This piece was written William T. Dowell and published by The Essential Edge 3 October, 2012.
Geneva — With US elections fast approaching, the drums of war are beating along the Potomac for a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. So far, President Barack Obama has deftly sidestepped Israeli pressure for a definitive US ultimatum against Teheran, but if Republicans manage to get back in the driver’s seat, US policy could change abruptly. In the meantime a select group of America’s foreign policy elite have just published a 31-page report, The Iran Project, weighing the costs as well as advantages of military action and recommending a more cautious, well thought out approach to one of today’s trickiest geopolitical challenges.
As New York Times chief Washington correspondent David Sanger pointed out in his recent book, “Confront and Conceal,” the increasing threat of nuclear proliferation has been a major preoccupation of the Obama administration for the last four years. The Olympic Games program which slowed Iran’s uranium enrichment program by using computer worms to trick Iran’s centrifuges into self destructing bought the world a little bit of time, but that is now fast running out.
In the meantime, Iran is playing a double game. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly proclaims that Iran is only enriching uranium for civilian use, his administration is also making it abundantly clear that the kind of enrichment that is taking place is only useful in producing a weapon. In short, Ahmadinejad is trying to scare everyone while pretending to be innocent and making absolutely sure that we do not believe him. Does
Iran really want to produce a weapon, or does it only want to make us, or more specifically its immediate neighbors, believe that it is obtaining a weapon? A number of American and Israeli foreign policy analysts suspect that what Iran really intends to do is to develop its program to the point where it is able to produce a nuclear weapon relatively quickly, and then stop. The advantage of that approach is that it makes Iran nearly as invulnerable as a genuine nuclear power, but Tehran can still claim not to have violated the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, and it can also claim that it does not have the bomb, at least not technically. Unfortunately, no one can know for sure, and in the end, if Iran is really close to having a bomb, the distinction may be too subtle to make much difference.
The overriding problem in the case of Iran is that the Iranian government, or what passes for a government, is so opaque that it is difficult to know what its true intentions really are. It is not even clear how much power Ahmadinejad really has, although it is clear that he is overruled frequently by Khamenei, the “supreme guide” elected to replace Khomeini. While Ahmadinejad is clownishly all over the place, and consequently unpredictable, Khamenei and the tiny band of clerics that he supposedly depends on for advice are absolutely opaque. To make matters worse, most genuine clerics in Iran do not consider Khamenei to have particularly impressive religious credentials, so it is difficult to know who he really represents.
The nightmare from Washington’s point of view is not the ruling theocratic junta in Teheran, which can be counted on to be guided by rational enlightened self-interest, but rather what would happen if a shift in power, or unexpected putsch, led to a fanatical non-state actor to get hold of nuclear material. The spreading trend for random suicide bombings is not exactly encouraging, and no one wants to think of what would happen if these people got their hands on a nuclear device.
On the other hand, there should be no illusions. An attack against Iran would likely trigger a wave of terrorist attacks throughout the West, not to mention attacks and mines against oil transport shipping lanes. It’s not hard to understand why Washington recently deployed a major naval de-mining exercise in the Persian Gulf.
The Obama administration is not only concerned about Iran, but also about Pakistan, whose government appears so shaky and filled with so many conflicting factions that no one can be certain how long it will last. But the difference between Pakistan and Iran is that a number of Sunni Arab countries in the region see Shiite Iran as a potential threat to themselves. If Iran becomes a nuclear power, everyone else will want to protect themselves by becoming one also. The potential for a catastrophic error in judgment increases geometrically at that point.
While the Obama administration has been trying to deal sensitively with these problems, the Republicans have been accusing the White House of going soft. The death of America’s ambassador to Libya hasn’t helped, nor very likely will the upcoming debates.
It is in this context that the Iran Project published its report, which was signed by Zbigniew Brzezinsky, Jessica Matthews, Joseph Cirincione, Edward Dejerejien, Leslie Gelb, Thomas Pickering, Check Hagel, Paul Volcker, and a host of other foreign policy luminaries. A member of the project, alarmed at the casual talk of trying to take out Iran’s nuclear sites, approached the Senate Foreign Relations Committee suggesting hearings on the subject. The senator responded that it would be impossible to do that without weakening Obama’s efforts to convince the Iranians that the US will rely on force if all other options are exhausted and it has no other choice. The senator added however, that if hearings had been held before the war in Iraq, it might never have happened. With the US Congress paralyzed by partisan bickering, the Iran Project looks like the next best alternative.
•An hour-long discussion of the implications with former ambassador to Egypt, Frank Wisner, former ambassador William Luers, and the former chief of the Special Operations Command, Admiral Eric T. Olson is on YouTube at: