U.N. Body Accuses Iran of Nuclear Weapons Research, But Can Military Action Stop Tehran?

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The U.N.’s nuclear watchdog has finally lent its imprimatur to the suspicion that Iran is using its atomic energy program to put the means to build nuclear weapons within its reach. That’s the upshot of Tuesday’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Iran, making it the agency’s harshest finding yet on Iran’s program. The IAEA hasn’t accused Iran of currently building nuclear weapons, but it has questionied Iran’s intentions by citing evidence of theoretical work, computer modeling and possible testing of high-explosive detonation devices that appear to have no possible use other than designing a nuclear warhead. The Agency also accused the Iranians of conducting experimental work until 2003 on an alternate source of enriched uranium, the key ingredient of a bomb program, that would not be covered by IAEA inspectors.

The IAEA report trucks with the consensus among Western and Israeli intelligence agencies that while Iran’s leaders have not yet decided to build nuclear weapons, they are steadily assembling the infrastructure that would enable them to build a bomb within months should such a decision be taken.

Israel is demanding that the international community respond with “lethal sanctions” to compel Iran to halt its program, and Obama Administration officials have expressed hope that the new report  will prove to be a “game-changer” in their efforts to get Russia and China to back harsh new measures. But the IAEA allegations are unlikely to change the stance of those countries and others skeptical that Western efforts to isolate and pressure Iran on the nuclear issue are going to yield a positive outcome.

All would agree that the four rounds of sanctions adopted until now have had no discernible effect on Iran’s nuclear posture, and more “lethal” measures, such as blockading Iranian fuel imports or oil exports, or cutting off its central bank, would be strongly opposed by the likes of Russia, China and Turkey, and would be treated as “acts of war” by Tehran.

That’s why, over the past week, Israel has repeatedly signaled that it may be preparing to go to war. There’s nothing new in that, of course: Playing the bad cop by threatening a potentially catastrophic confrontation is a time-worn tactic for Israeli efforts to scare skeptical governments to adopt tougher sanctions. But in the absence of any significant escalation of economic pressure on Iran, the threat of “military option” — which President Obama also insists remains “on the table” — also threatens to acquire momentum of its own, lest those who repeatedly utter it, year after year, make themselves vulnerable to charges of fecklessness. How long can an Israeli leadership keep telling its electorate that Iran represents a reincarnation of Hitler and the year is 1938 without taking action if nobody else does?

Not only are the Israelis banging the drum of war; the GOP presidential hopefuls are jumping on the bandwagon, loudly proclaiming support for Israel bombing Iran. And it’s a safe bet that Republican challengers will seek to make the “soft on Iran” charge stick to Obama in an election year, particularly among voters primarily concerned with Israel’s security.

Although Israel’s preference is for the U.S. to do the job, its leaders are reportedly threatening to launch such an attack without necessarily coordinating with Washington first — at least that’s what the Israelis want us to believe, given reports to that effect in Israeli papers this week — but the consequences for the U.S., Israel’s armorer and enabler, will be the same whether the F-15s that drop the bombs carry American or Israeli markings.

One reminder of the potential consequences came on Tuesday as the benchmark Brent Crude oil futures index hit a seven-week high of $114 as traders braced for the IAEA report, reminding world leaders that tensions over Iran — and particularly, the threat of a military confrontation that might choke off a significant proportion of world oil supplies — could have a dangerously disruptive effect on the anemic recovery of the world economy. (Conversely, of course, the rising oil price actually strengthens Iran’s leadership, helping them mitigate the impact of sanctions on other aspects of their economy.) The reason oil futures are sensitive to the potential for war in Iran is not simply that the Islamic Republic is the world’s fourth-largest producer, but because its retaliation if attacked would likely include closure, through missile strikes and fast-boat attacks on tankers, of the Strait of Hormuz, through which some 40% of the world’s oil must pass en route to market.

