WASHINGTON: Is 2013 the big year for Iran? Many think a decade of confrontation over Iran's nuclear progress will finally boil down to a stark binary choice of living with an Iranian atomic bomb or having to bomb the Islamic Republic to stop this.
Time magazine's international guru, Fareed Zakaria, claims this is the year "we reckon with Iran" and that we we will "face a crisis" in dealing with the country.
But 2013 may not be so decisive.
A report released this month by a group of non-proliferation experts, the Project on U.S. Middle East Non-Proliferation Strategy, has placed mid-2014, and not this year, as when Iran would be able to break out and sneak making enough fissile material for a bomb. The report was published jointly by the Institute for Science and International Security and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Meanwhile, the United States leads its allies in saying that there is still room for diplomacy. The result may very well be that the crisis will limp on, as it has since secret Iranian nuclear work was first uncovered in August 2002 and the UN investigation began in February 2003.
There is no doubt things look increasingly critical. New talks, perhaps last-ditch ones, between Iran and the international community had been expected this month, but that isn't happening. Now they may come next month -- or later. At the same time, the United States continues to ratchet up punitive sanctions to try and force Iran to make a deal.
Iran has responded with the traditional response of those facing sanctions: do more of what you're not supposed to do. They have installed yet more centrifuges at the key sites of Natanz and Fordow, where uranium is enriched for what can be civilian reactor fuel or the raw material for atom bombs. Iran also continues to stonewall the UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A meeting in Tehran this month ended without an agreement on letting IAEA inspectors visit the Parchin site where testing the implosion trigger for an atomic bomb may have taken place.
The argument for 2013 being decisive is that Iran will have the capability for making a bomb in place by the middle of the year. This, analysts say, would force the decision of either winning an agreement to de-fang Iran's nuclear program or neutralizing it with a military strike.
But such a fatal moment may be not months but at least a year off. Iran could hold off from picking up the pace of enrichment, or its stockpile could look less menacing if the average enrichment level of its stored uranium remains well below weapon-grade level. Uranium for power reactors is normally enriched up to five percent of the U-235 isotope while weapon-grade level is over 90 percent. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak acknowledged last November that Iran's making of 20 percent enriched uranium – a major leap towards weapon-grade – was looking less threatening since much of the 20 percent uranium was used to make fuel for a research reactor making medical isotopes, rather than stockpiled for possibly enriching for weapons.
Also, the red lines being enunciated now about Iran's nuclear capabilities could look less critical in the months to come, as long as Iran is not imminently heading for the bomb. Many previous red lines have faded away. Among them:
In 2006, Iran resumed enrichment, after having suspended it in 2003. Resumption of enrichment did not lead to war.
In 2007, Iran passed another red line, that of having 3,000 centrifuges turning. Iran went on in the next five years to more than triple this number of machines enriching uranium.
In 2012, a third point of no return was reached when Iran managed to fully outfit, with almost 3,000 centrifuges, its second enrichment plant at Fordow, built under a mountain and so possibly impregnable to air attack.
All these red lines were crossed without Israeli or US warplanes launching strikes.
The struggle to get back to talks is a sign that, despite diplomacy's slow and uncertain pace, it remains a stubborn source of hope. The United States and its negotiating partners -- Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia -- have hardened, not softened, a proposal which Iran had already rejected in talks last year. The six major powers still insist that Iran dismantle its 20 percent enrichment before it can get significant sanctions relief, and have modified this demand to reflect Iran's increasing the number of centrifuges in Fordow.
Iran's reaction to this, say diplomats, is to seek to draw out the process of negotiating as long as possible, leaving it free to develop its nuclear program.The United States proposed at least two dates in January for talks and indicates it will basically meet Iran anywhere it chooses. But Iran never responded about the first date in the middle of the month and has only tentatively signed on to talk January 28-29, with no location set.
A European Union source said: "Several venues have been proposed. We do not exclude any, but Iran is proposing different venues all the time. The venue is not the issue, but Iran appears to be trying to delay the process by coming up with new conditions."
Said one Western diplomat: "I think their purpose all along was to get as many meetings as they could get in order to talk as little as they can." He added, somewhat cynically, that the purpose of meeting at this point, is to test the Iranians to see, for instance, "[if] one of the reasons they were reluctant to engage before the [US presidential] election was the election.... We have to engage them regularly to see whether they are serious and if they are not serious whether they are potentially serious if we put this or that on the table. At the same time we have to keep up the pressure [with sanctions]. That's the key."
The response of the international community has been to crank up the toughest round of sanctions against Iran since the crisis began, including sanctioning the Iranian central bank to cut into oil sales. In 2012, the Iranian currency the rial dropped at least 50 percent, with some unofficial estimates claiming by up to 80 percent. Oil and gas revenues dropped 45 percent in the last nine months of 2012. US officials feel these measures will only become more effective as the months go by, and that time is needed. This does not sound like a process which is ready to end anytime soon.
President Barack Obama underlined this in his inaugural address Monday. While he did not mention Iran by name in a speech that focused on domestic issues he appeared to set some guideposts Iran should heed. The first restated the military option in the most general way, when the president said: "We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law." The preference for engagement, however, was stated more strongly and with more detail: "We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully – not because we are naïve about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear."
This focus on giving engagement every chance possible has also been made with the nominations of John Kerry for Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel for Defense Secretary. Both these Vietnam veterans and seasoned Washington politicians know war first hand and are believed to envisage it only as a last resort.
Kerry, who would step down as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee if his nomination is approved, reportedly tried during his leadership of this committee to travel to Iran for discussions, but the Iranians rejected the overture. Kerry may have more luck as the diplomatic chief for the second Obama administration.