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Alon Ben-Meir

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Forceful Measures Needed Now to Avoid an Attack On Iran

Posted: 12/19/11 10:17 AM ET

The United States and its allies and Israel in particular are in a dire race against time as Iran moves closer and closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. While many peaceful and punitive measures to extinguish Tehran's nuclear ambitions have been taken by the international community, they have fallen far short of stemming Iran's nuclear weapons program. The only way that Iran can be deterred from acquiring nuclear weapons is if it faces the most crippling sanctions and should that fail, Iran must be fully convinced that the U.S. and/or Israel will attack its nuclear facilities. That is, after exhausting all other options, if the United States wants to avoid a military attack on Iran -- with all of its unintended consequences -- it must visibly and unambiguously be preparing for such an attack.

Unfortunately, Iran and much of the world remain unconvinced that the United States is able or even willing to institute those sanctions necessary to end Iran's burgeoning nuclear program and do not believe at this point that a strike against Iran by the U.S. is a credible possibility. What can then be done to stop Iran's nuclear program and avoid the military option (which is the most desirable outcome)? There are six options already taken but which have not yet proven to be effective, yet each can be substantially improved upon. To that end, the United States and the international community must establish the following: a) a time-frame during which non-military options are exhausted but will not give Iran sufficient time to reach "the point of no return"; and b) by exercising all options simultaneously with fortitude atypical to the machinations of foreign policy to convince Iran of the potential of a credible attack by the United States and/or Israel.

Although highly unlikely to succeed, the first option is to initiate a new set of intense and focused negotiations (without preconditions) between the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the U.S. -- plus Germany) and Iran. Before endorsing any crippling sanctions, Russia and China must be convinced that all political options have been fully explored. To successfully leverage the negotiations, Russia and China must also bear witness to Iran's maneuverings and unwillingness to enter into good-faith negotiations. Iran's aversion to sit down and negotiate in earnest must be publicly aired through briefings so as to expose Iran's unwillingness to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement. A time frame to end the negotiations must be established in advance to prevent Iran from playing for time while advancing its nuclear weapons program.

Such negotiations, if successful, could lead to rewards for Iran in return for its full compliance, an option much touted by Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov. Negotiations, however, will more than likely lead nowhere because Iran weaves its messianic beliefs throughout its nuclear program which enforces the Iranian government's commitment to the program, its heavy-handed religious component, its nationalistic fervor and increasingly-isolated position within the region, surrounded by nuclear powers. As Reuel Marc Gerecht writes in, "Iran Plays its Nuclear Hand for All its Worth," the, "Iranian media's coverage of the IAEA report reflects the Khomeini's most cherished conception of himself and his country. That conception is dangerous because it is insular disconnected from and at odds with reality as understood in the West. When the supreme leader gets his hands on a nuclear weapon, this self-centeredness may get much worse. If the U.S. and Iran ever go to war, this will surely be why." Whereas Iran may give up its nuclear weapons program under certain conditions, it will never give up "its right" to enrich uranium on its soil. The question arises as to whether or not the U.S. will accept Iran enriching uranium even under the strictest supervision of the IAEA. While there is a slight chance the U.S. would agree to this, the best situation is to have Iran's uranium shipped abroad and returned in the form of enriched rods for use in their medical and energy needs. This point of contention may well doom the negotiations if they ever get off the ground.

The second option taken by the international community has been to "contain and constrain" Iran's nuclear program. This approach too has yet to produce the desired results. Slowing their nuclear program through industrial sabotage or cyber warfare (such as the U.S. use of the sophisticated Stuxnet virus in January of 2010 under Obama) worked only up to a point but ultimately has failed to derail it. Scientists linked to Iran's nuclear program have been targeted and killed, most likely by Mossad or CIA operatives, the June of 2011 murder marking the third scientist to be killed in Tehran since 2009. The attack on one of the arms depots owned by the Revolutionary Guard (IRCG) killed 17 IRCG members, General Hassan Moghaddam being among those killed in the attack. Additionally, a delegitimization of the Iranian regime, though promoted by the West (an action which must be pursued further), has largely occurred due to Iran's erratic, aggressive, and hyperbolic behavior. Although this has added to Iran's ever-increasing political isolation within the wider international community, it has not been enough to force Tehran to change direction.

To increase the pressure, an aggressive disruption of Iran's nuclear computer programs must be continued and cyber warfare should be fully utilized to regularly disrupt their nuclear and air defense systems. Cyber warfare by the U.S. against Iran's air defense systems could shut it down completely; such action however, will not necessarily prompt a change of policy but Iran needs to be fully cognizant of its potential escalation and dire consequences.

