Iran’s Weapon

Fears May Be Overblown as Iran Reactor Comes Online
Despite the media hysteria over a supposed drumbeat for war with Iran, the White House is not unduly worried by the news that Russia will, on Saturday, begin loading enriched uranium into Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor. While former Bush Ambassador to the UN and Fox News favorite John Bolton breathlessly warned Monday that Israel has just five days within which to bomb the reactor — after which an air strike would risk killing many thousands of civilians from a radiation leak — the Obama Administration has been more sanguine on the Bushehr news.
To Administration critics, the move to bring Iran’s atomic energy plant online makes clear that Iran is not nearly as isolated by sanctions as Washington would like. But that misses the point, since Bushehr is actually exempt from those sanctions because it represents no nuclear weapons threat. And the Administration is moving to tamp down the hysteria being fomented by the likes of Bolton, reportedly making clear to the Israelis that the minimum time frame Iran would need to build a nuclear weapon, after declaring their intent by kicking out inspectors, is one year — plenty of time in which to take dramatic action.(See the world’s worst nuclear disasters.)
Instead of prompting confrontation, the move to bring Bushehr online will be used by the Administration to argue that it demonstrates Western readiness to accept a Iranian nuclear energy program without uranium enrichment. The uranium that will power the Bushehr reactor is imported from Russia, while the reactor’s spent fuel — from which Iran could hypothetically extract plutonium if it had the technology to do so, and if it weren’t under the scrutiny of IAEA inspectors — will be removed from Iran by the Russians. And the fact that Bushehr will produce electricity with Russian-supplied uranium, says White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, “underscores that Iran does not need its own enrichment capability if its intentions, as it states, are for a peaceful nuclear program.”
In other words, the U.S. believes that Iran’s determination to enrich its own uranium calls into question its stated motives; like other Western powers, Washington fears that the enrichment activities, some of them initially conducted in secret, could service a clandestine bomb program. But that’s not how the Iranians see it. For them, the fact that Russia says it will finally fuel the reactor after some 14 years of dragging its feet on the project is only proof that, as Mohammad Ahmadian, head of Iran’s Nuclear Power Plants Production and Development Company, indelicately put it, “Western countries cannot be trusted.” Tehran believes the Russians used Bushehr for political leverage to press Iran to comply with Western demands, and see the project as an object lesson in why they can’t allow their nuclear program to be dependent for reactor fuel on the kindness of strangers.(See pictures of terror in Tehran.)
Iran has always insisted on its right, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to enrich uranium for energy purposes, and maintained that its purposes are peaceful. But enrichment does put bomb-making capability closer within reach for Tehran, and Iran has been ordered by the UN Security Council to suspend its enrichment until all issues of disclosure and transparency raised by the IAEA can be resolved. Iran, however, has made clear it is planning to expand its enrichment capacity (although Western intelligence believes it has encountered technical problems).
Bushehr coming online, then, is unlikely to alter the standoff over Iran’s nuclear efforts either way. Sanctions adopted by the Security Council and a raft of new measures imposed by the U.S. and Europe aimed at stopping third countries trading with Iran have certainly had some impact in Iran, but most analysts still believe economic pressure is unlikely to change Iran’s calculations. Iranian opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi this week warned that the sanctions are actually strengthening the hand of the hardline Republican Guard Corps because of their central role in sanctions-busting economic networks, and by creating an external excuse for economic hardship.
The improbability of sanctions breaking the stalemate has led to a flurry of media speculation over the possibility of Israel bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities as early as next spring if the U.S. — as most expect — is reluctant to do so. Such speculation, however, tends to be based mostly on the apocalyptic rhetoric of Israeli politicians who frequently invoke Holocaust imagery in referring to Iran’s enrichment activities, rather than on the more sober assessments of its security establishment. Whereas Netanyahu likes to tell Western audiences that Iran is led by an irrational “messianic cult”, that view is not shared by Israeli military and intelligence analysts, according to Yossi Alpher, a Mossad veteran and former adviser to Israel’s Defense Minister, Ehud Barak. Alpher argues that in light of the potentially catastrophic consequences, Israel would only take military action if Iran was in a position to launch a nuclear attack on the Jewish State in an “extremely short” time frame — and that a strike could set back the Iranian program for a significant period of time.(See the top 10 Ahmadinejad-isms.)
And the fact is Iran is nowhere close to the ability to attack Israel with nuclear weapons. The U.S. intelligence consensus holds that while Iran is developing the infrastructure necessary to create a bomb and also doing theoretical research on bomb design, it is not currently developing nuclear weapons nor has it made the decision to do so. Its goal is generally viewed as “breakout” capacity, i.e. the ability to build a bomb relatively quickly if it chose to do so — and even that capacity still appears to be some way off.
In explaining the peril they see in the Iranian program, Israeli leaders tend to accept that even an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is unlikely to initiate a nuclear exchange that would be suicidal for Tehran given the size of Israel’s own nuclear deterrent. Instead, they warn that an Iranian bomb’s primary impact would be to end Israel’s strategic dominance in the regional balance of power, which would in turn embolden Israel’s insurgent neighbors such as Hamas and Hizballah. Right now, the war talk may be designed primarily to stiffen the spine of Western policy makers on sanctions and diplomacy, by invoking an alternative too ghastly to contemplate.
