I wonder if the West is finally starting to take Iran’s nuclear program seriously. According to US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta,
“We made very clear that the United States will not tolerate the blocking of the Strait of Hormuz,” Panetta said. “That’s another red line for us and that we will respond to them” …
Panetta also said the U.S. would consider it a “red line” if Iran begins to develop a nuclear weapon. Iran insists it is enriching uranium only for civilian power plants and research, but the U.S. and its allies fear the program could be used to develop high-grade nuclear fuel for warheads.
“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No,” Panetta said. “But we know that they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, ‘Do not develop a nuclear weapon.’ That’s a red line for us.”
It sounds as though we will allow them to do all the development that they wish, as long as they do not actually build a weapon. Sanctions so far have been too mild to be effective as Iran continues to enrich uranium and do other development activities that are prerequisites for a deliverable weapon. A new hardened facility for enriching uranium (and perhaps other work) has recently come on line. I would call this ‘development’, even if it is as yet incomplete.
What this means is that the window between Iran crossing the US red line and becoming a nuclear power is getting smaller. It’s obvious that Iran intends to go as far as it can. And since the only ‘development’ activity that we are certain to detect is a test of a nuclear device, that becomes a narrow window indeed.
It’s been suggested that the process can be stopped with sanctions, choking off Iran’s economic life by interfering with its oil exports. But even if this were done and Iran agreed to end its nuclear program, we would need to set up an effective system of controls to prevent it from continuing development in secret. I have my doubts as to whether this is possible, and even whether the Iranian regime would agree to stop under the most strict sanctions.
The first law of sanctions is that they don’t work very well on dictatorial regimes, because the regime can always allocate scarce resources to itself and its pet projects. Saddam Hussein not only did this, but he manipulated the “oil for food” program (remember that?) to enrich himself and his cronies.
In any event, Iran has already threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz in response to an oil sanction. Although Panetta said that the US has the ability to reopen it if needed, from the point of view of the West this cannot be allowed to happen. Even if there is no supply crisis, the uncertainty and unavoidable speculation that would ensue would drive oil prices through the roof.
The shaky European and US economies would be struck another crushing blow at exactly the worst time. True unemployment in the US, if you count those who are not looking for jobs, may be as high as 20%. Can you imagine the result of gasoline doubling in price? The threat of closing the strait is probably a greater short-term danger to the West than Iran getting nuclear weapons! I doubt that the West will risk it.
Why not just do nothing and allow Iran to get the bomb? Can’t it be deterred like the former Soviet Union? There are several reasons why this is a poor option.
First, even without exploding the bomb, Iran can use it to provide an umbrella for its expansionist policy, allowing it to gain control of the entire Gulf region and its oil, at which point it can wage economic warfare on the West.
Second, it will provoke a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, with countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt feeling the need to protect themselves against their historic enemy.
Third, unlike the Soviet Union, there is an irrational religious element in the regime’s ideology which might permit it to actually use the weapon — possibly against Israel — in spite of the consequences, or transfer it to terrorist factions. A “balance of terror” between Israel and Iran would be much more precarious than that between the US and the Soviets, for various reasons.
Finally, if we do nothing, Iran will proceed with its program until Israel, out of simple self-preservation when its red line is crossed, will be forced to attack Iran itself. The strike will be less effective than what the US is capable of, and will provoke the same Iranian responses.
What would be an effective military option? I suggest that the best approach is to hit Iran in such a way as to neuter it militarily, by destroying as much of its naval, air and rocket forces as possible, while also damaging its nuclear installations to the greatest possible extent. At the same time, the US Navy must act to keep the straits open. The lesson of Iraq is that we should not attempt to conquer or occupy the country — if there is to be regime change, it will have to be initiated by the indigenous resistance movements (which we can assist, of course). Such an operation can be considered a ‘police action’ to eliminate an immediate threat, not an attempt to create geopolitical change.
We know that Iraq will respond by trying to attack US forces in the region and Israel, which is why the strike must be focused on Iranian military assets as well as its nuclear program. It will undoubtedly unleash Hizballah against Israel, which will fire massive rocket barrages as well as attempt to invade the northern part of the country. But if war with Hizballah is inevitable — and most analysts think so — then it will be better for it to be preemptive and coordinated with a US attack on Hizballah’s patron, Iran.
Those who are opposed to a US attack on Iran like to imply that it is Israel’s problem, and that the US ought not fight to protect Israel. I fully agree, as long as the US doesn’t interfere with Israel’s self-defense. But a nuclear Iran is no less a danger to the US and the West, if not in such apocalyptic terms. The Iranian regime today is following a policy that will change the balance of power in the world against the West and in favor of radical Islam if not stopped. The threat of losing control of a large portion of the world’s oil reserves to a hostile Islamist power, which would lead to the destruction of Western economies, can’t be ignored.
Today this is the most important issue in the world, far more important than relations between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, for example. Future historians may see it as a major turning point, depending on what we do. There is no acceptable non-military option, and the cost of acting can only go up with time.