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Iran: another year on the edge of the volcano

Power struggles and nuclear ambitions mean that Iran and the Middle East will remain volatile and any peace will be precarious

The Guardian

By Simon Tisdall   

The spectre of military confrontation with Iran, igniting a wider Middle East conflict, looms large as 2013 begins. If you feel you have been here before, you have. According to recent reports from Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu was ready to attack Tehran's suspect nuclear facilities as long ago as 2010, but was blocked by his two top army and intelligence chiefs.

What makes 2013 especially dangerous is that potential war-triggers are more numerous and more finely balanced than two years ago. Iran's nuclear weapons-related and associated missile programmes are more advanced, or so the western powers believe. In Israel, meanwhile, the two recalcitrant army and intelligence chiefs have been replaced.

January will see Netanyahu standing in elections for a second term as prime minister. If successful, he can be expected to ratchet up the pressure on Tehran again. The rightwing Likud leader will interpret his expected victory as a mandate for action. For Netanyahu, Iran has become an obsession.

In Iran, the controversial two-term presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is coming to an end and it is far from clear who may succeed him. It can be assumed that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader and an anti-western, conservative hardliner, will try to pick his own man for the job. But the opposition, though fractured, will have its own ideas. It is entirely possible the June 2013 presidential election will provoke a repeat of the street battles and civil unrest that, for a moment in the summer of 2009, appeared to be close to toppling the revolutionary regime. Many Iranians and outside observers believe the Green movement's candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, won that election but was the victim of massive fraud. The example of the Arab spring revolts may now inspire even greater internal resistance. This in turn could lead the regime to blame foreign meddling, as it has in the past, and lash out abroad.

For their part, the Americans will try to avoid direct military confrontation if they can, although Washington, like Tehran, has rightwing factions that would dearly love a showdown. The Pentagon has severe misgivings about a shooting war. This is not to say the shadowy covert war targeting Iran with cyber attacks, assassinations and destabilisation operations will stop. It will not. Barack Obama does not want to be drawn into another conflict in the Muslim world, having striven so hard to extricate the US from Iraq and Afghanistan. A new round of western diplomatic contacts with Iran is under way. The US has been holding secret bilateral discussions and Obama signalled publicly in a presidential debate that he was prepared to negotiate face to face.

The outlines of a deal are already on the table. Iran would cease production of 20%-enriched uranium (the biggest proliferation threat) in return for an easing of sanctions. It would be allowed to continue making low-enriched uranium for civil reactors in exchange for accepting more intrusive monitoring. The UN's nuclear agency, the IAEA, says it believes inspections could resume in January. But Israel will demand definitive progress, if not a breakthrough, before June, the month by which it estimates Iran's production of highly enriched uranium will give it the capability to build an atomic bomb. This is a "red line", Israel says.

One big problem in any talks process, as always, is who in Tehran is qualified to speak authoritatively for a regime that has many power centres. No Iranian politician will want to be seen ceding ground to the west at a time of uncertain domestic political transition, for fear of being accused of selling out.

Another linked problem is the civil war in Syria, where Iran is the main backer of President Bashar al-Assad's beleaguered regime, reportedly providing funds, weapons, training and advice. If Assad succumbs to the pressure from western-backed rebels, then Iran may feel, with good reason, that it is next up on the US's regime-change agenda. For Shi'ite Muslim Iran, "losing" Syria would be a major strategic setback in its regional power struggle with the broadly pro-western, Sunni Muslim governments of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf.

Assad's departure would undermine Iranian influence in Lebanon, where it is closely allied with the dominant Shia political party, Hezbollah. It would also have negative, practical implications for Iran's alliance with Hamas in Gaza – where the Palestinians' stand-off with Israel is another potent war-trigger – and for its efforts to supersede Egypt and Turkey as the region's leading power.

For all these reasons, the conclusion of Syria's civil war with a rebel victory – which the US, Nato and Russia all appear to believe will occur in 2013 – could prove to be a very dangerous moment across the Middle East. Rather than wait for what it may believe is an inevitable Israeli-US strike, Tehran could decide to retaliate first. In other words, after Syria, if Israel does not start it, Iran's hardliners might.

This year looks certain to be a difficult one across the Middle East. Egypt's revolution is turning out to be an extremely protracted affair. Overthrowing Hosni Mubarak's dictatorship proved the easy bit. How to build a new system of transparent, responsible, democratic governance acceptable to a majority of Egyptians, including Muslims and Copts, Islamists and secularists, is much more challenging. The violence that engulfed parts of Cairo in November in the dispute over a new constitution and Mohamed Morsi's presidential powers was deeply disturbing. This was no mere difference of opinion. This was a fundamental failure of trust. The clashes revealed a depth of social polarisation and enmity between the feuding factions that may prove difficult if not impossible to overcome.

Elsewhere in the region, Jordan, destabilised by influxes of Syrian refugees and economic hardship, looks ripe for an Arab spring experience of its own. In Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, the lid on free expression and meaningful democratic reform remains screwed down tight. These are all pressure-cooker states that could blow at any time.

Post-occupation Iraq, meanwhile, is likely to witness increasing strains on its territorial integrity. The principal cause is the short-sighted authoritarian approach taken by Nouri al-Maliki, the country's pro-Iranian Shia prime minister, that risks further alienating Iraq's disaffected and separatist-minded Sunni and Kurdish populations.

If anything, Afghanistan in 2013 may prove even more troublesome. As western troops pull back from frontline regions and prepare for a final exit in 2014, the Taliban and assorted warlords, brigands and misogynists will increasingly step into the resulting power vacuum. This process is already under way and will likely accelerate. And going back to where we started, Afghanistan is another theatre where an encircled and embattled Iran could make serious trouble for the west.