Iran: A Nuclear Power?
Iran troubles the United States for two reasons: its nuclear weapons program and its support for terrorist groups like Hezbollah. It is not likely to give up either because Iran wants to be the dominant power in the Middle East (Friedman, 2009b), and the fact that the United States has invaded and occupied two of Iran’s neighbors also makes them seek a nuclear trump card with greater fervor. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have provoked an international crisis.
Iran claims that its nuclear program is of a purely civilian nature, but there is extensive evidence to the contrary. Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, recently presented evidence to Russian authorities that Russian scientists were in Iran assisting with nuclear weapons programs (Mahanami, Franchetti & Swain, 2009). The International Atomic Energy Agency had already found that at least one Russian scientist helped with research and design of detonators intended for nuclear weapons in Iran (Blair, 2008). The Russians denied state involvement but have stated that they cannot control their own nuclear scientists who work for Iran as individuals (Interfax, 2009). However, George Friedman explained that “If Netanyahu went to Moscow to deliver this intelligence to the Russians, the only surprise would have been the degree to which the Israelis had penetrated the program, not that the Russians were there. The Russian intelligence services are superbly competent, and keep track of stray nuclear scientists carefully. They would not be surprised by the charge, only by Israel’s knowledge of it” (2009c).
The disclosure to the world of a secret uranium enrichment facility near the city of Qom has not eased America’s fears (GlobalSecurity.org, 2009), but only provided more evidence that Iran routinely lies to the world (Erlanger & Landler, 2009).
The Obama administration has reached out to Tehran to negotiate a peaceful end to its nuclear weapons program. A compromise agreed to in principle by Iranian leaders in October and supported by the United States called for Iran to ship out its stockpile of uranium to a foreign country, possibly Russia, for reprocessing into fuel rods that could only be used for peaceful energy and medical purposes (Erlanger & Landler, 2009). However, according to a senior Iranian official, that agreement has been called off (CNNWorld, 2009). While the American administration still holds out hope for a favorable decision from Tehran (Clinton, 2009), it appears that sanctions are forthcoming; or rather, an attempt at sanctions. The only way this situation could be resolved in the near future without sanctions is if Iran agreed to a proposal where Turkey, a Muslim country that enjoys good relations with both Iran and the United States, would store Iran’s uranium until reprocessing and return of fuel rods took place. Turkey’s energy minister stated that Turkey would be willing to fulfill this role to defuse tensions in the region (Associated Press, 2009).
While such an agreement would reduce tensions, it does not destroy Iran’s ability to manufacture nuclear weapons unless Iran abandons its enrichment projects entirely, since “there is no essential difference between the technology required to enrich to 5% and 90%. Once Iran has mastered the technology to produce low enriched uranium, it can reconfigure the equipment to produce HEU [high enriched uranium, or weapons-grade] relatively simply. There is some technical debate among experts about how long it would take to do so—but none that it is possible” (Acton, 2009).
Sanctions are meaningless without Russian support. The Russians hold veto power in the Security Council and are unlikely to capitulate on Iran without a quid-pro-quo of America giving up its interests in NATO expansion in the former Soviet Union (Friedman, 2009a). The only sanctions possible with any real teeth would be a gasoline embargo, since Iran imports a significant portion of its gasoline as a result of insufficient refinery capacity, but this would likely hurt the common people more than the regime (Acton, 2009).
Even the head of the IAEA has admitted that “sanctions… will not resolve the issue” (Cohen, 2009). Sanctions did not prevent North Korea from obtaining a nuclear device or cause meaningful change in Iraq. Even in Iran, the Security Council has approved sanctions three times without affecting this nuclear program, and Venezuela has promised to help Iran with its thirst for gasoline regardless of international opposition (Bolton, 2009).
The United States is too bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan for any significant military action against Iran, leaving it with two options: permit an Israeli strike (which would rile up the entire Middle East, and delay but not destroy the Iranian program), or accept a nuclear-armed Iran.
Nuclear Deterrence in the Middle East
If the United States accepts Iran as a nuclear power, then deterrence will keep the peace in the Middle East. Strategic deterrence prevented nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States and remains a cornerstone of our nuclear nonproliferation policy. The Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States said in its recent report that “declaratory policy is a signal of U.S. intent. As such, it plays an essential role in reinforcing deterrence (Perry, et al., 2009). Iran is still a nation-state and despite its heated rhetoric is still a rational actor. If Iran knew without a shadow of a doubt that a nuclear attack on Israel would result in an instant and devastating American nuclear response, it would be unlikely to take such an action. Such a declaration is likely to restrain Israel from making a unilateral attack on Iran that would unify the Middle East against them and would certainly provoke an increase of terrorism around the world.
However, due to Iran’s extensive support of terrorist groups, especially Hezbollah, such guarantees of American retaliation are meaningless unless it is explicitly stated that nuclear attacks by any of Iran’s proxies or other groups that it provides support for will be presumed to have official state support and be treated in exactly the same way as a missile launched from Tehran. This would give Iran an incentive to restrain such organizations.
If the United States must accept Iran as a nuclear power, then only deterrence will keep the peace in the Middle East. President Obama must extend the nuclear umbrella to Israel, with a firm, unequivocal declaration that any nuclear attack by Iran or its terrorist proxies will result in a devastating nuclear response from the United States, as he himself proposed in 2008 (Fox News).
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