THE BLOG

A Lull in the Iranian Crisis?

Ever since last year's U.S. presidential election race ended, the much-discussed concerns over Iran's nuclear build-up have vanished from the national debate. Yes, there are occasional press reports about Iranian machinations -- for example, is Iran tinkering with new nuclear production techniques or is it conducting cyber-warfare against our banking system or is it shipping munitions secretly to African wars -- but they don't seem to rate the blaring headlines or alarmist outcries of 2012.

The biggest reason for this lull may be traced back to remarks made last Fall by the two Israelis who have been the most responsible for driving the crusade against Tehran. First, Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the United Nations General Assembly on September 27th that, in his view, the crucial time for possibly mounting any military action against Iran over its nuclear program should not come until sometime in the Spring of 2013. Second, Israel's Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, stated in early November in an interview with the London Daily Telegraph that he does not foresee Iran acquiring enough bomb grade fuel for a primitive atomic bomb at least until at least the summer of 2013, "delaying the moment of truth by 8 to 10 months." Consequently Israel, for the moment, has muted its fears about Iran and is focused on its parliamentary elections next week.

But there are also other causes. President Obama's reelection effectively rebuffed Prime Minister Netanyahu's ambitions to draw the U.S. into a showdown with Iran in the new year. Netanyahu, on his visit to the U.S. during Obama's 2012 campaign, sought to box Obama into an endorsement of his policy to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities (Obama promised a U.S. attack but only as a last resort), and made noises in support of the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. But the outcome of the U.S. election was a riposte of sorts to the Israeli leader. Indeed, since Obama's victory, Obama has nominated former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, a public skeptic about attacking Iran, to be America's new Defense Secretary.

Obama over the past year has also acted to defuse criticism from Congress over his policy toward Iran. Along with five other nations, including France, Great Britain, China, Russia and Germany, Obama has sent emissaries to talks with Iranian negotiators in Geneva that began last April to explore how they can end Iran's enrichment of uranium, a move that some think may be preparatory to developing atomic bombs. With his allies, Obama is now discussing a deal to exchange Iran's low-enriched uranium for ready-made fuel rods for a research reactor in Tehran. Sometime this month a fourth meeting is likely to take place. The talks, however, have only inched along.

In addition, Obama has taken unilateral actions of his own to put a further squeeze on Iran. Just this month, he signed into law tougher sanctions against the country, expanding on those which had earlier been authorized by the UN Security Council. These newest measures impose penalties on Iranian insurance, shipping, shipbuilding and energy sectors. They will hurt Iranian construction, machinery and auto manufacturing. These sanctions are actually add-ons to other unilateral U.S. moves made in the past that have blacklisted many Iranian banks and severely restricted Iran's ability to sell oil.

All of this international activity has hurt average Iranians in their pocketbooks. Iran's central bank admitted this past week that the annual inflation rate hit 27.4 percent at the end of 2012, one of the highest rates ever recorded by Iranian authorities. Iran's currency now faces collapse. Last October, the Iranian rial lost about 50 percent of its value within a week. Such worries have brought about a precipitous decline in the influence of Iran's lame-duck President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Internal unrest also unsettles Iran -- first, among its Kurdish population and, then, among students and others disenchanted over Iran's fraudulent 2009 presidential election. And then there is the Syrian crisis. Iran's stake in its neighboring country is enormous. But the bloody civil war in Syria has wreaked havoc with Iranian efforts to broaden its influence in the Middle East. All of these distractions make it difficult for Iran to continue to stave off outside pressures over its nuclear program.

A sudden shroud over Iran, however, does not mean that the Iranian dispute is going to go away. The Iranian spectre will pop up again in unexpected ways. The new Geneva talks could fail, the sanctions regime may not pinch enough, Netanyahu is likely to be reelected as Israel's leader -- and be prepared to press his case anew. Congress will find other suspicious activities by Tehran, and, Iran, in turn, is going to make further blunders that upset the West. But one can hope that Iran, as the crisis of the day, remains on the back burner, possibly postponing a showdown and giving more time for peaceful outcomes to unfold.

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