Domestic politics shaping the international debate over a nuclear Iran

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the time frame during which Iran was reported to have converted nearly half of its highly enriched uranium into a “peaceful” form that cannot be used for nuclear weapons. According to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the conversion took place between mid-December 2011 and mid-August 2012, not between mid-December 1991 and mid-August 1992. This version has been corrected.

October 31, 2012

Domestic politics can make all the difference when it comes to the idea of taking military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Just look at the elections in the United States, Israel or even Iran.

The latest example is the interview Monday with Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak by the Daily Telegraph in Britain. He said a step in Iran reported recently “allows contemplating delaying the moment of truth [meaning an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities] by eight to 10 months.”

Barak was referring to the finding released Aug. 30 by the International Atomic Energy Agency that between mid-December 2011 and mid-August 2012, Tehran had converted almost half of its stock of uranium enriched to 20 percent, its most dangerous type, into a “peaceful” form that can’t be used for nuclear weapons.

Barak gave several explanations for Iran’s actions, including that “it could probably be a diplomatic gambit that they have launched in order to avoid this issue culminating before the American election, just to gain some time.”

There may be some truth to that. The next IAEA report on Iran’s nuclear facilities is not due until mid-November, but diplomats said last week that Iran had added more than 600 centrifuges to its underground facility at Fordow. It eventually will have 3,000. They are not yet operational, the report said.

A former prime minister and chief of the Israel Defense Forces, Barak has slowly moved away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu since the August IAEA report. Netanyahu’s repeated threats to attack Iran have divided Israelis, though he has recently dropped such rhetoric.

Both he and Barak are looking at Israel’s next parliamentary elections, which Netanyahu set for Jan. 22. The prime minister said he moved the date from next October because he couldn’t pass “a sensible budget.”

But another issue was Barak’s concern that Netanyahu would hit Iran without U.S. support.

Netanyahu’s announcement last week that he was aligning his Likud Party with the more conservative party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was considered a way to free himself of the need for Barak’s support. On Monday he called the move “essential” and said Lieberman could become defense minister.

Lieberman has advocated Israel make its own decision on Iran, saying in February that it is none of Washington’s business. In August, he said on Israeli television that he favored hitting Iran back in 2001 and still does.

Netanyahu’s coalition may force centrist groups to unite in opposition. Barak’s comments may help him join that grouping, though he still believes only a military attack will stop — even temporarily — Iran seeking a nuclear weapon. “If no one acts, we will have to contemplate action,” he said Monday.

Iran’s parliamentary elections in March saw candidates supporting the country’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, and the clerical establishment gain almost three-quarters of the 290 seats. It was a clear defeat for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. A presidential election is set for June, but there’s speculation it may not happen because Khamenei favors eliminating the office in favor of parliament-elected prime minister.

As I wrote Oct. 23, “Tehran’s public rhetoric aside, what does Washington know about the real nuclear-weapon beliefs of Iran’s supreme leader . . . who apparently would make the decision to build and perhaps use any nuclear weapon?” Iranians may or may not want a nuclear weapon, but they certainly don’t want any foreign entity, starting with the U.S., forcing them to give up their entire nuclear program.

Khamenei has recognized that there is no chance for any agreement with diplomats until after Nov. 6. Still Tehran has not ended talks and cleverly is still building enrichment capability, stressing it is for peaceful use.

The U.S. election has been a diplomatic stumbling block. The White House has known its Republican opponents would have panned any deal that didn’t lead to a democratically elected government for Iran. Its platform stated, “America must lead the effort to prevent Iran from building and possessing nuclear weapons capability,” a position adopted by presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

Capability can mean requiring a halt to any Iranian enrichment. President Obama’s position is to prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon, implying some level of enrichment can be accommodated with inspections.

Over the spring and summer, as the Obama administration tried to tamp down Israeli threats of a unilateral attack, Romney said the White House had not adequately threatened military action and was opening a gap in relations with Israel.

Since the August IAEA report, Romney has toned down his rhetoric but has hopscotched among positions. On Oct. 9 he told CNN, “Let’s also recognize that we have a long way to go before military action may be necessary,” adding: “Hopefully it’s never necessary.” In the Oct. 22 debate with Obama he said the U.S. mission was to “dissuade Iran from having a nuclear weapon through peaceful and diplomatic means,” suggesting tightening sanctions while staying open to a military option.

In the past two weeks, Iranian and Western diplomats have expressed hopes for resuming nuclear talks before year’s end.

One compromise has always been relaxing Western sanctions in return for Iran agreeing to reprocess uranium only up to 3.5 percent as fuel for its electrical power reactors; halting any enrichment to 20 percent and shipping any of that uranium out of the country; and perhaps closing its Fordow plant. All these elements would be under strict IAEA inspection.

Compromise or military action? It may all depend on U.S., Israeli and Iranian elections.

pincusw@washpost.com

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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