The third option, potentially the most important to avoid a military attack, is to intensify multilateral sanctions and further augment bilateral (U.S. and E.U.) sanctions to the greatest extent possible. More sanctions in and of themselves, unless truly crippling, will not work as only two methods have turned states away from nuclear weapons: military force and regime change. Libya gave up its program in 2003 only after it witnessed the U.S. topple the Saddam Hussein regime and Iran itself suspended its nuclear operation during the same period.

Four sets of UNSC sanctions have obviously not gone far enough and there are still more crippling sanctions that can be initiated. Now is the time to do so. Intensify the pre-existing sanctions (outlined in U.N. Security Council Resolutions 1737, 1747, 1803, 1929), as the U.S. and its European allies have already begun doing, while focusing on two sectors: the Central Bank of Iran (this will be possible only if U.S.' allies can buy much of its crude from sources other than Iran) and make the companies that supply 40 percent of Iran's gasoline, the majority of which are European (the Swiss firm Vitol; the Swiss/Dutch firm Trafigura; the French firm Total; British Petroleum; and one Indian company, Reliance Industries), choose between doing business with the West or Iran. The parent countries of such companies can incentivize a reduction and an appreciably slower delivery of gasoline to Iran. As Orde Kittrie mentions in his Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, "How to Put the Squeeze on Iran," "If these companies stopped supplying Iran, the Iranians could replace only some of what they needed from other suppliers -- and at a significantly higher price. Neither Russia nor China could serve as alternative suppliers. Both are themselves also heavily dependent on imports of the type of gasoline Iran needs." Additionally, offering countries such as Turkey an alternative supplier of crude oil (Iran now supplies 30 percent of Turkey's crude supply) would directly impact the Iranian economy. It should be noted that in the face of weak sanctions, Iran only plays for more time as their nuclear program continues to be developed. If sanctions are to be taken seriously, there must be a correlation between the time it takes to institute and implement such crippling sanctions and the amount of time left before Iran reaches the "point of no return" with its nuclear program. Once this point is reached, sanctions of any sort simply will not work.

Fourth, the U.S. must make it publicly known that while the U.S. and Israel enjoys a close relationship, no U.S. government can dictate to Israel what to do regarding Iran. If Netanyahu was able to defy Obama's call for a construction freeze on settlements, he or any other Israeli prime minister will certainly not heed American demands to refrain from attacking Iran, especially when the country faces an existential threat as great as Iran's is perceived to pose. Such existential threats are not taken lightly by Israel and ensuring its national security is not just a matter of muscle and tanks. "Never again," a common refrain in Israel, is a nationally-embedded mindset, not necessarily rational, but of paramount salience as it is through the lens of 60-70 years ago that the narratives, which inform and frame Israeli foreign policy and Israeli lives today, are written.

Understanding such a mindset, the U.S. must then make it quite clear that it cannot control Israel, a fully sovereign country, should it decide to undertake an attack against Iran. In "Panetta's Antagonistic Speech on Israel," Jennifer Rudin states, "His [Secretary of Defense Panetta's] words on Iran justify the suspicion by many in the U.S. and Israel that a military option is only a rhetorical device, not a U.S. guarantee if other measures don't succeed in stopping the mullah's nuclear weapons program." To state his views on Iran and his serious reservations about a military attack in the context of the Secretary's rebuke of Israel's policy toward the Palestinians suggests that Israel will not be allowed to act without U.S. approval or acquiescence which removes one crucial option off the table. Iran must believe that Israel can and will act unilaterally. Israel has established its credibility in this regard when it attacked Iraq's nuclear facilities in 1981 and Syria's in 2007 and will do so again in the face of an Iranian ominous threat, albeit this does not preclude continued collaboration between Israel and the U.S. That said, it should not be difficult to imagine that a unilateral strike by Israel against Iran is entirely probable if Israel concludes that: 1) the sanctions, however crippling, are not working and the Iranian nuclear program continues; 2) Iran has come close to the "point of no return"; and 3) the U.S. has not yet attacked or is not preparing for a military strike against Iran.

For Israelis, the larger-scale, international repercussions and unpredictable consequences resulting from an Israeli attack are of little importance when juxtaposed against what many Israelis view as a serious threat to their very existence. To be sure, Iran must believe that Israel will act alone, if it must, once it deems it critical to its very survival.

