How to deal with Iran

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Iran this week summarily rejected the latest call by the International Atomic Energy Agency to cease all its uranium enrichment programs. Speaking at a military parade on Tuesday, where Iran's surface-to-surface Shihab-3 ballistic missiles earmarked "Jerusalem" were on prominent display, Iranian President Muhammad Khatami defied the IAEA, saying: "We will continue along our path [of uranium enrichment] even if it leads to an end to international supervision."

 

US and European sources involved in tracking the Iranian nuclear program have made clear in recent weeks that Iran is between four and six months away from nuclear "break-out" capacity. This means that in the next four to six months Iran will have the nuclear fuel cycle complete, and will be able to independently construct nuclear bombs whenever it wishes. More conservative estimates have spoken of 12-24 months.

 

Given the seeming inevitability of Iran attaining nuclear weapons capabilities, a new received wisdom seems to be coalescing in Washington. This view is that it is not possible today, given US preoccupation with Iraq, either to change the Iranian regime and therefore moderate the threat posed by a nuclear Iran, or to engage the mullahs in negotiations that would appease them into giving up their nuclear ambitions. Therefore, it is being said, a new "middle road" policy must be constructed.

 

The most serious voice weighing in on the "middle road" option to date is Henry Sokolski. Sokolski, who now heads the Washington-based Non-proliferation Policy Education Center, was a US arms control negotiator in the first Bush administration and has held senior positions on arms-control-related issues in Congress and in the US intelligence community. Last week, the NPEC published a report, partially funded by the Pentagon, on the Iranian nuclear program, entitled "Restraining a Nuclear-Ready Iran: Seven Levers." (http://www.npec-web.org/projects/Iran/2004-09-13SevenLevers.pdf)

 

Given Sokolski's own hard-won credibility in non-proliferation affairs, and the fact that the Pentagon partially funded his report, it is important to analyze the study and its conclusions.

 

The study asserts at its outset that it will be impossible to target Iran's nuclear sites militarily. This assertion arises from intelligence reports which have shown that Iran has up to 15 separate and disperse nuclear sites, many of which are hardened and underground. Aside from this, the report and its precursor, "Checking Iran's Nuclear Ambitions," asserts that Iran already possesses the scientific knowledge base necessary to reconstitute any sites that are destroyed or damaged by air strikes.

 

Similarly, the study asserts that engaging Iran on its nuclear program is an exercise in futility, given Iran's current and past duplicity on the subject.

 

Disturbingly, while Sokolski accuses officials presently working on the Iran issue of being "in denial" about the inevitability of Iran acquiring nuclear capabilities, he himself is in denial about the threat that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose. Sokolski enumerates three dangers that he views as likely to emanate from a nuclear Iran.

 

First, he says that Iranian nuclearization will act as a catalyst for neighboring countries to attempt to gain nuclear capabilities, citing Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Algeria and Turkey as likely candidates for adopting such a policy.

 

Second, the report argues that nuclear capabilities will embolden Iran to take action to reduce world oil shipments by attacking tankers in the Straits of Hormuz or Saudi and Iraqi oil installations and pipelines, leading to a dramatic increase in oil prices.

 

Finally, a nuclear armed Iran would feel free to increase its support for terror strikes against the US and its allies. Such strikes would lead to a diminishment of US influence in the Middle East and throughout the world.

 

In truth, all of the threats that Sokolski's report argues will arise if Iran becomes nuclear capable already exist. Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Algeria are all already seeking to gain nuclear capabilities, as the report itself acknowledges. As well, Iran has been linked to much of the terrorism against oil-related targets in Saudi Arabia over the past year-and-a-half, and to most of the sabotage attacks against Iraqi oil installations since the US-led invasion. Indeed, Teheran is already the main cause of the recent surge in global oil prices. Furthermore, Iran today is the world's primary sponsor of terrorism. Its links to al-Qaida have been copiously documented. Its primary sponsorship of Hizbullah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and Fatah is also unquestionable.

 

Yet, while labeling already existing threats emanating from Iran as future ones, Sokolski ignores the main new threat that would exist were Iran to become equipped with nuclear bombs – the use of those bombs to destroy Israel or its neighbors and rivals in the Persian Gulf, or the transfer of nuclear weapons to a terrorist group deployed as Iran's proxy.

 

Given that Sokolski fails to acknowledge this threat, it is not surprising that his policy recommendations for checking Iran's nuclear ambitions read like an instruction manual for US arms negotiators facing the Soviets during the era of detente in the 1970s. They are all based on the assumption that, like the Soviet Union, Iran is a status-quo power that will respect some mutually acceptable game rules.

 

Some of Sokolski's recommendations are interesting, but irrelevant to the matter at hand. He talks of the need to strengthen the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty by amending it to extend automatic nuclear blacklisting and other sanctions on any state that vacates its signature to the treaty. This may be a good idea, but what possible effect could it have if Iran has independent nuclear capabilities?

 

Other such recommendations are variations on ideas that have been tried in the past and failed. For instance, Sokolski calls for the US to achieve Russian cooperation in checking Iran's nuclear aspirations by offering the Russians a long-sought-for and lucrative nuclear cooperation deal. In the 1990s, the US offered Russia a near partnership in much of its space program. It often threatened that it would curtail its space cooperation if Russia did not stop assisting Iran in its ballistic missile program, but it never followed through. US sanctions on Russia for its cooperation in the Iranian ballistic missile programs were limited to sanctions on specific Russian entities that were directly involved in the enterprise, and the Russian government never flinched.

 

Most significantly – and egregiously – Sokolski recommends that in an effort to check Iranian nuclear capabilities, "Israel should announce how much weapons usable material it has produced and that it will unilaterally mothball (but not yet dismantle) Dimona, and place the reactor's mothballing under IAEA monitoring. Israel should announce that it will dismantle Dimona and place the special nuclear material it has produced in 'escrow' in Israel with a third trusted declared nuclear state, e.g., the US." That is, the primary target of Teheran's nuclear arsenal should respond to the emerging threat by disarming itself.

 

If this recommendation were made by a European or an Arab, one could simply laugh it off. But given the respectability of the source, it is necessary to engage it. Adopting such a course would be devastating for three main reasons:

 

First, it ignores the real danger of Iran using nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, as it has threatened.

 

Second, it ignores the rationale behind Israel's nuclear program: deterring the threat of physical destruction by both conventional and non-conventional en
emy forces. It is not simply a deterrent against nuclear attack. To discuss nuclear transparency for Israel without calling for conventional disarmament of, say Egypt, whose conventional armed forces alone constitute a strategic threat for Israel, is to ignore Israel's strategic vulnerabilities.

 

Finally, the recommendation makes no distinction between a nuclear-armed, stable democracy and a nuclear-armed, terror-supporting theocracy. Comparing a nuclear Israel and a nuclear Iran is like comparing a housewife in the kitchen wielding a butcher's knife to a murderer in a dark alleyway wielding a butcher's knife. It is both morally obtuse and strategically blind.

 

Sokolski states at the outset that the option of a military strike against Iran must be dismissed because Iran's program is too far flung and its sites are too hardened. That is, since it may well be impossible to hit every nuclear target, it is not worth hitting any of them. As well, Iranian leaders daily threaten that any military action taken against Iran will be responded to in a devastating manner.

 

Yet, were an air strike on Iran to take out say, only 10 of 15 sites, it would still severely retard the Iranian nuclear effort, buying the West time to formulate and enact either a policy of engagement from a position of strength, or a policy of regime change with the requisite credibility among regime opponents that such a strike would inspire.

 

As to the threat of Iranian retaliation, it can be mitigated by taking certain steps. Hizbullah leadership, as well as its rocket and missile depots and launchers, can be preemptively destroyed or disabled in Lebanon. Saudi oil installations can be secured by Western Special Forces. A naval flotilla can be deployed to the Persian and Oman Gulfs, ready to secure the Strait of Hormuz for oil tankers.

In addition, immediately following a military strike on Iran's nuclear installations, allied governments could launch a massive information warfare campaign, flooding Iran with radio and satellite television broadcasts explaining the need for the strike and offering assistance to Iranian reformers.

 

In short, while calling for a "middle ground" – looking askance at naive formulations of engagement with no deterrent credibility, or regime change with no operational credibility – may seem like an attractive option, in reality, given the hostility and radicalism of the Iranian regime, Sokolski's report provides no real new option.

 

 

A more formidable middle road that could be used to develop options for either regime change or engagement must necessarily be predicated on a comprehensive military option supporting limited air or commando strikes at Iran's nuclear facilities.

 

Originally published in The Jerusalem Post.

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