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"Preoccupy" the Atomic Ayatollahs

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It took the best of international detective work against a determined master of the dark arts and subversion, but at long last the UN's intrepid nuclear inspectors caught Iran red-handed in the act of atomic bomb construction. In an unusually harsh, unprecedented November 18, 2011 assessment, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) most recent report constitutes a clear and relatively convincing indictment of Iran's so-called peaceful nuclear program.

IAEA investigators revealed irrefutable evidence that Iran:

  1. Created computer models of nuclear explosions.
  2. Conducted experiments on nuclear bomb triggers.
  3. Engaged in research on how to transform enriched uranium into an actual warhead.

And that's not all.

The IAEA report revealed how Iran enlisted the services of a former Soviet nuclear scientist to enable it to deploy its enriched uranium onto an actual missile warhead.

Iran is undeniably a state sponsor of the big lie. If these are IAEA approved elements of a NPT-compliant "peaceful" nuclear program, well, then, I have a bridge over the East River for sale.

Taking its orders from Tehran, Iran's diehard legions of apologists wasted no time refuting the IAEA and its findings by attempting to shoot the messenger (i.e., the IAEA) -- a favorite tactic of Iran's amen choir. Others resorted to the age old bromide excusing Iran's illicit nuclear program on the grounds that Israel and the U.S. have nuclear weapons.

The atomic ayatollahs are about to reach the end of the road in their showdown with the west. This moment of reckoning has come far more quickly than anyone had contemplated.

What now to do?

"The toughest sanctions on Iran ever" (President Obama's words) had one goal: namely, to force Iran to end its illegal nuclear program. Even by its own admission, sanctions have stung, but have not deterred Tehran. In other words, existing economic sanctions have failed.

So while the Obama administration deserves high marks for constructing an innovative and biting sanctions regime, the easy part is over. The president is not doing himself any service by patting himself on the back for the sanctions the U.S. has inflicted on Iran. It has the air of the old adage "but for the patient dying, the operation was a complete success!"

And as the clock ticks to midnight, the administration has developed a bad case of cold feet, contesting congressional calls to impose financial sanctions on Iran's central bank, which would have the effect of preventing Iran from receiving income from its principal oil customers; namely India and South Korea.

Its cause for hesitation: the White House is concerned that the consequence of this sanction would cause the price of oil to escalate in an election year because Iran -- the world's third largest oil exporter -- would be unable to receive payment for its oil, and would cut its exports inducing global prices to spike. It is not an unreasonable concern given the pain Americans already feel at the pump.

But when the Secretary of Defense bares his understandable hesitations against the use of military force, which he did last Friday -- no matter how meritorious they are -- it only undermines the signals his administration is broadcasting. Sometimes one wonders whether the left hand and right are working at cross purposes. If all options are on the table, why is the Secretary of Defense throwing ice water on the option in public?

Its not hard to see that President Obama's Iran policy has been focused on kicking the Iran nuclear can down the street as long as possible, hoping that a miracle in its diplomacy would rescue it from facing the tough choices it itself asserts are necessary.

But between unfair Republican bellicosity, accusing Obama of "appeasement" and the IAEA's findings, the White House is being backed into a corner without a coherent strategy going forward despite its protests that Iran with a bomb is a direct national security threat to the United States.

So, is there anything more that can be done to turn back Iran's drop dead hour before a mushroom cloud erupts over an Iranian desert testing ground?

Covert Sabotage

More robust and coordinated covert action by western and Arab nations against Iran's nuclear facilities must become an urgent priority. Mysterious computer viruses such as the Stuxnet worm, undeniably set back Iran's spinning uranium enrichment centrifuges. But their success was short lived. Assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists may have created a climate of fear, but also have not prevented Iran from moving more quickly to its finish line.

Last week's "accidental" explosion which destroyed one of Iran's largest solid-fuel missile construction bases was a gift that may keep on giving. It not only killed a key Revolutionary Guard commander in charge of missile solid fuel rocket development, the explosion also compels Iran to rely more on liquid fuel missiles that are easier to detect on the ground via satellite surveillance.

The escalating use of stealth drones conducting surveillance above Iran is an indication that the administration is not reluctant to push the covert envelope. The question is what to do with the treasure trove of data the drone surveillance program yielded?

Accidents do happen. Bigger "accidents" are needed. Rather than relying further on economic sanctions, we need a more effective "accidents regime" that may do what economic sanctions have failed to do. Of course, Iran has demonstrated a huge tolerance for international isolation and economic pain. There is no assurance that escalating covert action will achieve a better outcome than economic sanctions... but its worth the risk given the stakes involved.

There are targets aplenty throughout Iran, including remote pipelines, ships bound for Iran supplying oil distillates, banking computer networks, and aviation facilities. And the regime has a lot of enemies, including many of its own citizens to do the dirty work. No return U.S. address needed.

Shipping Embargoes

Draconian as it sounds, a quarantine of international shipping to Iran should be on the table. Although an overt embargo is an act of war, a market-driven embargo on Iran's ports by shipping companies worried about escalating insurance costs may do the trick. How? Denying shipping companies that trade with Iran access to U.S. and allied financial institutions and reinsurers could do what a more risky front line naval embargo would do.

Additionally, as ironic as it may sound, the world's third largest oil exporter has to import refined gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. A concerted U.S. and European financial and insurance embargo on companies that export refined petroleum products to Iran should be implemented.

A More Effective Persian Gulf Trade Embargo

As much as Sunni Arab states detest Shiite Iran's regional aspirations, a continuing supply of trade and consumer goods ply the waters between Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Privately, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have imposed some restrictions on cross-Gulf trade, but not enough given what could be smuggled under the camouflage of commercial goods.

In the final analysis there are no magic bullets given Russia's and China's refusal to really turn the financial screws on Iran that could bring the Ayatollahs to their knees. But there is a lot more pain that can be inflicted on Tehran without resort to overt military attack. It's time to take off the gloves and put on the black camouflage fatigues.