Tue. Jan 17, 2006
On The Couch Watching Iran
Last week Iran removed UN seals on a reactor, said they were going to resume research on enriching uranium, and caused Britain, France and Germany to give up their 2.5 years of diplomatic efforts with Iran. Over the past several days, it seems everyone is asking, “what to do about Iran and nukes?” Or rather, “how can our party best position itself on the issue of Iran to make the Other Guys look foolish,” and “how can we save face over the failure of diplomacy, yet not try anything more than diplomacy?” And other questions which, even if answered, don’t address the real world.
As is our human wont, many think the problem boils down to one man, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad:
As Iran rushes towards confrontation with the world over its nuclear programme, the question uppermost in the mind of western leaders is “What is moving its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to such recklessness?”
Political analysts point to the fact that Iran feels strong because of high oil prices, while America has been weakened by the insurgency in Iraq.
But listen carefully to the utterances of Mr Ahmadinejad — recently described by President George W Bush as an “odd man” — and there is another dimension, a religious messianism that, some suspect, is giving the Iranian leader a dangerous sense of divine mission.
When an aircraft crashed in Teheran last month, killing 108 people, Mr Ahmadinejad promised an investigation. But he also thanked the dead, saying: “What is important is that they have shown the way to martyrdom which we must follow.”
The most remarkable aspect of Mr Ahmadinejad’s piety is his devotion to the Hidden Imam, the Messiah-like figure of Shia Islam, and the president’s belief that his government must prepare the country for his return.
This is similar to the Christian vision of the Apocalypse. Indeed, the Hidden Imam is expected to return in the company of Jesus.
Mr Ahmadinejad appears to believe that these events are close at hand and that ordinary mortals can influence the divine timetable.Telegraph: “‘Divine mission’ driving Iran’s new leader“
In this, the Iranian President is remarkably similar to Christian fundamentalists like Pat Robertson, whose recent remarks about Ariel Sharon were driven by the belief an “intact” Israel is required by Bible prophecy as a prerequisite to the Second Coming. And the Apocalypse.
However, the 700 Club is not seeking nukes. To the best of my knowledge, anyway. But the popularity of the “Left Behind” series shows that there’s a lot of people on this planet, of multiple faiths, who would seemingly welcome Armageddon. Tomorrow, if possible. One can only assume many of them therefore would have no problem hastening it.
Judging by numerous inflammatory comments recently, the Iranian President might just be one of those people. As Charles Krauthammer put it, “So a Holocaust-denying, virulently anti-Semitic, aspiring genocidist, on the verge of acquiring weapons of the apocalypse, believes that the end is not only near but nearer than the next American presidential election. (Pity the Democrats. They cannot catch a break.) This kind of man would have, to put it gently, less inhibition about starting Armageddon than a normal person.”
In fact, Iran is planning a “Holocaust conference”: “Iran, whose president has denied the Holocaust, said Sunday it would hold a conference to examine the scientific evidence concerning Nazi Germany’s extermination of 6 million Jews.” So he’s not exactly withdrawing his remarks, he’s actually bringing in reinforcements.
While you might think the citizens and public servants of the Sole Remaining Superpower would properly recognize this as a serious international issue, the evidence says that many view it, first and foremost, as a domestic political battle.
Victor Davis Hanson: “If the Democrats feel they have lost the public’s confidence in their stewardship of national security, then the threat of Iran offers a Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, or John Kerry an opportunity to get out front now and pledge support for a united effort — attacking Bush from the right about too tepid a stance rather from the predictable left that we are ‘hegemonic’ and ‘imperialistic’ every time we use force abroad.”
Ezra Klein: “If [Sen. Harry] Reid’s offices aren’t packed with exhausted national security aides drawing up a comprehensive plan to deal with Iran and the DNC’s PR guys aren’t booking prominent Democrats to blanket television and set the terms of the debate, we’ve got a problem. One way or the other, Iran is going to be an issue. And given that, Democrats need to step forward on it first so, in six months, they’re not left playing catch-up to the hawks.”
Apparently there is no problem so large or important that it cannot be reduced and ported to our unique domestic form of binary partisan politics.
So will we hear of a red solution and a blue solution? Broadly speaking, on one side, we’ve got the intelligence and diplomatic credibility earned via three years in Iraq, while the other side’s credibility often rides on ridiculing anything proposed by Bush, especially more foreign ventures.
That’s not exactly a prime environment in which to breed a real solution. Of course, it also assumes that anyone in Congress (or their supporters) will have any influence on the Iranians, an assumption that could only find fuel in partisan pride, not the real world.
