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Recent advances in Iran’s nuclear weapons program show that events are moving extraordinarily swiftly, as Tehran nears the end of its decades-long quest to possess a lethal WMD capability.
One thing is certain: If Iran succeeds, the Middle East – and the world – will be far more dangerous and unstable, with substantially increased prospects for further nuclear proliferation. That is why we are facing difficult, risky, and uncertain decisions.
Iran has pursued nuclear weapons since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 overthrew the shah, replacing the monarchy with an authoritarian, theocratic regime.
Iran today is the world’s central banker for international terrorism. It funds and arms terrorist groups worldwide, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the Gaza Strip, Shia terrorists in Iraq, and the Sunni Taliban and other radical in Afghanistan.
In February, President Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Iran even had a “shotgun marriage, or marriage of convenience” with al Qaida.
Given Iran’s global sponsorship of terrorism, a nuclear Iran could easily deliver nuclear weapons via ballistic missiles (which it has developed in cooperated with North Korea) and by providing them to terrorists for use around the world.
Iran’s objectives in seeking nuclear weapons are clear.
First, Tehran prizes them as the ultimate trump card against Israel (the “little Satan” in the words of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of the 1979 Revolution) and the United States (the “great Satan”). President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be “wiped off the map,” and he has speculated about “a world without the United States” or Israel.
Given these plainly stated intentions, if Iran were to achieve the capability to launch what former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon called a “nuclear Holocaust,” only the hopelessly naive would not see Iran as an existential threat to Israel, and as a grave terrorist menace to America. For the United States, Iran would not be a serious military risk, but it would constitute a classic example of an asymmetric threat, aimed at our innocent civilians rather than military targets.
Second, nuclear weapons would give Iran a firm foundation for Middle East hegemony, and would make it a significant global power. In the centuries-old regional struggle between Persians, Arabs, and other ethnic groups, these weapons would dramatically shift the local balance of power. The threat posed by a nuclear Iran would permit it to dominate the small Arab monarchies across the Persian Gulf, increase its already significant presence, malign influence over Iraq, and challenge Saudi Arabia for dominance throughout the entire theater. Iran’s reach would be not only political, but also economic, as its clout grew dramatically within OPEC, with potentially enormous consequences for the international price of petroleum and the West’s economy.
Third, nuclear weapons would provide Iran and its Shiite faith an enormous advantage in the struggle against Sunni Muslims for dominance within Islam. This battle is currently being fought out in Syria, where Iran’s support for the Assad family dictatorship constitutes a proxy war against the Sunni majority. In Bahrain, a small island off Saudi Arabia’s coast (and once a province of an earlier Iranian empire), the Sunni Arab king rules a population that is 70 percent Shiite. There, “democratic” reform could well bring a pro-Tehran regime to power.
Already, even before Iran acquires nuclear weapons, the Obama Justice Department has indicted IRGC officials for conspiring to kill the Saudi ambassador to Washington; one can imagine what Iran’s behavior will be once ir crosses the nuclear finish line.
For these reasons, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-exporting nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons any more than Israel does.
Many Westerners, whether or not intending to act as propagandists for Iran, downplay the threat, contending Iran would never actually use nuclear weapons. Some argue that Iran seeks nuclear capabilities purely for defensive purposes, given America’s massive atomic arsenal, and the nuclear assets of dangerous neighbors like Israel and Pakistan.
Of course, Iran itself, by joining the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), committed to eschew nuclear weapons – one of those ‘solemn treaty obligations” rogue states violate casually and with impunity.
But even more importantly, Iran does not actually need to use nuclear weapons to change the balance of power in the Middle. East (and globally) in profound way’s.
Consider, for example, how Europe would have responded in the 1990s to the breakup of Yugoslavia, if President Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia had possessed nuclear weapons. Merely holding such a capability gives Iran an advantage its aggressive use of terrorism and powerful conventional forces along cannot provide.
Faced with dangerous consequences of a nuclear Iran, the United States and others have tried for decades to prevent it. Nonetheless, despite rhetoric, diplomacy, and economic sanctions, Iran has .made steady progress. Tehran is now at the point where even Leon Panetta, Obama’s secretary of defense, said in January that Iran could fabricate a nuclear weapon “within about a year.”
Many analysts believe it could come sooner.
Why have we allowed Iran to come so close to its goal? Successive U.S. presidents – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and now Obama have repeatedly put their faith in diplomacy to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power.
Obama said in his inaugural address, “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But this has always been delusional. Iran was never going to betalked out of its nuclear program, no matter how many carrots were placed before it.
Iran understood that Russia and China were fully prepared to fly political cover for it in the U.N. Security Council and elsewhere, and that it could play “the Israel card” by arguing its nuclear weapons were purely defensive, a favorite line of Iran’s Western friends.
Of course, it is more than ironic that these Westerners are justifying a “defensive” nuclear weapons program that Iran has repeatedly denied it even has.