Fifth, Iran will not relent as long as they continue to use oil and disruption in supplies to blackmail the West and China in particular. Iran has most successfully portrayed itself as the global center of energy supplies and that any military measure against it could result in global shortages of oil supplies while causing a series of major financial breakdowns as the price of oil could go up as high as $250 a barrel. Moreover, Iran threatened to retaliate against America and its allies in and outside the region, which could precipitate a major conflagration that could engulf the entire Middle East. There is no question that Iran can cause some damage but that cannot intimidate the U.S. and cause it to give in to Iran's propaganda. Tehran must believe that the U.S. is prepared to take that risk.

The U.S. and the wider international community must call on Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing states in the Gulf to increase their crude oil production to allow oil consumer countries such as Japan and China to increase their stockpile of crude and not be affected by disrupted Iranian oil supplies. While concerns of dampened oil prices may arise, Saudi Arabia can easily make up the difference in crude oil production and will gladly support such a move because they will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. As of December, Saudi Arabia's crude oil production was the highest it has been in three decades (about 10 million barrels a day) and still has yet to meet its production ceiling of over 12.5 barrel a day. Current oil trade relationships between Iran and China, Japan, Turkey and others could substantially be shifted to Saudi Arabia, aiding in the isolation of the Iranian regime. It is through flexing its oil supply muscles that the Saudis assert their dominance in the region. Under the present circumstances, there is no Gulf state that will hesitate to do what they can to squeeze the Iranian regime.

The sixth option is to make a U.S. military strike appear increasingly more likely through transparent preparations and maneuvers in the surrounding Gulf States. What must be made abundantly clear here is the difference between preparing for a military strike verses actually striking Iran. Although such a military strike, should it become necessary and absolutely as a last resort, could in fact have regional repercussions, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta's voiced concerns that a military move (uttered by the Secretary himself) could have "unintended consequences" is simply counterproductive. In a discussion with Kenneth Pollack at the Saban Center on December 2, Panetta stated that of greater concern to him was that a military strike against Iran, "... would have a backlash and the regime that is weak now, a regime that is isolated would suddenly be able to reestablish itself, suddenly be able to get support in the region, and suddenly instead of being isolated would get the greater support in a region that right now views it as a pariah." Having said so, Secretary Panetta has basically sent a clear message to Tehran that there is really no military option when in fact the only way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is if it believes that a military attack is, and remains, a viable option.

For these reasons and at this particular juncture, the U.S. must do something to re-establish both its credibility and resolve as thus far, the Iranian government has called its bluff. There should be no doubt in the mind of the Iranian leadership what the outcome would be of the Iranian government's unwillingness to freeze their nuclear program.

In order for this to happen, the Democrats and Republicans have used Iran, thus far, as a point of contention. Although rarely aligned, they must on this point demonstrate a united front to send a clear message to Iran that the U.S. will not hesitate, regardless of the cost in blood and treasure of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to take whatever means necessary to halt Iran's nuclear ambitions. It is only through feeling seriously threatened that Iran will relent. The U.S. must begin military exercises with its Gulf State partners including moving some equipment, exercising in clearing mines in the Gulf and conducting military maneuvers. Although this would certainly be seen as a provocative action and may elicit some kind of response from Iran, the risks are far smaller than a military attack and besides, it will test Iran's resolve and send a clear message to Tehran that the U.S. means business.

Lastly, the U.S. must convince Russia and China that regardless of the outcome of a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, for the U.S. and the region the emergence of an Iran equipped with nuclear weapons poses a far greater danger to the region and its future stability. Both Russia and China have significant economic interests in Iran estimated to exceed over a hundred billion dollars in investments and would be greatly concerned if the US or Israel decided to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. Russia, which will undoubtedly become even more assertive with the ascendency of Putin to the presidency, may resist US pressure but it can play a significant role in persuading Iran to give up its nuclear weapons program once Russia and China are convinced of the U.S.' determination.

A gradual escalation of credible preparations for a possible attack against Iran would also ready the international community and give Iran the chance to reconsider its position. Iran could then quietly halt its nuclear program, avoiding humiliation in backing down once threatened as they have never publicly sought a nuclear weapon, and can easily state that they had no intention of building one in the first place and can then agree to enter into serious negotiations.

This approach will no doubt test the resolve of the Iranian regime but ultimately what is paramount to the regime is self-preservation. Contrary to the regime's public protestations, faced with concerted pressures from sanctions and a military threat, there is no assurance that the Iranian regime can count on the support of its people, most of whom live in under appalling socio-political conditions. For this reason if the pursuit of nuclear weapons challenges the very existence of the regime itself, only then will they give up their nuclear weapon program.

 
 
 

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