The Standoff: Who will blink first in Iran’s nuclear poker game?
As war agitation intensifies over Iran’s nuclear program, much of the world’s attention naturally focuses on the three men at the centre of the storm—Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Barack Obama. Each brings his own attributes, impulses, sensibilities and limitations to the lingering crisis. But each is also buffeted, as all politicians are, by the political pressures and forces swirling through his own national polity. Hence, to understand the three leaders’ manoeuvrings, it is helpful to probe as well the political milieus in which they operate.
Ahmadinejad presides in a country whose identity is indistinguishable from its religion. And the most solemn protector of that identity and religion is not Ahmadinejad but Ayatollah Khamenei, whose aim is to sustain the revolution that keeps him and his clerical establishment in power. He does that by fanning the flames of ideological fervour, which means he must control every aspect of Iranian life that is related even minutely to the state’s religious and ideological identity. That includes foreign policy.
Netanyahu must contend with a demographic revolution that occurred in his country during the past couple of decades, when a million and a half immigrants arrived in Israel, 85 per cent from the former Soviet Union. These newcomers, some ultraorthodox but many secular, brought to Israeli politics a more stark and uncompromising outlook regarding West Bank settlements and also the Iranian threat. Netanyahu shares this outlook, but his coalition until recently relied on a number of highly ideological splinter parties that rendered his government unstable. Thus, Netanyahu’s primary political challenge was to fashion a more stable and potent governing alliance, which he did.
For Obama, the preeminent political challenge in this election year is his country’s anaemic economic recovery, which could upend his incumbency. Just behind that is his effort to craft a new US foreign policy that pulls his country away from the kind of expeditionary adventures that George W. Bush pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan. The two efforts are intertwined. As he seeks to boost the US economy, Obama certainly doesn’t need any dire foreign policy crisis, particularly one that would blow a hole in his economic efforts. But such a crisis could emerge with Iran, perhaps triggered by his nettlesome ally, Netanyahu.
The political realities faced by these three leaders come into play starkly as they seek to manoeuvre their countries through the deepening crisis. Complexities abound in all three instances.