In the real world, it would appear no one is having any luck influencing the Iranians. In an interview with Mohamed ElBaradei, director-general of the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency, Newsweek’s Christopher Dickey makes the stark statement:
With all due respect, the Iranians don’t seem to care what you think.
Well, they might not seem to care. But if I say that I am not able to confirm the peaceful nature of that program after three years of intensive work, well, that’s a conclusion that’s going to reverberate, I think, around the world.
Diplomacy is not just talking. Diplomacy has to be backed by pressure and, in extreme cases, by force. We have rules. We have to do everything possible to uphold the rules through conviction. If not, then you impose them. Of course, this has to be the last resort, but sometimes you have to do it.
Basically, ElBaradei says that Iran has not shown good will in negotiations, shows no signs of heeding the international community, and then he speaks of the need for “pressure” and “force.” Since the IAEA would now like to wash its hands of this and send the matter on to the UN Security Council, you’d think this would be progress of some sort.
You would be wrong: “Moscow, with a $1 billion stake building Iran’s first atomic reactor, and Beijing, reliant on Iranian oil for its surging economy, have so far thwarted such a move by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) board of governors.”
Iran stepped up its defiance of international pressure over its nuclear programme yesterday by warning of soaring oil prices if it is subjected to economic sanctions. As diplomats from the US, Europe, Russia, and China prepared to meet today in London to discuss referring Tehran to the UN security council, Iran’s economy minister, Davoud Danesh-Jafari, said the country’s position as the world’s fourth-largest oil producer meant such action would have grave consequences.
“Any possible sanctions from the west could possibly, by disturbing Iran’s political and economic situation, raise oil prices beyond levels the west expects,” he told Iranian state radio.
Which is actually a tamer statement than we’ve heard in the recent past, when they simply said any referral to the UN Security Council would result in higher oil prices. Not due to the impact of sanctions, but by the unilateral action of Iran upon simple referral.
So we appear to have a country (or rather, its leaders) that insists it is immune to any form of outside pressure, from the European diplomatic initiative by France, Germany and Britain, to the IAEA, the UN Security Council, their trading partners in Russia, and, oh yeah, our own domestic political battlebots.
Further, they claim if the international community even gathers together to talk about possible sanctions, they’ll respond with their ace card: oil prices. This ace card probably also buys them at least one veto vote over any Security Council decision, from energy hungry China.
And if potential diplomatic solutions have indeed run out, the next question is, just how imminent is nuclear danger from Iran? Intelligence estimates seem to range from three years to a decade. I remember reading that the Israeli assessment was that they could begin enriching uranium within a few months, and could produce nuclear weapons within three years of that.
Maybe so. But I have to ask … when exactly have intelligence estimates been right? When Pakistan went nuclear, it caught us by surprise. And the CIA went from saying North Korea could get nukes within five years, to “oops, we think they already have several.” Need we even bring up the pre-Iraq intel?
Relying on a intel estimate that implies at least a three year cushion is about like relying on the US budget forecast that claimed a surplus through most of this decade.
But let’s assume Iran acquires nuclear weapons by early 2009. What then? One could argue that in this decade or next, several countries will likely acquire nuclear capability. It’s a “sooner or later” thing, so why go to war to try and stop something that’s going to happen anyway?
Inertia is indeed a powerful argument. If you want to believe this report in the Scotsman, it’s one to which the international community may well succumb. At the very least, the options are becoming stark. Let’s look at the most likely ones.
The Couch Spectator Solution: As described in the Scotsman article, “Officials in London and Washington now privately admit that they must face the painful fact that there is nothing they can do.” Except sit back on the couch and hope for the best. Hope that President Ahmadinejad’s recent verbal warfare is really just “barking” meant to solidify his domestic position and power by thrusting himself onto the world stage in such an attention grabbing manner. Hope that the decades of bellicose bluster from Iranian mullahs was just that … bluster. Hope that the country that has long been #1 on the State Department’s hit parade of “Nations That Support Terrorism” won’t be inclined to share this particular nuclear gift.
And as we all know, it’s really hard to get out of that couch sometimes. Easier just to sit there.
The “Don’t Make Us Spank You” Solution: If we’re lucky, and China somehow decides to take a pass on their long held national pastime of Messing With The West For Fun, and not use their veto, it is possible the UN Security Council might be able to put together some harsh words for Iran (and then water them down via conference), in some form of official condemnation from the international community. “We all see you, naughty naughty.” It reminds me a bit of Robin Williams’ joke about an unarmed British bobby chasing a thief … “Stop! Or …or … I’ll yell stop again!”
One step up from that, we have The “No More Fondue Forks For You” Solution. In this case, the UN Security Council actually puts some economic sanctions in place, banning export to Iran of whipped cream, triple edged razor blades, and fondue forks. Or something equally inconsequential and ineffective.