During George W. Bush’s administration, Britain, France, and Germany repeatedly tried to persuade Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment efforts (a key element in the nuclear fuel cycle, and the route to nuclear weapons through highly-enriched uranium). Iran simply used the lengthy negotiation process to overcome the scientific and technological obstacles it faced.
In 2006, Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s former nuclear negotiator, disdain fully and publicly declared: “While we were talking to the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the [uranium conversion] facility, but we still had a long way to go to complete the project.
“In fact, by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work at Isfahan.”
Iran’s successful strategy of deception shows that negotiations have costs as well as benefits. Europe and the United States – which continuously supported and encouraged Europe’s diplomacy failed to recognize this.
Iran gained both time and legitimacy, and made progress toward obtaining nuclear weapons. In return, the West gained nothing.
By 2006, faced with the potentially catastrophic failure of these negotiations, the Europeans and the United States turned to the U.N. Security Council to adopt economic sanctions against Iran. Russia, China, and other council members, however, watered down the sanctions, rendering them weak. To be effective, sanctions must be comprehensive and swiftly applied and vigorously enforced, none of which has been true to date of the penal ties against Iran.
Even oil sanctions recently adopted by the Europeans, and financial- institution sanctions forced on the Obama ad- ministration by Congress, are filled with loopholes, exemptions, and waiver provisions. Many key countries with important oil and other business dealings with Iran, such as China, India, and Turkey, have essentially said they will simply ignore any sanctions not imposed by the Security Council.
Clapper testified to the Senate in January that “The sanctions as imposed so far have not caused [the Iranians] to change their behavior or their policy.” Accordingly, all the spin and hype about the impact of sanctions to date has been just that, with out any substance whatever.
Even now, the goal of Obama’s sanctions policy is simply to get Iran back to the negotiating table.
The administration does not even try to argue that sanctions will stop or roll back the nuclear weapons program itself. What if diplomacy did resume? It may well be in Iran’s interest to restart negotiations, given its previous successes in buying time and political legitimacy. But what is the acceptable “compromise” between Iran, clearly striving to acquire nuclear weapons, and the West, which wants to prevent just that? Iran gets to keep a, small nuclear weapons program? That is plainly unacceptable.
Iran gets to have a “peaceful” nu clear power program? That would be a fool’s paradise. Given its decades long duplicity and complete indigenous mastery over the nuclear fuel cycle, Iran could “break out” of any commitment to purely civil use with relative ease.
International monitors could not prevent cheating, as rogue states like North Korea have shown, by hiding extensive nuclear weapons programs even with U.N. inspectors in-country. And if Iran expelled the inspectors and renounced the NPT, as Pyongyang did in 2003, what then?
The unpleasant reality is that both diplomacy and sanctions have failed, are failing, and will fail to halt’s Iran’s steady march toward nuclearization. Indeed, the most likely outcome today is that Iran will achieve nuclear weapons, perhaps even earlier than predicted by Defense Secretary Panetta. The only surprise is that its progress has been so stately and measured, thereby showing Iran simply does not fear outside interference.
In February, on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Ahmadinejad announced what was already suspected: advanced centrifuges were enriching uranium at the hardened . and deeply buried centrifuge halls at Fordo, near Qom, and that Iran had successfully fabricating fuel rods for the Tehran Research Reactor.
Could regime change, overthrowing the Islamic Revolution, succeed before Iran gets nuclear weapons? While it should obviously be our goal, regime change is not like turning a light switch on or off. The IRGC brutally suppressed unarmed civilians demonstrating against Iran’s obviously fraudulent June 2009 presidential elections, which gave Ahmadinejad a second term. Had earlier U.S. administrations worked more extensively and effectively to aid Iran’s opposition, President Obama might have been capable in 2009 of using the massive popular unrest in Iran to overthrow the regime.
Unfortunately, no such preparation had been made, and Obama himself, apart from rhetorical flourishes, did little to oust the mullahs. Sanctions could facilitate regime change and warrant support for that reason. But regime change will not come in time to stop Iran from crossing the nuclear finish line.
In fact, the regime is wildly unpopular. Economic mismanagement since 1979 (and not recent sanctions) has thwarted economic growth in this potentially powerful, wealthy country, creating shortages of goods and services that regularly prompt strikes and other disruptions.
Iran’s young people (those under 30 constitute over two-thirds of the total population) are educated and sophisticated, and know from foreign media and their own travels that they could enjoy a vastly different lifestyle if the Islamic Revolution collapsed.
Finally, there is widespread ethnic dissatisfaction. Persians constitute only half of Iran’s people. The Azeris, Kurds, Arabs, Baluchis, and others have long chafed under discriminatory policies.
While these sources of discontent do not .coincide exactly, their very magnitude shows why the regime must cling to power through military force, which it is perfectly prepared to do. After all, the mullahs represent God’s view. Why worry about mere popular opinion? .
The unfortunate reality is that the only real alternative to a nuclear Iran is pre-emptive military force to break its control over the nuclear fuel cycle. The Obama administration has made it plain that it does not plan to take military action, which leaves Israel to take the initiative.
