Magazine | October 19, 2009, Issue

Iran Outlook: Grim

(Roman Genn)
The failed policies of Presidents Bush and Obama have brought us to a difficult pass

The week of September 21 was supposed to be multilateralism on parade for President Obama: attending the Climate Summit, addressing the U.N. General Assembly, chairing the Security Council, and celebrating a new international economic order with the G-20. Until Friday, everything went according to Obama’s script: grandiose speeches, paper declarations and resolutions, and, most important, the huzzahs of foreign leaders and America’s media.

But on Friday, the shadow fell. Obama scrambled to hold a previously unscheduled press conference with British prime minister Gordon Brown and French president Nicolas Sarkozy, at which they announced that Iran had constructed a uranium-enrichment facility near Qom, the Shiite holy city. Housed in deeply buried chambers on a former missile base of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the site had been officially disclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) by Iran that Monday, making it inevitable that word would leak out soon. (Iran risibly claims that the Qom facility is for civilian purposes only.)

The president was obviously displeased with Iran’s contumacious behavior, and perhaps more displeased with the timing of his forced public disclosure of it, coming just before an October 1 meeting in Geneva between Iran and the Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (the “Perm Five plus one”). This session, the first since summer 2008, and the first in which a U.S. representative would actively “engage” with Iran, had been intended to showcase Obama’s multilateral bona fides. Now, however, Iran had threatened the carefully constructed mirage of negotiations with inconvenient reality.

According to administration background briefings, Obama was first informed about the Qom site during the transition following his election. Thus, all his pronouncements about the virtues of negotiation with Iran and other rogue states — the inaugural address, the Cairo speech, and countless others, including those of U.N. Week — were delivered with the knowledge that Iran was telling lies about its nuclear program. We shall soon see whether Obama’s ability to hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously is evidence of mental agility or of an excessively tenuous acquaintance with reality.

The administration’s spin, dutifully amplified by the media, was that revealing the Qom enrichment facility was yet another Obama triumph, since it put more diplomatic pressure on Iran just before the Geneva meeting. Adhering to this logic requires believing that progressing toward a nuclear-weapons capability actually harms Iran, by increasing the risk of economic sanctions. If Iran tests a nuclear device, that will really put pressure on Iran, and incinerating Tel Aviv will presumably make the pressure for sanctions unstoppable. As Plutarch quoted Pyrrhus as saying upon his defeat of the Romans at Asculum, “One more such victory and we are lost.”

Sad to say, Obama’s Iran policy is not much different from that of George W. Bush in his second term. Relying on multilateral negotiations (the Perm Five–plus–one mechanism), resorting to sanctions (three Security Council resolutions), and shying away from the use of force are all attributes inherited directly from Bush. Bush’s policy failed to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Obama’s will fail no less, leading to an Iran with nuclear weapons.

The issue now, however, is not this bipartisan history of failure, but what to do next. The Qom disclosure only highlights just how limited, risky, and unattractive are the four basic options: allow Iran to become a nuclear power; use diplomacy and sanctions to try to avert that outcome; remove the regime in Tehran and install one that renounces nuclear weapons; or use preemptive military force to break Iran’s nuclear program. Let us consider them in turn.

OPTION 1 The easiest course, which Obama may well be on without explicitly admitting it, is to permit Iran to become a nuclear-weapons power. Many believe that a nuclear Iran will not constitute a significant threat, and that it can be contained and deterred, as the Soviet Union was during the Cold War. This analogy is fundamentally flawed. First, who in his right mind would willingly return to the days of mutual assured destruction, especially when the Tehran end of the equation is staffed by religious fanatics who prize the hereafter more than life on earth? It may not have been a virtue, but at least the Communists believed they went around only once. (A Kenny Chesney song sums up the predominant U.S. view: “Everybody want to go to Heaven / But nobody want to go now.”) Moreover, we increasingly appreciate that Cold War deterrence was not all that stable, and therefore just how lucky we were to last 40 years without civilization-ending nuclear exchanges. That Iran in the near future will have a much more limited offensive-weapons capability than the Soviet Union did in its prime is no solace. Iran’s asymmetric threat will not comfort those in cities that will have been obliterated by its “limited” arsenal.

