This is a very critical time with the Iranian nuclear program. The threat is growing but it is not imminent. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear that Israel will strike Iran's nuclear facilities in 2012. While Israel has the right to self defense if it can prove its security is at risk, it does not have the right to start a regional war and drag the U.S. in, or compromise the U.S. economic recovery if there is no hard evidence that Israel needed to defend itself.
First, it is clear that Iran is inviting disaster on itself. Iran's lack of transparency, its saber rattling and hostility to the region, Israel, the U.S. and the world economy all contribute to a sense that military force is necessary to stop what might be a nuclear weapons program. But military force might be what Iran's leaders see as necessary to get what they want.
If Iran is attacked, they can justify withdrawing from the NPT, which gives Iran the legal right to enrich uranium, and then we would have no eyes on their program. With no eyes on the program, we would have even less to go on in terms of what Iran is doing. Also, Iran would not be constrained to follow the Treaty, and an attack would compel Iran to develop a nuclear bomb, which would also be justified from their point of view so as to deter a future attack on their country.
Under the NPT, Iran has the legal right to enrich uranium. However, with that right come responsibilities, such as allowing IAEA inspectors to have unfettered access to nuclear facilities. Iran has obstructed IAEA efforts. As such, their intentions are suspect. Moreover, their intentions are suspect in light of dual use technologies seemingly be experimented on for weapons purposes and aggressive clean-up of sites about to be visited by IAEA inspectors.
The U.S. can say with a high degree of confidence that Iran has not decided to pursue a nuclear weapon at this time. If they did, we would know about it. There are so many steps that would need to happen for all of this to happen that we would be able to detect their decision to build a weapon. One such indicator would be the diversion of LEU to be used to produce HEU. This is something that IAEA inspectors have a good sense that is not going on.
Moreover, from the point that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says 'build a bomb' it would take about 6-7 months to get the weapons grade uranium, several more months to have a ready weapon, and then at least another 18 months to have a ready made delivery system.
Hypothetically speaking, if Iran could do three things, they may decide to pursue a nuclear weapon program that is immune to an attack. They would have to 1. have a clandestine program (which we are confident they do not for a number of reasons); 2. overcome various technical hurdles (which they have not); and 3. shorten the timeline in which it would take to build a weapon (which they cannot at this time).
At the core of this crisis is a lack of trust. The Western world does not trust Iran to not develop a nuclear weapon. Iran does not trust the Western world that its leaders are not trying to overthrow its regime. It might be a useful exercise to start with some smaller trust building negotiations.
The idea that we either have to attack a non-nuclear Iran now or contain a nuclear armed Iran later is a false set of options.
A dual approach of sanctions and diplomacy are necessary. Diplomacy isn't working too well, right now, and that can change, but sanctions are effective.
Sanctions have resulted in economic growth of about 1 percent, unemployment about 12 percent and inflation over 20 percent. This economic condition is only going to get worse this summer when the full effect of sanctions kick in. This has resulted in Iran recently deciding to return to the negotiation table.
Iran is not afraid of Israel but it is of the U.S. Iran knows that the U.S. has a capability that Israel does not have. As such, adding to this dual approach, the U.S. should guarantee Israel's safety from an Iranian attack. The Congress should back this guarantee issued by the President. The U.S. guaranteed the security of Western Europe in the cold war and Japan after WWII. Israel would likely view this as a concession of their right to defend itself. But this is not the case. This would be a pact whereby the U.S. would be an added layer of safety to Israel's security. Israel need not give up its own security, but it can add one by relying on the U.S. to do what Israel cannot.
The U.S. and Israel are on different time lines, have different levels of capability and different threats to their homeland. The U.S. has more time to deal with the Iranian program because it has a greater ability to destroy underground facilities, such as the one at Fordow.
The consequences of a nuclear armed Iran are obvious. While Iran is homicidal, it does not seem that it is suicidal -- a nuclear attack on Israel would be suicidal for Iran. But this is not to say that a nuclear armed Iran is not a threat to Israel. A nuclear armed Iran might start an arms race in the region.
We learned with Iraq, an attack on their program did not eliminate the program. It was only after Operation Desert Storm that we learned that Saddam was about one year from having a nuclear weapon. There is no reason to believe that setting back Iran's program will eliminate the threat of a nuclear weapon program. In fact, an attack on Iran would almost guarantee that they will pursue a weapons program. An attack on Iran's program now would reduce a short term threat, but exponentially increase the medium and long term threat.
The flip side is that Iran cannot be trusted. If Iran uses talks as a way to buy time then shame on us. But we are not so naïve. We know this is possible and part of talks can, should and will be IAEA monitoring to determine if a weapons capability is being pursued.
During an election year, the President of the U.S. has far fewer options to curtail an Israeli strike. Threats of withholding foreign aid to Israel can only effectively come from Congress. In fact, if Israel strikes and Iran retaliates, Congress is likely to rally behind Israel, further limiting the President's options.
Moreover, if Israel (or the U.S.) strikes, oil prices will skyrocket and this will affect the world markets for an unforeseen duration risking a worldwide economic recession -- this affects domestic food prices, tourism and a host of other domestic issues. Also, the Arab spring will no longer focus on reforming its own countries but will turn its attention to Israel and the U.S. for supporting Israel. Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran will work together to attack Israel like it was 2006 again, and this could also start a regional war as Hezbollah and Hamas are supported by other nations in the region. Iran will likely disperse mines throughout the Straight of Hormuz and it will certainly withdraw from the NPT removing what little oversight the West has on Iran's program.
There are no good options. A strike by Israel is not only not good in the short term stability of the region or world economy, but very bad for the long term Iranian nuclear aspiration. The least bad option is to fully utilize the dual approach of sanctions and diplomacy and to guarantee Israel's safety in exchange for Israel not striking Iran. This does not eliminate Israel's sovereignty but it does buy more time for the West to resolve this situation without war.
PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East and was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies. He has a masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.
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