There’s no denying it. Iran’s capture of 15 British hostages was a stroke of cunning — and a brilliant one at that. The mullahs were in a pickle. They had decided to do two things which were going to push Washington closer to military action. They needed a diversion or a smokescreen — some way to make the Bush administration blink. And so far, it has worked.
Iran knows that if the United States is “allergic to casualties,” as Gen. Wesley Clark once lamented, we are especially allergic to the casualties of our friends. With a pitifully weak navy and allergies of their own, the British were unable (or refused) to defend the sailors once they were surrounded; the commander of HMS Cornwall apparently ordered them to surrender. This despite the fact that British and especially American naval forces are putting pressure on Iran in increasingly aggressive ways — indeed the British navy was put on high alert weeks ago, in expectation of a bad reaction from Tehran. Now Tony Blair has asked Washington to stand back while he negotiates the release of the sailors from a position of weakness and utter humiliation. And what will get the sailors released? An apology is unlikely to be enough.
The hostages are a smokescreen, and the key question is: What does Iran need a smokescreen for? Two things — both of them dangerous escalations of the crisis on Iran’s part.
First, it became clear last week that the Security Council was going to agree on another sanctions resolution. Everyone knew the Iranians would reject it immediately. And Washington has now established a pattern of responding to every Iranian rejection by ratcheting up the tension in the Persian Gulf. On Monday, without warning, the Pentagon announced the start of live-fire exercises in the Gulf — two aircraft-carrier battle groups and about hundred strike aircraft were involved — exercises which were planned in the greatest secrecy weeks in advance. The assembly of U.S. naval and airpower off Iran’s shores is already ominous enough: the Iranians could see their rejection of the Council resolution would make matters worse — and they can’t get much worse without a firefight breaking out.
Their rejection of the Council resolution was bad enough. So, under the circumstances, what Iran was considering doing next entailed considerable risks. They decided to announce on Sunday that they would stop making certain disclosures about their nuclear program to the International Atomic Energy Agency. This could have triggered a military response from the United States immediately. Why? Because Iran is due to launch a large-scale centrifuge-enrichment cascade at Natantz in a matter of weeks or months. This means that Iran will finally be able to start enriching enough weapons-grade uranium to manufacture warheads on a time-scale measured in months. Because of technical hurdles, they are probably still years away from producing a viable device. But they have now reached a point where they cannot keep advancing towards the production of nuclear warheads unless they stop cooperating with the IAEA and pull a veil of secrecy over their program. Assuming they will continue racing towards nuclear weapons as rapidly as they have been for many years, Iran must now in effect pull out of the nonproliferation treaty.
And this is where things will get really interesting. Iran knows — from the example of North Korea in the early 1990s — that when it announces that it is withdrawing from the nonproliferation treaty, the Pentagon will present an immediate military option to the president. It therefore behooves Iran to withdraw from the nonproliferation regime as quietly and incrementally as possible. But the importance to the United States of the disclosure-and-inspections regime of the IAEA is such that even the smallest step Iran takes to abandon it could trigger a crisis. And this is why the Iranians did not feel comfortable making their Sunday announcement without taking hostages first. They are unlikely to release the hostages before they have extracted assurances — from the United States — that there will not be military consequences if they cease to cooperate with the IAEA.
And this is precisely what the United States must not do. On the contrary, the United States must make it clear to the Iranians that abandoning the nonproliferation regime will trigger a military confrontation. The British should have defended the hostages when they were surrounded. The United States cannot now be paralyzed in its response to Iran out of a desire to protect a group of sailors from an allied country that was incapable of protecting them itself.
The United States already has two aircraft carriers in the neighborhood — the USS Stennis and the USS Eisenhower – to which the French recently added one of their own. The USS Nimitz battle group sets sail for the Gulf from San Diego next week; and the USS Ronald Reagan is in the South China Sea and can be added to the strike force at a moment’s notice.
The opening move of the endgame will be signaled when the Pentagon announces the forward deployment of about 20 strategic bombers — B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s — to Diego Garcia just a few hundred miles south of the Persian Gulf. My bet is that this will happen when Iran expels the IAEA inspectors.
With four aircraft-carrier battle groups, several hundred carrier-based strike fighters, and 20 strategic bombers just minutes or hours from Iran, the United States will have assembled everything it needs to cripple the regime and wipe out the most important elements of its nuclear program. Iran needs to know that this is the only alternative to complying with the Security Council resolutions. Otherwise, in a few years, Iran could be holding all of us hostage.
Mario Loyola, a former Pentagon consultant, is a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.