While the eyes of the world are trained on North Korea’s ear-splitting threats, another perennial source of Western concern, Iran’s nuclear ambition, is hoving into view following the collapse of EU-led talks in Almaty. Israel, determined to keep Iran in the spotlight, is busy ramping up the tension, with one senior minister demanding that the West set an unalterable deadline for military action if Tehran does not stop enriching uranium “within weeks”.
Israeli fears that Iran’s nuclear ambitions pose a vital threat to its existence are not unfounded. But whatever Israel says, we are nowhere near the point where military strikes are the only option. In the meantime, the West should not allow Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to drag it into a conflict that would massively destabilise a region already reeling from the shockwaves coming out of Syria.
Getting talks started with Iran was in itself a sign of progress, and it was unrealistic to imagine that a dramatic breakthrough was likely when the positions of both sides have become so entrenched. One problem is that the deal on the table – a modest reduction in Western sanctions, in return for Iran stopping its most contentious work – looked paltry from the Iranians’ point of view. They clearly decided it wasn’t worth backing down, yet, in exchange for such an unappetising carrot.
The other problem is that Israel is not the only party in the dispute locked into position by domestic political considerations. Iran holds presidential elections in June and it was implausible to imagine the authorities there undertaking a radical change of course on such a flagship policy ahead of those polls.
Washington appears to realise this, even if its ally, Israel, chooses not to. The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, was right to steer clear of talk of military deadlines while adding that the West cannot continue to hold talks with Iran “interminably”. The recent dialogue with Iran has not succeeded in its aims, but that does not mean it has failed.