It is not new, at all, that the United States does not have plausibly effective options to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear capability. If Iran had agreed in October to limit its uranium stock to less than a ton as a long term arrangement in exchange for effectively ending the nuclear portion of its dispute with the West, that possibly would give the US weak but acceptable grounds for claiming victory. Iran would still in the time it would take for a crisis to emerge, have time to build a weapon, but its path to weaponization may, depending on the scenario, have been somewhat less credible than it will be a year from now. On that reed the US would have attempted to hang a claim that Iran has successfully been prevented from becoming "nuclear capable".
It looks as if that will not happen. More importantly it looks as if the US is no longer willing to lose credibility to an effort to pretend that it hopes to prevent Iran from becoming nuclear capable.
In an interview on Friday, General Jones declined to speak about the memorandum. But he said: “On Iran, we are doing what we said we were going to do. The fact that we don’t announce publicly our entire strategy for the world to see doesn’t mean we don’t have a strategy that anticipates the full range of contingencies — we do.”This admission to the New York Times is striking, this release of a supposedly secret document from January. It raises the possibility that the reason Obama spoke directly about nuclear capability two weeks ago, along with Gates and Clinton allowing themselves to be questioned on that issue was to prepare for a climbdown by the US.
But in his memo, Mr. Gates wrote of a variety of concerns, including the absence of an effective strategy should Iran choose the course that many government and outside analysts consider likely: Iran could assemble all the major parts it needs for a nuclear weapon — fuel, designs and detonators — but stop just short of assembling a fully operational weapon.
In that case, Iran could remain a signatory of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty while becoming what strategists call a “virtual” nuclear weapons state.
Israel cannot be happy about this, but what can it do?
The impact of this is that once the US admits it cannot prevent an outcome, it is free to limit the damage to other objectives that could have been caused by efforts to prevent that outcome. If there is no effective strategy that will prevent Iran from becoming nuclear capable, what is the purpose of a sanctions drive? More pointedly, how many US troops in Iraq or Afghanistan is the US willing to sacrifice by taking this a sanctions-step towards escalation with Iran given that the US does not expect to achieve the goal of preventing nuclear capability.
The US has carved out, or is in the process of carving out, a space in which it can negotiate over other issues with a nuclear capable Iran. We cannot be sure that the US plans or is going to take advantage of the space, but the space now exists.
Will there actually be sanctions? It's April. China may have abstained, but would not have vetoed a UNSC resolution if one had been tabled in February. It is clear there is an element of acting going on here. The US is not eager to get a sanctions bill, and for good reason, what would sanctions accomplish if the US assessed in January that it has no effective strategy to prevent an Iranian nuclear capability.
Maybe there will be sanctions. It is difficult to predict no sanctions at all when every single story in the news about Iran contains another assertion about how determined the US is to get sanctions. But why have they not happened yet? If there are sanctions, Iran will respond, Iran's nuclear program will certainly progress faster because Iran will certainly use the sanctions as an opportunity to announce a defiant escalation. But overall the strategic situation, even if there are sanctions, will remain the same.
Sanctions or not, this is a step forward for the US and the fact that the US allows its assessment to become public is more important that it may seem. It looks as if the US is finding a modus vivendi with Iran for the time between now and when the US hopes the dispute over Zionism will be resolved.