The Iranian Global Nuclear Threat -- 2009 and Beyond
By Sarah Ann Haves
Israel, the United States, countries in Europe, and moderate Arab states are all coming to grips with the possibility of Iran acquiring nuclear capability. Most of these nations seem to understand and agree that Iran is an existential threat, not just to Israel, but to the whole world. However, there is disagreement about the time frame of when global leaders perceive the Iranian threat becomes imminent.
The Time Frame
A recent report by the U.S. Brookings Institute and the Council on Foreign Relations concludes that “because of time limits, Iran appears to be two or three years away from building an enrichment facility capable of producing sufficient weapons-grade uranium quickly enough to support a credible nuclear weapons option.”
Israeli security experts worry the time could be shorter, and they are looking at a strategic window of opportunity when it might be necessary to launch a pre-emptive military strike against Iran. Speaking at a conference hosted by the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Giora Eiland, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute, assessed that an Israeli military strike could happen between the summer of 2009 and the summer of 2011.
The authors of the U.S. report believe that the urgency of the situation is not immediate. Yet, Israelis are on a countdown already. And, experts here wonder just how long U.S. President-Elect Barak Obama will choose to spend on direct diplomacy with Iran before considering the military option.
Obama may perceive that once his presidential term begins in late January he will have sufficient time to create a diplomatic strategy, talk directly to Iranian leaders, and form a coalition of nations to put greater pressure on Iran. Officials in Israel are hoping that Obama does not take longer than 5-6 months to complete all his diplomatic efforts.
Security experts in Tel Aviv are concerned that Iran may use tactics to stall diplomacy while fervently continuing to enrich uranium, bringing a tougher bargaining position to the diplomatic negotiating table. Furthermore, it is perceived by international leaders that time is working to Iran’s benefit. There is a growing sense in the Middle East region and beyond that Iran’s nuclear effort is already unstoppable.
Dr. Gary Samore, Vice President and Director of Studies for the Council on Foreign Relations feels that, “Under these circumstances, Tehran’s natural instincts will be to drag out the negotiations with various diversions and hints of concessions, something they are very good at, while they continue to build up their enrichment capacity.”
Therefore, Samore thinks that Obama will need to set a deadline in the negotiations. This will bring relief to Israeli leaders who are already counting the days towards a nuclear capable Iran.
It is disconcerting for security officials that, while Israel’s defense forces (IDF) are preparing for a military strike, the U.S. does not seem to be as focused on the military option, and Iranian leaders know this. Israeli defense experts readily admit that it would be much better for the United States to lead the military effort than Israel, in the event a pre-emptive strike is necessary.
The concern here is that if Iran acquires nuclear capability it will dramatically alter the balance of power in the Middle East. It will have serious security implications for Israel and other countries. For example, a nuclear Iran could threaten moderate Arab states in the region. Some of those states have already begun looking into building their own nuclear facilities because of the perceived Iranian threat.
Iran could also pass on nuclear technology to terrorist groups and to states that support terrorism. Syria and Iran have a close strategic military agreement. A nuclear Iran could give Syria more maneuvering power in the region, as well as with western countries. Iran could also produce dirty bombs and biological and chemical weapons for terrorist organizations.
Israel and Moderate Arab States -- Closer Ties?
So, what do Iran’s nuclear aspirations mean for Israel and Arab countries in the Middle East region? Former Israeli Ambassador to the UN, and current staff member of the INSS, Dan Gillerman, expressed his views at the conference. “I truly believe that what we are seeing today, namely the almost hysterical race by Iran to acquire nuclear capability, is perhaps the real and immediate threat and the perilous one to world peace... Iran is trying to reach Persian hegemony in the region, Shiite hegemony in the region, and therefore, the fear is not Israel’s exclusive domain.”
Israeli leaders feel there are some positive factors that have surfaced as a result of global fear about Iran going nuclear. Moderate Arab states are now closer to recognizing that Iran is the immediate problem, not Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Gillerman hopes the Iranian threat will point the way for these same Arab states to come to a conclusion that Israel is a partner and an ally and not an enemy.
The Clock System That Assesses the Point of No Return
Israeli officials look at several time clocks to determine how to proceed on the Iranian issue. There is the diplomatic clock which officials use to assess strategic discussions, negotiations, and UN sanctions in regard to Iran. There’s the technological clock. Most Middle East analysts believe that Iran already has the technical knowhow to make a nuclear bomb. This clock also determines the pace of uranium enrichment towards nuclear ability. The diplomatic clock seems to be working much more slowly than the technical one.