Even more devastating to the “contain and deter” theory is the inevitability that Iran will not be the only state in the region to acquire nuclear weapons. Other Middle Eastern states will conclude (if they haven’t already) that they must acquire them too, in response to Iran’s efforts. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey are all likely candidates, and Libya’s Moammar Qaddafi may well decide that his 2003 decision to give up his program was ill-advised and get back in the game. Others in the region could follow.

Thus, in the not-too-distant future, the Middle East could have half a dozen or more states with small nuclear arsenals, each calculating the advantages of striking first against its potential adversaries to prevent them from doing the same. If deterrence during the Cold War’s bipolar standoff was problematic, imagine the multiplayer chess required to avoid nuclear exchanges in such a Middle East, along with the likelihood that nuclear technology will pass into the hands of global terrorists.

Allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons is manifestly the least desirable outcome of all.

OPTION 2   Pursuing diplomacy and impotent sanctions was Bush’s policy and is now Obama’s. The only material difference is that Obama has even less reason than Bush had to believe that diplomacy may yet work. Iran’s credibility after its rigged June 12 presidential election and the news about Qom is, yet again, in shreds everywhere — except the White House, where the public evidence of Obama’s first eight months shows not the slightest diminution of his near-religious faith in diplomacy. Thus, the outcome of his efforts will be the same as Option 1, although few will say so.

Within the diplomatic approach, there is one hidden trap for the credulous: that Washington will accept the existence of an Iranian uranium-enrichment program as long as it is (supposedly) monitored by the IAEA under clear Iranian commitments that the program is (supposedly) entirely peaceful. One can easily envision Obama describing such an outcome as a triumph for his diplomacy, even though in fact it is exactly where we are today, and would inevitably lead to precisely the result we are trying to avoid. Any resolution that leaves Iran’s current regime with control over the entire nuclear fuel cycle is simply a face-saving way of accepting Option 1. Given Iran’s fulsome 20-year history of denial and deception, there is simply no doubt that its efforts toward building nuclear weapons would continue. If the Qom revelation does anything, it should convince us that Iran’s commitments are worthless.

Accordingly, while the October 1 Perm Five–plus–one meeting in Geneva could be an important pivot point, it is highly unlikely in fact to be so. One possible outcome would simply be renewed negotiations, while Iran’s progress toward deliverable nuclear weapons continues essentially unimpeded. In Pittsburgh, President Sarkozy said Iran had until December to change its ways, or “sanctions will have to be taken.” Unfortunately, however, Obama’s “deadlines” for meaningful Iranian action have been no firmer than Bush’s, and several have already slipped. Time is a precious asset for proliferators, and Iran has used it to great advantage over these last seven years.

Moreover, as the Iran case demonstrates, diplomats rarely devise exit strategies in case their negotiations fail. Those who ask, “What do we lose by talking to Iran?” miss the point that negotiation, like all human activity, has costs as well as benefits, and that here the balance lies with Iran. If we adopt talk as our strategy, Iranians smoother than Ahmadinejad — not more moderate, just smoother — will come to Geneva prepared to negotiate about everything, including their nuclear program. President Obama and the Europeans will swoon, and Russia and China will smile contentedly as a panorama of months, maybe years, of further negotiations stretches before them.

If, on the other hand, Iran’s posture on October 1 is more belligerent — and Ahmadinejad’s initial reaction after Pittsburgh certainly foreshadowed that tack — then Iran will effectively be calling Obama’s bluff, daring him to seek stricter sanctions. Here the critical test is not whether more “sanctions” (multilaterally through the Security Council, or less so through the European Union and others) can be imposed. It is virtually certain that they will be, despite the noticeable lack of enthusiasm by Russian president Dmitri Medvedev at Pittsburgh, and China’s silence. The test is rather whether whatever plan is agreed upon actually dissuades Iran from pursuing nuclear weapons. And here sanctions are almost certain to fail.

