to enhance confidence and create trust. It might even pave the way for broader discussions on other key issues that divide Iran and the West. Maybe even a grander bargain might follow.

The only problem with this approach is that its chances of success are dubious. In coming weeks and months, the negotiating process may well produce limited understandings. But it's hard to see how these will turn into a sustainable deal that can convince the West, let alone the Israelis, that Iran has given up its quest for nukes. Three major realities will make it all the harder:

Iran wants a nuclear capacity. Outside of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, four nations possess nukes: Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea. All are fundamentally insecure and perceive nukes as a core advantage in their security and foreign policy theology.

Iran is insecure, but it believes it is profoundly entitled. This mix of vulnerability and grandiosity is a bad combination. The Iranian regime wants the bomb, not primarily to have the option of attacking Israel, a possible fringe benefit, but as a hedge against regime change and as a prestige weapon in its quest for regional power and influence. Had the Shah not been turned out by the 1979 revolution, Iran would already have nukes.

Iran fashions itself a great power, and great powers believe they need the ultimate weapon. Iran's nuclear program is too advanced, too entrenched, too redundant and too secretive to be stopped permanently, even by military attack. To do so, you'd need to change the regime.

The U.S.-Iranian Cold War. The nuclear issue needs to be seen in the context of the broader dysfunction in the relationship between Washington and Tehran.

Truth is, the regime is right. America wants an end to its repression and brutality, freedom for the Iranian people and Iran's regional ambitions curtailed.

There's almost no issue on which Washington and Tehran agree, from support for Hamas and Hezbollah, to backing the Assads, to Iranian terrorism, to support for Shia insurgents, to Iraq and to Israel and the Palestinians. Given the level of suspicion and mistrust, the odds of finding a sustainable modus vivendi soon, particularly against the backdrop of the regime change issue, are slim to none.

As long as the regime is convinced that America wants it replaced and Iran's regional ambitions muzzled, Iran will continue its quest for nukes. Indeed, the nuclear issue can't be separated from the issue of regime insecurity. It's emblematic of Iran's hopes and fears.

Israeli hopes and fears factor centrally into the equation too. We wouldn't have the tough sanctions we do if it weren't for President Obama's and the Europeans' fear of an Israeli strike. Paradoxically, Obama fears an Israeli strike more than the mullahs do. On one hand, you might argue that the Israeli threats have increased the chances of a diplomatic resolution. That would be true, but only if Iran actually feared an Israeli attack or if it weren't determined to continue its quest for nukes.

But the Iranian regime won't stop, and will inch closer to a breakout capacity to produce a weapon. And the Israelis will then have to decide whether to launch a military strike or bring enough pressure on the Obama administration to do so, even if it only means a setback of a year or two. Only one country can stop Iran from acquiring a military nuclear capacity -- that's Iran, should it judge the costs of acquisition too high.

Now process, diplomacy and negotiations are king. But without some fundamental breakthrough in the talks or some other unpredictable event that changes Iranian calculations, we'll be drifting again toward war and the prospective disasters and calamities it will bring.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT