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Tehran Triangle: Why Israel-Iran-US Standoff May Be Sliding Toward War

Analysis: Are the new sanctions against Iran just a prelude to war? Despite signs that the punitive measures may be working, Israel still seems gung-ho about attacking. The Jewish state doesn’t, however, have the support of Washington – yet.

Milad Tower in Tehran (Hamed Saber)
Milad Tower in Tehran (Hamed Saber)
Alain Frachon

It's the Middle East's million-dollar question: will Israel attack Iran? For several weeks, Israeli leaders have been saying there's very little time left: in nine or 10 months from now, the Islamic Republic will have finished burying its nuclear facilities. Israeli bombs will thus not be able to reach them. Something has to be done beforehand.

Iran's answer? A defiant "we're not scared!" as it advances with its nuclear project. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, says that any attack would be "10 times worse" for the West than it would be for Iran.

Both the Americans and the Europeans are urging patience. Like the Israelis, they too are convinced that Iran wants to build the capacity to make a nuclear warhead.

They have just levied a new series of unprecedented sanctions on Tehran. As complete a boycott as possible of Iranian oil -- the country's only natural resource -- is underway, and the United States and European Union want to give the embargo time to take effect. Speaking to students at Sciences Po, a Paris university, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said last week that "a military solution with unpredictable consequences must be avoided."

Keeping an eye on Washington

The Israeli agenda is not only technical. It's also political -- and for the time being, at least, it is taking into account U.S. President Barack Obama's opposition to bombing Iranian nuclear targets.

It's no mere coincidence that the Israeli press always mentions spring as the timeframe for a possible bombing of the sites. That's because many assume the raid is supposed to take place before the American presidential election on Nov. 6 – while Obama is still under pressure from Republican candidates who openly defend the principle of attacking Iran.

Republicans have been assuring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of their support while denouncing the Democratic president's use of "soft power" with the Islamic Republic. Mitt Romney, the favorite of the Republican candidates, warns that "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will get a nuclear weapon."

"Bibi" Netanyahu's alleged strategy, in other words, is that Israel better strike now while Obama is still president, since he won't be able to oppose Israel if he's defied and put under pressure by his opponents.

Signs that sanctions are working

As the diplomatic head of a major European country told Le Monde: "the coming weeks will be crucial." He too asked that the sanctions be given time to work, particularly as there are already indications that they are starting to, and in ways that really hurt. Since October, Iran's currency, the rial, has lost half its value. And the country's economy is in deeper and deeper trouble.

One of France's top experts on nuclear issues, Bruno Tertrais of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research, is saying that the sanctions "have already had an effect." On a website called Réalité EU, he explains that they have "slowed the nuclear program down," made "importing materials and technologies more difficult," and "increased the amount of time Iran needs to make a bomb." Tertrais goes on to say that "the sanctions are meant to change the Iranian government's calculations' by making the economic and political cost of their nuclear strategy exorbitant.

The idea is to weaken the Islamic Republic to the point that its leaders have to ask themselves the question: do we save the bomb or the regime?

The Iranian regime, more than ever, is on the defensive. It is not popular at home. It is isolated abroad. And it is in the process of losing its most important ally in the Arab world: Syria. The support that Tehran continues to give Damascus has earned it hostility from most Arabs -- particularly the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Tunisia -- and growing hostility from Turkey. The Sunni world intends to isolate Shi'ite Iran and prevent its old Persian enemy from getting the influence that having a nuclear weapon would confer on it.

In line with the malaise and divisions within the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khamenei's reaction has been to increase anti-Israeli rhetoric in an attempt to tighten the ranks. At Friday prayers at the University of Tehran on Feb. 4, he issued this threat to Israel: "The Zionist regime is the real cancer in the region. It must be annihilated, and it will be."

Sanction as a prelude to war

Not everyone shares Bruno Tertrais's view that "history confirms that the sanctions against Iran could be the solution to this nuclear crisis." American political scientist Robert Pape of the University of Chicago has compiled research on years of international sanctions, and says: "Presented as an alternative to war, they are often just the prelude."

To succeed, sanctions have to contain the seed of possible negotiation. The whole art is to understand what could be qualified as success or failure – in other words, what are the proverbial lines in the sand of everyone involved. The Islamic Republic is not going to budge as regards its right to enrich uranium for civil purposes – the only purposes it admits to pursuing. It is too committed to this line, and the issue has become one of political survival.

According to the United Nations, Iran is violating its international obligations by refusing to grant the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to certain elements of its nuclear program. In the view of the IAEA, part of the program can only be explained by Tehran's will to be in a position to make a warhead although the agency says it does not know if the decision to actually make one has been taken or not.

For Israel, the line in the sand has in many ways already been crossed – by simple virtue of the progress the Iranian program has made. For the United States, that line isn't crossed until Iran is actually building a bomb.

It's a three-way poker game, and things are tense. Very tense.

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - Hamed Saber

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