Consider what Medvedev actually said after Obama’s press conference, rather than the White House gloss on what he said: “I do not believe sanctions are the best way to achieve results. Sanctions were used on a number of occasions against Iran, but we have doubts about the results. . . . I think we should continue to promote positive incentives for Iran and at the same time push it to make all its programs transparent and open. Should we fail in that case, we’ll consider other options.” “Promote positive incentives for Iran”? “Consider other options”? This is what Obama got from Russia for giving up the Polish and Czech missile-defense sites?

At best, further U.N. sanctions will be only marginally tighter than those previously adopted, which have manifestly failed to dissuade Iran from its nuclear objective. Without Security Council action, sanctions by a “coalition of the willing” will be widely (and profitably) evaded.

Gasoline imports are a supposed area of vulnerability, but Iran has already taken steps to mitigate the effects of a proposed ban on exporting refined petroleum products to Iran by increasing its refining capabilities, reducing consumer subsidies that inflate demand, and preparing to shift to natural gas, which it has in considerable quantity and can refine domestically. Similarly, proposals to preclude writing insurance or reinsurance on Iranian shipping might make commerce more difficult, but are insufficiently direct to have a timely effect. Moreover, negotiating and implementing sanctions takes time, and since time works to Iran’s advantage, we move inevitably closer to Option 1. In truth, since the diplomacy/sanctions approach is Obama’s declared policy, we already know the end of the story: Iran with nuclear weapons.

OPTION 3   The most durable solution would be regime change in Iran that entirely sweeps away the Islamic Revolution of 1979 — not just Ahmadinejad, but the whole crew of Ayatollah Khomeini’s successors. Iran’s people are ready for this, as the regime is highly unpopular for many reasons. First, the mullahs have mismanaged the economy for 30 years, and dissatisfaction is intense and widespread. Second, the two-thirds of Iran’s population that is under 30 is well-educated and aware of the world outside Iran; they know they could have a radically different kind of life under a different government. Third, ethnic Persians make up only half the total population, and the numerous other groups (including Arabs, Baluchis, Azeris, Kurds, and Turkmen) are deeply discontented. Obviously, these fissures do not align exactly, but they are severe enough that the Islamic Revolution would not survive long without military force behind it.

The spontaneous protests that broke out across Iran following the fraudulent June 12 presidential election demonstrated both the extent of the opposition and the possibilities for regime change. Unfortunately, the post–June 12 results also reflect a tragic missed opportunity to topple the regime, and the difficulty of regaining that chance. Had the Bush administration taken more than a few trifling steps to aid the opposition, the post–June 12 protests might well have brought a new Iranian government. Apart from White House rhetoric, however, Bush’s eight years differed little in hard operational terms from Obama’s eight months, meaning that Iran’s protesters were basically on their own. Moreover, political power inside Iran is shifting away from clerical leaders and toward the IRGC, moving from a theological autocracy toward military control. The balance of power rests with those holding guns. The regime’s willingness to use force and political coercion against dissidents will be greater than it was before June 12, thus making it even harder to get rid of.

This is not to suggest the regime’s popularity has increased. To the contrary, the regime is even more unpopular than it was before June 12, but the chances of a “velvet revolution” in the foreseeable future are remote. But however long and difficult the struggle may be, America should press for regime change, overtly and covertly, while taking care not to taint the people we seek to enable by making them look like tools of Uncle Sam. Overthrowing the Islamic Revolution is the most likely way to obtain a government that permanently renounces nuclear weapons, which would be the best outcome. Almost certainly, however, regime change will not happen before Iran’s current rulers acquire such weapons — and once that happens, it may be too late, both within Iran and for the Middle East and the rest of the world.

OPTION 4   That leads, by process of elimination if nothing else, to the preemptive use of military force against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. No one argues that a successful strike would end the Iran problem, but that is not the point. Destroying key aspects of Iran’s program (such as the Esfahan uranium-conversion plant, the Natanz uranium-enrichment facility, the Arak heavy-water complex, and the Bushehr reactor) would buy time. Between two and five years is a reasonable estimate, and that is close to eternity, because during that period time would be on our side rather than on the proliferator’s.

