Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Next Red Line: How Iran Will Get Nuclear Weapons

While Iran has not accepted these offers, we have made our bottom line clear: For the safety of our people and the peace of the world, America will not allow Iran to develop a nuclear weapon.

--George W. Bush, December 5, 2008

Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow -- endangering the global non-proliferation regime, denying its own people access to the opportunity they deserve, and threatening the stability and security of the region and the world.

-- Barack Obama with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, September 25, 2009

According to who you ask, Iran is not far from nuclear weapons capability. Israeli officials are stating that Iran is near or past the 'point of no return' while others put the program just six months from enough uranium to construct a weapon. Even opponents of military action or apologists for the Islamic Republic will admit that Iran is not far from a nuclear breakout activity.

With all of the pressure that the international community is heaping on Iran, it should seem unlikely that that same world would allow the country to acquire nuclear weapons. However, to many, the diplomatic and military options to stop such a program are at a higher risk factor than doing simply nothing.

Over the last decade, Iran has benefited from various missteps or lack of action from the Western powers and even Israel. For years, the Western powers would warn Iran was nearing a nuclear device and put in place various sanctions to try and slow their progress. Many of these sanctions were either superfluous or cosmetic while the intelligence agencies in the West were deathly afraid of political blame that backlashed after the 2003 Iraq War. The 2007 NIE report that claimed Iran had suspended its nuclear program was an intelligence fiasco, bolstering Iran's position while showing the skittishness of the American intelligence agencies.

It was a well-known "fact" that the Bush Administration would not leave office while Iran was moving closer to the bomb. It was widely believed that the White House would bomb Iran before leaving office in January 2009. No such bombing occurred. True, there was Stuxnet, but even with the relative success of the malware, it did not stop the program.

The Obama Administration has often times carbon-copied the Bush Administration's approach to the Islamic Republic's nuclear program. The sanctions and diplomatic pressure have been ramped up, now with Europe finally agreeing to stop purchasing Iranian oil. Meanwhile, sanctions on Iran's Bank Melli (Central Bank) could hobble the country's financial system. Or maybe not.

The Obama Administration is in a quandary. Nine months before the election, any military operation within Iran will have unexpected consequences, even if Iran's nuclear program is set back significantly. With Hezbollah and Hamas prepared to act on Iran's behalf, Obama's re-election team could see any military action as possible electoral defeat.

Obama's stricter line on sanctions and imports is welcome, but could show that the Administration is betting that these actions will work-- or will be the last non-military options. China and Russia would not condone an attack, and the instability in oil prices and supply could crush the American and European economies during this fragile period.

If Obama will act on Iran (unless directly provoked), he will likely wait until after the election.

But what about Israel, you ask?

Israel's capability to launch a successful attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is likely lower than advertised. The Iranians learned from Saddam Hussein's nuclear program to have the facilities spread out, hidden, and buried. A multi-pronged Israeli attack is unlikely to do the damage necessary. Killing Iranian scientists and sabotaging facilities has worked somewhat well, but has not stopped the program.

Put simply: even the Mossad and the IDF would have great difficulty stopping Iran's nuclear program in an attack or even series of attacks. Sure, tactical nukes would work, but would be diplomatic suicide.

What may very well happen over the next year is that the focus on Iran's nuclear program will shift. Rather than trying to stop Iran's nuclear-weapons capability, the West and Israel may shift to trying to stop only the final stage: the actual deployment of these warheads. Any early Iranian device would likely not be miniaturized and ready to put on a missile. The new refrain could become "It's okay, they may have the bomb (or get it soon) but it will be years before they can actually use it."

This new red line will effectively reset the game. The moment that the United States shifts to this focus, it (almost) neuters Israel's ability to act unilaterally. It will also act as a sigh of relief for many of the European powers, Russia, and China, who can then just start importing more Iranian oil.

This kicks the can down the road five more years, for the next President to deal with. The fear of losing re-election or putting the economy into a tailspin may be just what is needed to give Iran what it's been coveting.

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