The headline yesterday was Dealing With Iran a Conundrum for West:
VIENNA, Austria (AP) – A growing number of countries are backing moves to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But with military action all but ruled out and the difficulty of imposing effective sanctions, their tools appear few and flawed.
The main threat for now is referral to the Security Council. But Iran was defiant Friday, vowing to further limit international monitoring of its nuclear activities if hauled before the United Nations.
It was left to some of Tehran’s main critics to tone down the confrontation, with officials from France and Germany saying it was too early to speak of sanctions.
That stance appeared to be a recognition of the lack of unity among the Security Council’s five veto-carrying members, as well as doubts about the effectiveness of economic sanctions, given the world’s thirst for oil.
The United States – the key backer of harsh sanctions against Iran, which it says wants to make nuclear arms – can count on Britain’s backing in the Security Council. France, too, may go along out of frustration with two years of trying – and failing – to persuade Tehran to give up uranium enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear arms.
But Russia and China, who also have veto power, could prove hard to persuade.
It took a backseat to the Alito confirmation hearings, the daily casualty reports form Iraq, and President Bush’s meeting with newly-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel but probably the most important story of last week was the collapse of talks between the EU 3 (Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran on Iran’s nuclear development program. Here’s an excerpt from the E3/EU statement issued on Thursday:
Iranâ€˜s decision to restart enrichment activity is a clear rejection of the process the E3/EU and Iran have been engaged in for over two years with the support of the international community. In addition it constitutes a further challenge to the authority of the IAEA and international community. We have, therefore, decided to inform the IAEA Board of Governors that our discussions with Iran have reached an impasse.
The Europeans have negotiated in good faith. Last August we presented the most far reaching proposals for co-operation with Europe in the political, security and economic fields that Iran has received since the Revolution. These reaffirmed Iranâ€˜s rights under the NPT and included European support for a strictly civilian nuclear programme in Iran, as well as proposals that would have given Iran internationally guaranteed supplies of fuel for its nuclear power programme.
This is not a dispute between Iran and Europe, but between Iran and the whole international community. Nor is it a dispute about Iranâ€™s rights under the NPT. It is about Iranâ€™s failure to build the necessary confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme. Iran continues to challenge the authority of the IAEA Board by ignoring its repeated requests and providing only partial co-operation to the IAEA. It is important for the credibility of the NPT and the international non-proliferation system generally, as well as the stability of the region, that the international community responds firmly to this challenge.
Hat tip: American Future
The short version is Iran is developing nuclear weapons, possession of nuclear weapons by Iran is not a tolerable option, there isn’t a great deal we can do about it, and what’s been done by the West to date has been almost completely ineffectual.
In order to come up to speed on the history of Iran’s nuclear development program you should check out NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative). NTI is headed by former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia (whom I much admire) and at the link you’ll find an impeccably sourced chronology of Iran’s nuclear development program from the 1950’s to the present. For a sketch of the developments of the last two years see here. It’s too long to include and impossible to excerpt.
That Iran, despite the official denials, is developing nuclear weapons is hardly to be doubted. Paula A. DeSutter, U. S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Verification and Compliance succinctly summarized it this way:
Iran’s attempts to explain why it needs an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle are simply not credible. We are being asked to believe that Iran needs to have the ability to mine, process, and enrich uranium for reactors that do not yet exist and that it is necessary to support its domestic power needs. Yet Iran does not have enough indigenous uranium resources to fuel even one reactor over its lifetime. Moreover, it burns off enough gas at its wellheads to generate electricity equivalent to the output of four Bushehr-type reactors. Finally, and most importantly, if there were truly “peaceful and transparent” reasons for Iran’s acquisition of these technologies, why would Iran hide these activities from the IAEA? In fact, the IAEA only learned of the many hidden Iranian nuclear facilities when the rest of the world heard about it in the press leading to a rigorous IAEA investigation that revealed a range of Iranian nuclear safeguards violations and failures. We and many other countries, fear the consequences of waiting for another press report to further reveal the extent of Iran’s attempts to develop a nuclear weapon.
There are plenty of reasons that it’s credible that Iran would want nuclear weapons:
- Possession of nuclear weapons gives the regime leverage it would not otherwise have.
- Possession of nuclear weapons increases Iran’s prestige in the Middle East.
- Possession of nuclear weapons is an insurance policy against invasion by the United States.
- Possession of nuclear weapons provides a deterrent against attack by Israel which is presumed to have nuclear weapons.
This last balance of power notion seems to me particularly farfetched: I don’t recall Israel ever threatening Iran directly but Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel:
Iran yesterday defiantly showed off six of its new ballistic missiles daubed with anti-US and anti-Israel slogans in a move sure to reinforce international concern over the nature of its nuclear programme.
At the climax of a military parade marking the outbreak of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the enormous Shehab-3 missiles were rolled out painted with the messages, “We will crush America under our feet’ and “Israel must be wiped off the map.”
There are also perfectly good reasons to consider Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons a threat:
- Iranian officials have publicly speculated about the acceptability of a nuclear exchange with Israel (I can’t put my hands on the citation for this but I remember it vividly).
- The United States has a substantial military deployment in Iraq—within easy striking distance of Iran—that could potentially be at risk.
- Iran’s ties to terrorism are well-known and there’s concern about the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon making its way into the hands of a terrorist who might use the weapon against the United States or Israel.