President Obama is all but certain not to use force, so any decision regarding this option now rests with Israel alone. The revelation of the Qom site, and the risk that Iran has even more covert nuclear-related sites, may mean that the military option is already no longer viable: Destroying the known elements of Iran’s program will be risky and difficult enough, but the prospect of more unknown sites means that targeted military force cannot be relied upon to completely break Iran’s control over the nuclear fuel cycle. Israel would thus incur all the downsides of the attack without achieving its main goal.

Even if circumstances are not so parlous, Israel must now calculate that it has less time to act than it had before intelligence agencies confirmed Qom as a uranium-enrichment facility, meaning a strike may well happen within the next six months. A later attack is not precluded, and there is no red line beyond which it is unthinkable; nonetheless, every day that passes lowers Israel’s prospects for success, as Iran continues to protect and disperse its program, and as it acquires ever-stronger air defenses. While much has been speculated, pro and con, about the feasibility of an Israeli strike, one thing is certain: The Israelis have believed, at least until now, that they can succeed, and they will make the ultimate decision, one way or the other — not armchair pundits with incomplete information.

Many contend that the potential consequences of a preemptive strike are too horrible to contemplate, but such concerns are unlikely to deter Israel, since the result of not striking could well be a second Holocaust. The choice is not between the world as it stands today and the world after an Israeli attack; the choice is between the world after the attack and a world where Iran has nuclear weapons. That puts the oft-expressed fear of a spike in oil prices in context, at least for Israelis. Nor are Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s promises of a “defense umbrella” reassuring. At its time of maximum peril, the Jewish state is not going to rely on the goodwill of anyone, friend or foe.

In any event, Iran is highly unlikely to retaliate in a way that could prompt a direct confrontation with the U.S. military (such as attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz or increasing terrorist attacks against U.S. citizens in Iraq or elsewhere), or that would paralyze its own economy (such as suspending oil exports). Iran’s most likely response would be to unleash rocket attacks against Israel through its proxy armies, Hezbollah and Hamas. This prospect certainly complicates Israel’s decision-making on whether to strike Iran. (Direct Iranian missile or air attacks against Israel are unlikely, since Israel might well respond with nuclear weapons.)

One important consideration that is often ignored: However much they might publicly protest, nearby Arab states would privately welcome an Israeli attack. These governments fear Iran’s nuclear program as much as Israel does, but they are powerless to stop it. If Israel does the job, they are in a perfect place: Iran’s nuclear program will be badly damaged, and they will have another opportunity to criticize Israel. This also explains why Arabs will not interdict Israeli overflights to and from Iran. Moreover, within Iran, not everyone will necessarily rally behind the government, especially given post–June 12 developments. Effective public diplomacy could make clear that the target is the mullahs’ weapons program, not the Iranian people, and might even provide new impetus for regime change.

With so many risks of failure and retaliation, the use of military force is hardly attractive to Israel or anyone else. Even so, the consequences of a nuclear Iran could be far more devastating. Israel has not hesitated to strike preemptively before, starting with the Six-Day War of 1967, and including the destruction of the Osirak reactor outside Baghdad in 1981 and the North Korean reactor in Syria in September 2007. Don’t bet on passivity now.

*   *   *

Iran’s nuclear-weapons program has cast a shadow over its region and the world for years. That kind of regime, with those kinds of weapons, is a continuing mortal threat to America’s friends and allies, and to international peace and security. Under President Bush, we had a chance to confront Iran’s challenge, but backed away from it. Under President Obama, we have a leader who doesn’t understand the magnitude of the threat, who flinches at unpleasant choices regarding force, and who believes that reductions of America’s own nuclear arsenal will persuade the IRGC to give up theirs. If Iran achieves its nuclear objectives, we will have only ourselves to blame.

– Mr. Bolton, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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