The Buzz

The Ever-Recurring 'Year of Decision' on Iran

Over the past few months, there has been a flurry of commentary claiming that 2013 will be a “year of decision” on Iran. (See, for example, Fareed Zakaria, Anne-Marie Slaughter and James Jeffrey.) In Zakaria’s words, this means that unless a diplomatic deal can be reached between the P5+1 and Iran regarding the country’s nuclear program, “2013 will be the year that we accepted a nuclear Iran or went to war.”

In the Financial Times, Nader Mousavizadeh provides some much-needed pushback against this now-conventional wisdom:

Far more likely, however, is a 2013 defined by another period of sustained stalemate, one driven by an unspoken preference on the part of all the key participants for a pragmatic equilibrium that excludes both war and peace. The see-saw of threats and talks, escalation and negotiation continues, inevitably leading to warnings of showdowns.

This is mostly all theatre. The reality is that for each of the principal parties, the status quo – Iran isolated diplomatically, crippled economically, boxed in militarily – is preferable to the available alternatives.

Mousavizadeh’s piece is a useful reminder that, as his title says, Iran’s “crisis is more stable than it seems.” Each of the relevant actors prefers the status quo to a potentially devastating war. But, he writes, a “genuine peace” also runs the risk of being seen on both sides as a capitulation. This is especially true of Iran, whose regime has for decades defined itself in opposition to America and the West. Thus, Iran’s incentive is to continue on its current path—building up its stockpiles of enriched uranium and drawing out the negotiations, while not taking any steps that are likely to provoke an American or Israeli attack, such as withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated today in his “Worldwide Threat Assessment” statement, the best assessment of the U.S. intelligence community continues to be that Iran has not made a concrete decision to pursue nuclear weapons, and “we do not know” if it eventually will. Washington obviously doesn’t like the ongoing standoff, but as long as Iran stays away from an overt decision to develop nuclear weapons—a step Clapper asserts we would be able to detect—there’s no reason that this dynamic necessarily has to shift in the coming year.

A look back at the relevant history reinforces this point. As others have chronicled, analysts and government officials have repeatedly been wrong when projecting the point at which Iran might acquire a nuclear weapon (the supposed “red line” that a war would be fought to prevent). In 1984, Jane’s Defence Weekly warned that Iran might have a nuclear weapon within two years. Throughout the next several decades, there have been repeated predictions from inside and outside the government about how Iran could get the bomb in two or five or eight years. To this point, they have all been wrong.

To be sure, 2013 could be a “year of decision.” Yet it’s just as likely, if not more, that this prediction will join so many other failed ones made about the Islamic Republic. Zakaria and the others are correct that eventually, something will have to change to break the deadlock. The problem is that eventually can be a long time.