Iran’s response, directly and through proxies elsewhere in the region, could also include sustained attacks on U.S. military and diplomatic personnel, and on Israeli cities, changing the regional security situation for years to come.

But it’s also on the “benefit” side of the cost-benefit analysis that many in the U.S. security establishment — indeed, many in the Israeli political and security establishment, as well — are skeptical of the value of attacking Iran.

The allegations in the IAEA report offer no basis to seek U.N. Security Council authorization for bombing Iran, and such a move would potentially leave the likes of Israel, the U.S., Britain and others who joined the attack potentially more isolated than Tehran. Indeed, such a course of action might achieve the Iranians’ goal of dividing the international community (although the counter-argument would question the usefulness of the current consensus in restraining Iran’s nuclear progress).  Military action would, as in the case of Iraq, have to be taken without international authorization, at a point where the U.S. is in a considerably weaker international position now than it was eight years ago.

Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is often portrayed as a series of quick, decisive, surgical strikes to eliminate a gathering threat. The reality is far messier: Iran’s air defenses would have to be suppressed, and military planning would, no doubt, involve preemptive targeting some of Iran’s means of retaliation, i.e. missile and other military facilities. There’s no way to undertake air strikes in Iran without being ready to commit the U.S. to a a fourth U.S. war in the Muslim world in the space of a decade.

Iran’s known facilities are dispersed, in some cases hardened, and it would be prudent to assume a level of redundancy has been built into the system in anticipation of attacks. Israel’s 1981 surprise bombing of Iraq’s Osirak reactor may be less relevant as an example than is the Clinton Administration’s December 1998 “Operation Desert Fox” bombing of Iraq. Four days of sustained air and missile strikes targeting facilities where Iraq was suspected of working on weapons of mass destruction facilities left the Administration uncertain as to the effects of the strikes. U.N. inspectors, withdrawn ahead of the strikes, were not permitted to return. Indeed, that operation simply set the stage for the 2003 invasion. As my colleague Mark Thompson wrote five years ago, during a previous bout of bomb-Iran fever, “any U.S.-led military attack on Iran designed to root out — or even merely delay — Tehran’s nuclear-weapons program is going to have to be far more violent and sustained than Desert Fox. In other words, any talk of a relatively pain-free surgical strike against Iran would certainly qualify as misinformed speculation.”

More importantly, there’s no clear end-game to the “military option”. Iran has the know-how and technical capacity to enrich uranium; the only way to certifiably prevent it producing nuclear weapons in secret once a military attack had prompted it to kick out inspectors and leave the NPT would be to invade and occupy the country, as the U.S. felt compelled to do in the case of Iraq. But that option is beyond the bounds of reality in a country three times the size of Iraq, and given the current state of U.S. power, and it’s not being seriously advocated, even by the most hawkish voices in the debate.

That’s why then Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned a year ago that even in the best-case scenario, a successful air campaign against Iran’s nuclear facilities could delay the Islamic Republic’s nuclear progress by up to three years — but, he warned, it would unite Iranians and strengthen the regime, which would continue its nuclear work underground and take the decision (not yet taken) to go ahead and actually build and deploy a nuclear deterrent. That’s an assessment shared by such doyens of the Israeli security establishment as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.

Military action may enter the debate in the “when all else fails” category, but Gates, Dagan and others see it simply as another way of kicking the can down the road — although with potentially devastating short-term consequences. The only way to ensure Iran doesn’t build nuclear weapons, Gates argued, would be for its leaders to determine that doing so would not be in their own best interests. What prompts them to change their calculations, of course, is at the heart of the debate. Calls by pundits such as Fareed Zakaria that “Obama should return to his original approach and test the Iranians to see if there is any room for dialogue and agreement” have been met with derision by more hawkish voices, and prospects for any ‘grand bargain’ breakthrough in the near future remain grim given the political balance both in Washington and in Tehran.

Despite the atmosphere of urgency generated in the prelude to the IAEA, then, it may well be that the stalemate remains unbroken if the level of rhetorical brinkmanship rises sharply.