There are, of course, many drivers that lead analysts to believe that war with Iran is highly likely, or even inevitable – most likely a military strike by Israel or the United States on Iran. But we should be cautious about jumping to such conclusions for several reasons, and not just wishful thinking. Firstly, we are dealing with many diverse factors that come together in a degree of complexity that ought to lead any analyst into a place of humility when predicting the future. Second, there are always options.
There can be no doubt that protagonists from all sides in this dispute are throwing their steering wheels out of the car in a many-sided game of chicken, expecting the other sides to blink and back down, leading to a highly dangerous and unstable situation; but this isn’t simple – one steering wheel can be jettisoned, but there are always others available. We are indeed witnessing a slide into fewer positive options, but this is not a single decision to abandon control, and such slides can be reversed. War certainly looks more likely today than it did seven years ago when the drums were last seriously playing, and it is difficult to see at this stage the necessary compromise for any peaceful resolution.
But the main restraint on the road to war is reason. A vigorous debate in both Tel Aviv and Washington still favours those arguing that war against would be counter-productive to those two countries. Sober, mainstream analyses by former officials and senior military figures such as Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran by a host of US hawks provide a strong counter-weight to the likes of Israel’s Netanyahu.
Of course, it can be pretty demoralising when you realise that the principal debate given oxygen in the West is between those who argue for ever-stronger sanctions and those who believe that military action is the only way. It’s even worse when you realise that the militarists are probably right when they say that sanctions will fail to achieve the objective of forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Because Iran is ready to negotiate, just not on the terms on offer by the West. So there’s no forcing to do. And like Aesop’s fable of the wind and the sun, the harder we force the more we feed the narrative within Iran that they face autocratic and oppressive competitors within the international community.
Nevertheless, despite the media focus on these two positions, public opinion, weary from foreign adventures and living in a period of austerity, is far more sympathetic to strategies that involve engagement. Western leaders tempted to attack Iran will have some difficult political calculations to make. Those seeking to hold them back have more room to strengthen those constraints on military action than many analysts give them credit. And the key lies in building credible strategies that address the core interests of all sides in this conflict.
They exist - even if extremists like Netanyahu and Romney try hard to cloud the issue. The Iranian leadership is prepared to consider measures that could reassure those ready to be reassured in the West such as limiting the level of their enrichment and establishing more extensive inspections processes, if their rights to enrich and develop other technologies were recognised and sanctions reduced. A number of tightly-worked proposals have been developed and maintained that address core interests and positions, but have not yet reached the light of day because of the political environment. The fact that the key driver towards war is the political environment amongst elites, rather than the hopelessness of options facing the protagonists, should be cause both for hope and also a call to action.