I don’t think either of the options involving the UN are very likely, nor would they do any good. No one will admit it, but I’d bet many in the international community harbor a secret hope. I think we’ll see The Couch Spectator Solution lead inevitably to…
The “Look Away and Let The Israelis Do It” Solution: And this option deserves a bit more thought, as, frankly, I think it’s the most likely outcome. Also, it is perhaps the option with the ugliest potential aftermath.
Why am I so sure the Israelis will make an attempt to attack Iran’s nuclear capabilities? Well, let’s try to put ourselves in their shoes. Imagine a country very nearby the US … within intermediate missile range … that is lead by a bellicose man who threatens to acquire nuclear weapons, and says he expects he will have to use them against the US in self-defense.
Would we allow that country to acquire those weapons? For the answer, check your history book, under “1962 Cuba Missile Crisis.”
Israel faces a country lead by a man who says they are a blot on the map that should be wiped off. A country that has long helped fuel groups that have attacked Israel for many years. And while it would have taken hundreds of nukes to wipe out the US, it would only take two or three to wipe out a small country like Israel. In other words, all it would take is Iran’s “first batch” of nuclear stew.
In a historical context (see 1967 War, 1973 War, and Osirak), and in a strategic context, it makes no objective sense for Israel to allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons unimpeded.
If I had to place a percentage on it, I’d have said it was 95-5 when Sharon was still in power, and maybe 85-15 now, purely because of that domestic political uncertainty (Israel has elections coming up in a couple of months). And that’s if the status quo is maintained. But somehow I think President Ahmadinejad is easily bored with the status quo. He likes to stir things up.
If it becomes obvious over the next few months that the international community is not going to take substantive action (as I think will be the case), and Israel decides it has to act out of national self preservation (as I think will be the case), this wouldn’t exactly be a rerun of their attack of Iraq’s reactor at Osirak.
You’ve probably heard most of the reasons. Iran (and others) learned from that and dispersed their facilities far, wide, and deep. Some are located in urban areas, as if to insure civilians deaths in any attack. And they are all much further away from Israel than Osirak was, logistically complicating an already complex problem.
But it’s more than that. After the attack on Osirak in 1981 (ironically, Iran had tried to take it out in 1980), the world tut-tutted the Israelis for their aggression. A Security Council resolution was passed condemning them. But that’s about it as far as repercussions. Ten years later, we would be kissing the desert sands in thanks that Saddam did not have nukes when he invaded Kuwait.
This time, first of all, there is the very serious question of whether such an attack would be successful. Most of the analysis I’ve read suggests that even in the best case, it would not eliminate the Iranian program, but would set it back two or three years.
On the couch, you can almost hear the inertia respond in harmony … “yes, well, two or three years is better than nothing.”
And in my opinion, that’s the problem with The “Look Away and Let The Israelis Do It” Solution. Those two or three years after an Israeli attack on Iran (successful or not) will likely be a spreading hell. We all know the level of Arab enmity for Israel over the Palestinians … imagine how it will boil over if Israel attacks Iran. And I do mean boil over on everyone.
Never mind Iranian inspired Hezbollah in Lebanon, or the fact Assad will use the opportunity to resolidify his position in Syria. Remember why many Arabs dislike us … because we are the best ally of their worst enemy, Israel. And there we are with 160,000 troops and a strung out supply line through Shi’ite territory in Iraq. It will be assumed we were complicit in any Israeli attack, since we control Iraqi airspace.
Need I also mention that a huge chunk of the world’s oil supply (and our troop’s supply line) transits the Persian Gulf, and that the entire northern coast of the very narrow Persian Gulf is .. Iran?
If Israel attacks Iran, I don’t think they’ll take their lumps, shout about it, and not much else, as Saddam pretty much did after Osirak. Iran has some strong options for retaliation, and I don’t think they would be very proportional or focused in their response. I think they would “go wide,” and the region would quickly become a spreading hell for all.
Frankly, if it came down to an attack on the Iranian nuclear program, in terms of the aftermath, it would be better if the US did it than if the Israelis did it. But that’s not exactly a rationale that will be considered in this, is it?
And it’s not a course I personally would recommend. Yet. It seems to me that if the international community is serious about stopping Iran, the only sanctions that might work are those that will also cause some pain in the international community. Which is why I’m not optimistic any of this will happen.
