The United States and Iran have been at loggerheads since the birth of the Islamic Republic, 33 years ago, but the two nations have never seemed as close to a major military conflict as they have since the beginning of 2012. As we write, concerns of the US and many other nations that Iran’s nuclear program, claimed by Tehran to be solely for peaceful purposes, is, in fact, intended to produce nuclear weapons, seem to be coming to a boil. In November 2011, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided for the first time detailed information about Iranian “experiments” with technologies necessary to build nuclear warheads for missiles. Iran, moreover, has continued to accumulate uranium enriched to 20 percent U-235, the aspect of its nuclear program of greatest concern to the international community. In February, the IAEA confirmed Iran’s announcement that it is stepping up production of this what-could-be-stock for weapons-grade uranium, and moving production to Fordow, a new facility that is better protected from air attack. For its part, the international community began to tighten political and economic pressures on Iran markedly in mid-2010 and again in late 2011. Increasingly frequent threats of military strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities and acts of sabotage and assassination also ratcheted the pressures on Tehran. By the early months of 2012, these coercive policies were beginning to yield results, and the Iranian regime faced a deteriorating economy, an increasingly fractious domestic political scene, and growing international isolation.
In March 2012, Tehran and Washington and its allies agreed to resume negotiations on the nuclear issue without preconditions. However, the prospects for a successful outcome are doubtful given the two sides’ distrust and fundamental antagonisms. Moreover, the US and its partners have not balanced their tightening coercive policies with positive inducements to encourage Iran to reach a peaceful accommodation. In the absence of any olive branch, the broadening sanctions, accelerating pace of covert operations, and repeated threats of military attack could only be interpreted by Iranian leaders as indicators that the US and its partners have no serious interest in a negotiated solution to the nuclear program.
In this report, we review developments in the Middle East between 2010 and early 2012, and provide our personal views on how the United States can persuade Iran to negotiate limitations on its nuclear program that can hold it reliably short of a weapons capability, without instigating a new war in the Middle East. We review the status of Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, the effects of sanctions and other coercive measures, the status of internal politics in Iran and the United States, and, most importantly, the populist movements that are transforming governance and alliances in North Africa and the Middle East, with particular emphasis on the continuing struggle in Syria.