Iran just announced a radical expansion of its uranium-enrichment facilities. The news followed the recent disclosure of the country’s previously secret nuclear facility near the city of Qom — and came just two days after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s censure of Iran for its failure to halt enrichment.
In other words, instead of complying with international requests to stand down, Iran has decided to step up efforts to enrich uranium, which, despite the government’s denial, is all but certainly intended for a bomb.
First, remember, Iran does not need nuclear power for electrical generation. It has the world’s second-largest natural-gas reserves, of over 950 trillion cubic feet. That’s enough to meet its current rate of consumption for more than 230 years. And it earns plenty of foreign cash as the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, with about 4 million barrels pumped each day.
Instead, Iran sees all sorts of geopolitical advantages in getting the bomb.
Iran’s theocratic leaders promote a pathological hatred of Israel. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denies the Holocaust. He periodically threatens the Jewish state with abject destruction, calling Israel “a dead rat” and “a stinking corpse.” At best, his nuclear missiles would be a permanent sword of Damocles over Israel’s head. At worst, in apocalyptic fashion, he could claim for Persian Shiites the primacy of radical Islam by destroying, once and for all, the “Zionist entity.”
Iran also gives billions in aid to murderous organizations like Hezbollah and Hamas. Their clout would grow exponentially if they could scare Western allies with the threat of nuclear terrorism.
Iran is locked in ongoing disputes with the Sunni Arab world over oil production and pricing, disputed territory, and Islamic doctrine. A nuclear Persian theocracy would terrify most of the Arab Middle East. (It also might well start a nuclear arms race in the region.)
Right now, Iran thinks it is in the driver’s seat. The Obama administration set a series of informal deadlines early this fall for Iran to comply with non-proliferation protocols — and kept repeating itself, first at the United Nations meeting in New York, then during the G-20 summit, and finally in face-to-face October meetings. All were ignored.
The United States unilaterally offered to restore direct negotiations with Tehran. It asked to arrange uranium enrichment for Iran abroad. During the recent mass democratic protests against the Iranian theocracy, the Obama administration initially balked at expressing solidarity with the reformers — apparently reluctant to offend the Ahmadinejad regime.
All this “reset” button diplomacy came amid Obama’s apologies abroad for past American behavior. We’ve sent peace feelers out to former enemies like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers of Cuba. Obama bowed to the Japanese emperor on his recent Asia trip; earlier, he did the same with the Saudi king. He has deferred to Russia about missile defense, and to China concerning human rights, global warming, free trade, and Tibet.
Apparently Iran has watched this new, kindly American approach — and come to a few dark conclusions: namely that a handful of nuclear bombs will give Iran political leverage, and that, in this new climate, it is well worth the (decreasing) risk in getting them. Rightly or wrongly, it seems to assume that the new, repentant American administration is more interested in reaching out to prior adversaries than in pressuring them to respect the current global order.
President Obama should tread carefully and take note. As history shows, even a trivial gesture can result in dire unintended consequences. Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s inadvertent 1950 remark that South Korea lay outside the American “defense perimeter” in Asia may have emboldened the North Koreans to invade later that summer.
The British decision in 1981 to withdraw its single naval vessel from the Falklands helped to convince the Argentine dictatorship that the United Kingdom would not contest a takeover of the islands.
Saddam Hussein in 1990 felt that he had gotten a green light to invade Kuwait when an American ambassador made an offhand remark discounting any real American interest in disputes over the Kuwait-Iraq border.
President Obama’s serial deadlines and hope-and-change rhetoric have had no effect on the Iranians. Obama can either accept that the theocracy will go nuclear and live with it, or else take graduated steps to stop them. That would start with sanctions, boycotts, embargoes — and strong support for Iranian reformers. If all that fails, we should consider a blockade of Iranian ports.