Not everyone believes this last is a genuine threat. Daniel L. Byman of The Brookings Institution notes:
Yet despite Iran’s very real support for terrorism today, I contend that it is not likely to transfer chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological weapons to terrorists for three major reasons. First, providing terrorists with such unconventional weapons offers Iran few tactical advantages as these groups are able to operate effectively with existing methods and weapons. Second, Iran has become more cautious in its backing of terrorists in recent years. And third, it is highly aware that any major escalation in its support for terrorism would incur U.S. wrath and international opprobrium.
My concerns are somewhat different than those addressed by Dr. Byman. First, I’m concerned about any unstable regime’s possession of nuclear weapons and I consider the current Iranian regime unstable. Who knows what could become of an Iranian nuclear arsenal as the regime collapsed regardless of what the regime’s official policy was? Second, I don’t have much confidence in the Iranian regime’s ability to control its own members or to control its own nuclear arsenal. As long as they have nuclear weapons and anyone who has access to them has the will to injure the United States or Israel it seems to me it’s not an acceptable risk. Third, does the current Iranian regime really care about international opprobrium? What is the value of the opprobrium in Euros? And, of course, U. S. wrath against Iran hasn’t done much for the last 25 years or so.
What, then, are the alternatives for halting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons? As I see it in increasing degree of severity a number of alternatives are available:
- Moral suasion alone.
This appears to be the course of action that the EU3 have undertaken so far and, to the best of my ability to determine, it has had little if any effect. I can’t see how this approach can ever be particularly effective in dealing with any regime that is really determined to follow its present course of action. Swaying public opinion is more effective in influencing democrats than it is in deterring autocrats.
- Moves aimed at strengthening the current regime.
This might seem counter-intuitive but, if your concern is as mine is with the vagaries of an unstable regime, then one way of dealing with the problem would be to help the regime maintain control. Measures might include non-aggression pacts, de-militarizing the areas adjacent to Iran, aid, closer diplomatic ties, and abandoning the rhetoric of democratization.
The problems, of course, with doing any of these things are that the current regime is truly heinous, we have little assurance as to their good faith, and doing this would undermine what the Bush Administration has been trying to do in the Middle East. But it does bear mentioning for the sake of completeness.
- Condemnation by the U. N. Security Council.
I expect that this will be the next move. I also believe that it’s about as much as the Russians and Chinese will tolerate and not nearly enough to motivate the Iranians. Cf. my comment above about democrats and autocrats.
- Limited sanctions by the U. N. Security Council.
By this I mean some limitations on trade but not a complete cessation. I can’t imagine anything but the most namby-pamby of sanctions being approved by Russia, China, and France and I can’t imagine such sanctions having any effect.
- U. N. Security Council-led boycott.
I believe in my own Pollyanna-ish way that this is one measure short of war that could actually work. Completely cutting Iran off from foreign trade would make things miserable enough in Iran that the Iranian people would overthrow the regime. I also believe it’s impossible since China and Japan get much of their oil from Iran. If the boycott is porous, it would be ineffectual. It’ll never happen.
- Announcement of an official policy of regime change in Iran and associated support for opposition groups in Iran.
This measure, similar to the position taken towards Iraq under the Clinton Administration in 1999, is something that should have been done five years ago. There isn’t enough time now for measures in this vein to prevent the mullahs from developing nuclear weapons and it would probably motivate them to accelerate their efforts if possible.
This is well within our abilities and uses resources that aren’t already committed. It wouldn’t make us any friends in Europe or Asia for the reasons mentioned above. Once again it could be effective but it will never happen.
- Special forces raids on nuclear development facilities.
Iran has a large number of nuclear development facilities cf. here and they can be presumed to be both hardened and guarded. There will be casualties in such an operation. Is this politically possible under the current circumstances? Do we know where all the Iranian nuclear development facilities are?
IMO this is much more possible for Israel than it is for the United States right now. I believe they have the political will to do it. The connections made between the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Israelis are highly suggestive in this regard. Are the Israelis establishing forward bases for such an operation?
- Bombing of nuclear development facilities.
This is what a lot of people are talking about right now. Clearly, we have the ability to do it. I doubt that we have the political will under the present circumstances.
There’s also been discussion of the Israelis conducting such an operation. I doubt that this will happen for a number of reasons. First, examine a map. Re-fueling issues aside, Israel simply can’t get to Iran without crossing the airspace of one or more of the following countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Russia. I can’t imagine them getting the go-ahead. In addition we have effective control of the airspace over the Gulf. Consequently, Israel needs at least our tacit approval before conducting such a raid. As I see it that means that there’ll be the same political costs for U. S. complicity as there would be for a U. S. raid.
I’ve also expressed my concern that the amount of civilian damage caused by such bombing raids would be enormously greater than anticipated.
Source of graphic: Stratfor
- Invasion in force.
This was war-gamed some time ago and the results were reported in The Atlantic Monthly in December 2003. The article has disappeared behind their firewall but the associated Powerpoint presentation is still available. I commented about it here. The Reader’s Digest version is that it’s unworkable. Iran is bigger than Iraq and hasn’t been softened up by a destructive war and ten years of sanctions. The counter-argument is that all you need to do is a decapitation and the Iranians will take care of the rest themselves. That’s what they said about Iraq.
In my predictions for 2006 I said that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon in 2006 and we wouldn’t do much about it. I’m sticking to that.
Over the Christmas holidays I had a conversation on the subject of Iran with my very bright brother-in-law in which I was reminded that lots of people make little distinction among things that are physically impossible (things we can’t do), things that are politically impossible (things that are hard to do), things we shouldn’t do, and things we don’t want to do. They are different and there are quite a few things we can do about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, it’s not completely clear (at least to me) that we should do any of them, and not one of them is particularly palatable.
UPDATE: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice has a media round-up on the burgeoning crisis and commentary of his own.