Both sides know that rather than imminent military action, the next phase of the Iran standoff is likely to be a renewed round of talks with Iran. The U.S. and its allies hope to use the leverage of sanctions to persuade Iran to back down, while Iran will look to make smaller concessions, especially in areas where they have upped the ante, such as enriching uranium to 20%, which takes them a lot closer to the technological capacity to create bomb-grade materiel. For each side, the long game remains shaping the diplomatic compromise to their own liking.


Is the U.S. Pursuing the Wrong Mideast Peace Process?
The recent skirmish on the Israel-Lebanon border has amplified fears that the Middle East could be on the brink of another war. So the fact that U.S. special envoy Senator George Mitchell arrived in Israel this week hoping to restart peace talks ought to offer some reassurance. But it doesn’t. The reason: President Obama’s peace process doesn’t involve those who could clash with the Israelis this summer. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Mitchell will cajole to talk directly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not at war with Israel and will remain on the sidelines if new hostilities break out, just as he did during last year’s Gaza war.
The forces on the front lines of the gathering storm — Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Syria — are allied with Iran, and the Obama Administration is maintaining its predecessor’s policy of trying to diplomatically isolate the self-styled “axis of resistance.” Some limited overtures have been made to Damascus, largely in the hope of separating Syria from Iran. But absent any move to end Israel’s occupation of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights, those will come to naught. The Administration has also made limited overtures to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, using Iran’s defiance to strengthen the case Washington makes to less sanguine partners that Iran should be isolated. But it has precious few channels to the relevant leadership should hostilities break out along Israel’s northern border or in Gaza. On both of those fronts, an uneasy calm is maintained not by any agreements but by each side’s awareness of the damage they could suffer, both physical and political, in a new confrontation. Still, in both cases, the antagonists are operating on the assumption that a new shooting war is inevitable at some point.(See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)
The Bush Administration’s diplomatic boycott of the resistance camp failed to stem its rising influence, cemented the alliance of its component parts, and left Washington and its Western allies with precious little access to important decisionmakers. That may not have bothered the Bush Administration much, because it imagined the region as locked in a fight to the finish between radicals and moderates — a grand alliance of whom would join with Israel and the U.S. to vanquish Iran and its allies. Stability was not the Bush Administration’s priority. When anxious Europeans pressed Washington to help end the disastrous 2006 Israeli war against Hizballah in Lebanon, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously responded that she had “no interest in a return to the status quo ante.” But, of course, that’s largely what resulted, because the projection of force by the U.S. and Israel in the region has failed to eliminate the radicals.
Turkey was the most important U.S. ally to break decisively with the Bush Administration’s approach to the region, building its own bridges to the resistance camp in the belief that it couldn’t be wished or blown away and that the region couldn’t be stabilized without accommodating its interests. Turkey’s approach was pilloried by some in the West and Israel as aligning with Iran. But British Prime Minister David Cameron, following talks in Washington, recently visited Ankara and sought to ingratiate himself with the Turkish leadership by referring to Gaza as a “prison camp” — as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done — an apparent attempt to enlist Turkey’s support in mediating the region’s conflicts. Turkey’s good offices with the radicals, combined with its long-standing, if somewhat frayed, security alliance with Israel, may now be a vital channel of communication for avoiding new wars in the region.(See “Bibi and Barack: Can They Bridge the Gap?”)
Of course, pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as the Obama Administration is doing by urging direct talks between Abbas and Netanyahu, needn’t work at cross purposes with a broader push to stabilize the Middle East. But it could.
The Bush Administration eventually renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as an element of its strategy to confront Iran, seeing a Mideast peace process as vital to provide political cover for Arab regimes to ally with Israel and the U.S. against Tehran. That was the logic behind the Annapolis conference and subsequent discussions between Abbas and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The process went nowhere, of course. But even if Olmert and Abbas had managed to agree on the contours of a Palestinian state (they didn’t), it was clear that any process that excluded Hamas — which had demonstrated in a democratic election that it spoke for as much as half the Palestinian population — was unlikely to gain much traction. And a peace process conceived of as a means to weaken and isolate Hamas and its allies obviously gives them an overwhelming incentive to ensure its failure, which is well within their means.
Still, the Obama Administration maintains the Bush policies of confining its diplomatic engagement largely to friends rather than adversaries. Once again, the argument is being made in Washington debates that pressing forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a key condition for a successful effort to isolate Iran. But there’s no apparent reason to expect that Obama will succeed where Bush failed.
On Aug. 6, a major annual study of public opinion in six Arab countries by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami was released. Its latest findings hold some grim tidings for the White House. Not only has the proportion of respondents holding negative views of Obama almost tripled (to 63%) since his Cairo outreach speech last year, but the notion that the Arab world feels threatened by the idea of Iran’s acquiring a nuclear weapon seems questionable. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was found to be the third most popular world leader, at 12% (after Erdogan at 20% and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez at 13%; Obama didn’t make the top 20). And the study found that an overwhelming 77% of respondents believed Tehran had a right to its nuclear program — an alarming 57% even believed a nuclear-armed Iran would be better for the Middle East.
Plainly, there’s a disconnect between Arab public opinion and the Obama Administration’s approach to dealing with the region. If the goal is stabilizing the region and preventing war, it may be time for Obama to heed the advice of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. When challenged on why he was dealing with Israel’s mortal foe, Yasser Arafat, Rabin answered, “We make peace with our enemies, not with our friends.”
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