Israel has twice before struck preemptively against hostile governments seeking nuclear weapons, first against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor outside of Baghdad in 1981, and then in September 2007, against a nuclear reactor in Syria being constructed by North Koreans.
If anything, Israel may have already waited too long, by allowing Iran’s Bushehr reactor to be loaded with nuclear fuel rods and operations to begin, thus potentially providing Iran with the plutonium route to nuclear weapons.
Even more seriously, Iran may already have built deeply buried, hardened facilities beyond the reach of Israel’s military capacity. Israel and the United States may be completely unaware of them.
There is no doubt that Washington could shatter Iran’s nuclear program, thus potentially buying years of valuable time. Israel acting alone, how ever, would be straining at the limits of its capacity. And time is growing short as the window for a military option closes.
Israel does not have to destroy Iran’s entire nuclear infrastructure, but only break it at key points. These include the little-publicized, but absolutely vital, Esfahan uranium-conversion plant, the uranium-enrichment halls at Natanz, and the heavy-water production facility and reactor under construction at Arak.
All but Natanz are above ground, and even Natanz’s buried facilities are well known, having been subject to repeated IAEA inspection.
The highly sensitive centrifuges there are the key targets, not the physical structures.
Israel knows exactly what it must do to destroy or irreparably damage the centrifuges, even if the hardened steel-and-concrete works largely survive an attack. The Fordo nuclear facility is harder, but it can be severely impaired, its tunnel entrances closed, and repeatedly closed in subsequent months and years should Iran try re opening them.
Obviously, everyone worries about Tehran’s potential response, and a regime not rational in Western military terms is capable of almost anything. Careful analysis, however, shows that Iran’s real options, post-attack, are limited. Retaliating against U.S. military personnel or facilities in the region (including Iraq or Afghanistan), or launching terrorist attacks worldwide, would all invite a devastating American response – as would any Iranian effort to blockade the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran’s most likely answer would be to unleash Hezbollah and Hamas to rocket innocent Israeli civilians, thus posing a fearful threat. That is why Israel must count on the prompt re supply of planes and ordnance lost or expended over Iran, so it can control the airspace over Lebanon and Gaza to thwart Hezbollah or Hamas.
While the Obama administration has implicitly threatened to with hold that resupply to pressure Israel against using force, Congress will overwhelmingly come to Israel’s side if it strikes Iran. Nonetheless, even the risk of a delay in replenishment causes Israel enormous concern, obviously complicating its decision on whether to attack.
Panetta’s recent prediction to The Washington Post that an Israeli attack would be in the April-June period likely shows that private pressure has failed and that, not squeamish about squeezing a close ally faced with an enormous threat, Obama has turned to pressuring Israel publicly.
Contrary to the Obama view, how ever, the United States can and should support Israel, and there would be enormous public support to do so. But ideology, not strategy, drives Obama, and his antipathy to Israel is strong and deep. He apparently fears an Israeli strike more than an Iranian nuclear weapon.
President Obama’s plan B is to contain and deter a nuclear Iran. This is delusional. A regime prizing life in the hereafter more than life on earth does not play by classic deterrence theories. The Soviets’ atheist mindset in the Cold War at least made them more sensitive to entering the darkness of nuclear war, a sensitivity the mullahs do not register. The complexity of deterrence strategies obviously goes beyond simple psychology, but relying on deterrence against anti Western religious fanatics is not a winning play.
Moreover, Obama’s decision to withdraw U.S. combat forces from Iraq and radically shortening our time horizons in Afghanistan hardly lends credence to an Obama “commitment” to long-term containment.
But even if, contrary to all the evidence, a nuclear Iran could be contained and deterred, that is still in sufficient. The nuclear threat doesn’t stop with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, and perhaps others in the region would get nuclear weapons if Iran did.
Thus, in a relatively short period of time as these things go, five to 10 years, the volatile Middle East could have over half a dozen nuclear weapons states, an inherently dangerous and unacceptably risky outcome.
And, of course, even regime change that results in representative government in Tehran will not allay fears of a nuclear Iran in Saudi Arabia or elsewhere.
Their incentive to obtain their own nuclear weapons will persist, thus emphasizing the imperative of stop ping Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the first place.
We are thus down to very unattractive options. Unfortunately, the choice is not between the world as it is today versus a world after a pre- emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. That choice would be easy. Unfortunately, however, the world as it is today is disappearing, soon to be replaced by a world where Iran has nuclear weapons.
The choice in reality, therefore, is between that nightmare world, and a world after a pre-emptive strike. As dangerous and hostile as the world after a strike might be, a world where Iran has nuclear weapons would be far more dangerous and hostile.
Israel will soon have to make that choice, and America, either under Obama or under his successor, will have to deal with it.
Time will tell -and time may well be growing short.
John Bolton currently a senior fellow at AEI and a Fox News contributor.
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