There’s also the military clock that security officials look at to determine Israel’s offensive and defensive capabilities, as well as Iran’s. Military officials believe the military clock should not remain stagnant. Russia has promised Israel that it will not sell an advanced S-300 anti-aircraft weapons system to Iran. This state-of-the-art air defense missile system would tip the strategic balance in the Middle East making it much harder for Israel to strike at Iran’s nuclear facilities. The military clock starts ticking if Israel sees this system being delivered to Iran. Israel is prepared to take out the S-300 anti-aircraft system by military action, which could start a war with the Persian state.
Dr. Ephraim Kam, Israeli Deputy Director of INSS, specializes in strategic intelligence and security issues. Kam stated Israel’s position at the conference. “We are the only country that asks if Iran will use the nuclear weapons if it acquires them. Others are concerned by the Iranian threat, and we are the only ones who ask that question. We are also the only country willing to use all means, including military means.”
So, if Iran does become a nuclear state, what might stop Iranian leaders from pushing the nuclear button?
Israel’s Deterrence Capability and Its Alliance with America
The Iranians believe that Israel has a large stockpile of nuclear weapons and would be able to strike Iran in a retaliation effort, if necessary. Kam expressed his opinion about what would happen if the Iranian regime used a nuclear weapon against Israel. “They have to take into account that Israel will use the same means and it will mean the death of millions of Iranians. Even a fundamentalist regime would not come to terms with that.” Kam added that the Iranians also “need to take into account that if they use nuclear weapons against Israel, the Americans will retaliate. The Iranians are not willing to pay that price.”
Does Iran Have Arab Support?
The idea that Iran enjoys soft power in the Middle East today is misleading. Despite what many analysts have stated in the past, Iran does not have overwhelming support from Moslems on the streets throughout the world.
Martin Kramer, an expert on Arab politics at the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies, explains the myths regarding support for Iran among Arab nations. He claims there’s a split in Arab public opinion about Iran’s nuclear program, and there’s no evidence as to what people think should be done if negotiations fail. According to Kramer, “Some see that it is essential to push the world powers towards military confrontation to neutralize the Iranian enemy, whatever the cost, and before a nuclear bomb makes it too late (to accomplish this).”
Kramer cautions that if Iran is attacked, the Iranian regime will feel unrestrained in resorting to terrorism. This could be in the form of a much stronger Sunni-Shiite alliance; the unleashing of terrorist reprisals throughout Europe; and a radicalization of America’s Moslem population. Still, Kramer thinks it is critical for Obama to win European and Arab endorsement, especially that all options are on the table, including the military one.
As far as Iran, it continues to play the nuclear game. “The Iranians will, at some point, have to make a decision about what is a safe period of time to make the move, where they can be confident they can be successful before action can be taken against them,” says Kramer.
What Could Cause a Change in the Status Quo?
The world is awaiting the foreign policies of the newly elected president of the United States. Obama will have an opportunity to bring something different to the diplomatic table than his predecessor, George W. Bush. Because of economic hardship, especially the collapse in world oil prices, the Iranians might be more inclined to seek a diplomatic solution, especially if they think there will be greater public resistance to the Iranian regime if stiffer UN sanctions are applied.
Diplomacy or Force?
There will be some temptation in the U.S. to seek a technical solution that would restrain Iran’s nuclear ability but not stop it completely. For example this might include the U.S. limiting centrifuge machines from operating in Iran; or, limiting the stockpile of uranium on hand. This provides no evidence, however, that Iran would accept meaningful constraints on its enrichment program. Kramer believes that any agreement along these lines runs the risk of legitimizing Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
If diplomacy fails, using military force against Iran will be a challenge for the Obama administration, especially within the framework of the Democratic majority in Congress that is not currently supportive of a war with Iran. In addition, a majority of Americans are battle weary of fighting another war overseas, especially with enemies they perceive are not a direct threat to U.S. soil.
However, Obama may be in a stronger position to make a credible argument for using military force if attempts at diplomatic negotiations with Iran end with no strategic results; and, if Obama can build a strong coalition backed by European and moderate Arab states. The threat of using force against Iran actually increases if the U.S. is able to withdraw its troops from Iraq earlier than expected, and if it limits its troop re-deployment in Afghanistan. These actions would free up the American military to re-group and re-focus time, energy, finances and resources on Iran.
Currently, Iran’s regime appears to be pursuing its nuclear ambitions unabated, preferring a hostile relationship with the U.S. rather than a peaceful one. It gives the regime an opportunity to mobilize national and regional opposition to America and Israel, while advancing its popularity at home.
In the future, it will become clearer whether Israel, along with the U.S. and other nations, will be confronting Iran with military force or managing the fallout of an extremist Islamic state that already has the bomb.
“Do not be afraid of sudden terror, nor of trouble from the wicked when it comes; for the Lord will be your confidence and will keep your foot from being caught.” Proverbs 3:25-26
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.
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