Visiting U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen declared Sunday that Washington was committed to Israel’s security, voicing concern over the “unintended consequences” a war in the Middle East over Iran’s contentious nuclear program would bring.
“I worry a great deal about the unintended consequences of a strike,” he told reporters during a visit to Tel Aviv, referring to Iran’s threats to retaliate against Israel and U.S. sites in the Gulf. “I think the Iranians are very difficult to predict.”
Translation: he’s worried about Israel’s security so much that he really doesn’t want Israel to attack Iran. This makes little sense. Nobody is more aware than Israel of Iran’s ability to retaliate in many unpleasant ways, and so it’s very likely that it would not take that step unless there was absolutely no alternative. It would only attack if the consequences of not attacking were judged to be worse.
The US has said over and over that it wishes to deter Iran from proceeding with its program by applying sanctions. So far, sanctions aimed specifically at the nuclear program have been spotty and easily bypassed. The international sanctions now being contemplated would be applied to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and businesses and institutions associated with it.
Now consider that the nuclear program is top priority for the Iranian leadership. Ahmadinejad has diverted an enormous amount of resources which could have been used to improve the local economy into a crash program to develop nuclear weapons, and has brutally repressed popular anger at resulting problems. Iran has managed to get its hands on critical technology despite embargoes on it.
Is it likely that Tehran will reverse course at this point as a result of more economic sanctions? Is it not more likely that they will be countered by a further diversion of resources, and simply exacerbate the problems of the general population? The ability of a dictatorial regime to shift resources at will and suppress popular opposition makes sanctions a poor way of influencing its behavior.
The US House and Senate have passed bills calling for US sanctions on international companies which export refined fuel to Iran. This would bite very hard, since at present Iran lacks sufficient refining capacity of its own — although a Chinese consortium is planning to build a refinery in Iran to help solve this problem.
But even if refined fuel sanctions could be implemented (the bills would need to be reconciled and signed by the President, and there is serious opposition from various quarters), there’s no reason to think that they would have much effect on the nuclear program. The result would probably be even more trouble for the Iranian populace, who can nevertheless be kept in line by the same vicious oppression that allowed the regime to steal the last election.
So here are the facts:
- Nuclear weapons development is of the highest priority for the Iranian regime;
- The ability of the dictatorial regime to shift resources means that sanctions are unlikely to be effective, even ‘painful’ ones;
- Therefore, unless something totally unexpected happens, only military action can be effective in preventing or delaying the Iranian bomb.
I’m pretty sure all parties involved understand this — even the Obama administration. Therefore the debate (at least in the US — in Israel they know the answer) should be expected to shift to variations of “how bad would a nuclear Iran really be?” See my take on one example of this genre here.