If Russia and China are two of Iran’s biggest trade partners, they’re the ones who can have some real impact. And in turn, maybe get some pain. If it is true that despite the fact Iran is a gross exporter of oil, they import most of their gasoline (due to a lack of refinery capacity), that’s one serious lever that could be pulled. If it’s true that Kuwait and Saudi Arabia are the two countries that provide Iran with most of their refined gasoline, they’re the ones who can have some real impact. And in turn, maybe get some pain. And they in particular ought to fear a nuclear Iran … one nuke each, and no more oil production for a long time.
Most importantly, if the problem really is not Iran, but the regime that controls Iran, we’ve got to make a concerted international effort to separate about 67 million Iranians from that regime. There’s got to be ways to reach out to the Iranian people and provide them with any support we can. To gently make clear that what they already know has become imminent: their rulers are going to bring them disaster.
To gently remind them that they once had rulers they cast off, and that they can choose again. That they must choose, while they still can. I hate to sound all Pollyanna, but I’m a visual guy: there’s got to be a way for us to be the sunshine fighting to shine through the obvious dark clouds fast approaching. To both offer hope, and make clear time is running out.
While I’m in Pollyanna mode, there ought to be a way to take our worry about Iranian influence in Shi’ite southern Iraq, and turn it around the other way. Convince the Iraqi Shi’ites that a change is coming in Iran, and they ought to get out in front of it … in their own self interest, because Iran has places the Shi’ites consider holy sites, like Qom.
At the same time, on the QT, we need to also be asking Iran’s regime some questions. “Do you remember the Revolution of 1979, and how relatively easily it occurred? How much do you like being in power? And before you lift a military finger in mischief, how much do you like having a Navy? We’re thinkin’ we really don’t like you having one, right there on the Persian Gulf and all. We’ve also been thinkin’, if you’re threatening to use your oil as a weapon against us, why shouldn’t we take that weapon away by blowing it up? But we’re still thinkin’. We’ll get back to you.”
So far the current leadership hasn’t responded to any form of pressure or structured negotiations that could lead to the Security Council. They just buck harder. But threaten the regime’s power, heavily and effectively, and you just might get them to blink.
And, you just might get a revolution. Even if you just get a “blink,” it’s worth more than a shot, it’s worth a lot of effort. Because “the last resort” is potentially disastrous. Worth a great amount of effort to avoid.
Part of the problem is getting the international community (or even a “coalition of the willing”) to quickly and concertedly ramp up and activate that kind of campaign. Because the other part of the problem is that we’re dealing with an unknown and variable deadline.
“They” say “three years until a bomb,” but the critical point in the process comes long before then. When, I don’t know, I’m no expert in the nuclear weapons cycle. But I would guess we have a year, maybe a little more, before we reach the point of “last resort.”
In all the above, I’ve touched on everything except whether the US itself should make an attack on Iran’s nuclear program. There’s a couple of reasons for that. One, I’m not sure the Israeli’s won’t beat us to the punch. Two, I’m not sure we have the will to do it on our own.
In an ideal Pollyanna world, the EU3 and Russia would all agree, diplomacy has failed, and their program must be stopped (I’m still befuddled that Russia seems unconcerned with a nuclear Iran to their south, within missile range of Moscow). In an ideal Pollyanna world, this coalition of the willing would collectively and selectively take out Iran’s nuclear program.
This, of course, won’t happen. If only because, even if these powers agreed today that it was a good idea, it would be the winter of 2012 before the actual attack plan was hashed out in committee.
Though it makes some sense in terms of resources, the worst case scenario is a joint US-Israeli attack. It might indeed bring the most effective military outcome in the short term. But as for the long term effect, we might as well slice our own wrists. We would validate a million conspiracy theories, and an enmity of generations.
You know what that leaves. Uncle Sam goes it alone. In which case, I don’t know if we could be as selective as we could in a coalition approach. Israel would face the same problem. If you’re going to take on Iran solo, you’d better make it a knockout punch. You’d better not only take out your primary target, their nuclear program (which is actually 40 or more targets), you need to also severely damage their capacity to retaliate.
Say what you will about the US military, about the difficulties of the occupation, or being “bogged down” in Iraq with regard to any possible attack on Iran. I firmly believe that if they are given that goal, and provided the necessary resources, they have a range of military options that could be quite effective. And they would perform admirably, as we have come to take for granted.
And that is no small thing. But I hope they don’t have to be called on for that ugly task. And I don’t care to discuss the options if they were. There’s simply no need to go there yet.
But here’s one thing I know for sure. No matter what happens, gas is going up over the next year. If Iran is simply referred to the Security Council for a slap on the wrist, they say they’ll yank our oil chain. If there’s real sanctions, they’ll yank harder. Work your way up the scale to the potential of war closing down the entire Persian Gulf.
That’ll sure keep us on the couch, won’t it?