The deadly consequences and risks of American inaction.
Iran announced Sunday that it was cutting off crude oil sales to France and England, a mostly symbolic act given that Iran provides England less than 1% of its crude, and France claims that it “practically stopped importing Iranian oil,” according to the head of the Union of Petroleum Industries. A few days later, the head of Iran’s armed forces threatened to attack Israel preemptively through its terrorist proxies in Lebanon and Gaza. The Iranians are once again using bluster to counter the E.U. ban on Iranian oil slated to begin on July 1, and the threat of Belgium-based SWIFT to ban Iran from its system for facilitating transfers of payments among nations through its international network of banks. As a further provocation, the Iranians sent two warships through the Suez Canal in a show of support for global pariah Syria. This follows the Iranian-engineered terrorist attacks on Israeli targets in India, Georgia, and Thailand.
At the same time they threaten and foment terrorist attacks, the Iranians have told the “P5+1” nations (Permanent U.N. Security Council members and Germany) of its “readiness for dialogue” and its “new initiatives” concerning its nuclear program, and has allowed U.N. inspectors back in the country, even though President Ahmadinejad said last week that “Our nuclear program is not a subject for negotiations.” Consistent with this position, inspectors were denied access to military installations believed to house nuclear testing equipment. Validating Iran’s lie that its nuclear program is for domestic energy, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that “we believe we know that the Iranian regime has not decided” to make a nuclear weapon, and that “it would be premature to exclusively decide that the time for a military option is upon us.” The ominous background to all this diplomatic chatter is the continuing speculation about when or if Israel will take military action, or whether Israel has the capacity to degrade Iran’s nuclear facilities enough to make an attack worth the risk and blowback.
It’s not hard to figure out what’s going on in this diplomatic two-step we’ve been dancing with Iran for years. We know that Iran is dead set on acquiring nuclear weapons, or at least “nuclear latency,” the ability quickly to create a weapon. Since its creation in 1979, the Iranian regime has been about more than Iran. As one ayatollah said at the time, the revolution was just “the start of the story. An Islamic and divine government, much like Iran and better, will be created” in other Muslim nations. And more recently, an editorial in the newspaper Kayhan, published by “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, proclaimed Iran’s “fixed strategic goal”: “Our late Imam [Khomeini] openly spoke of raising the flag of Islam on top of the palaces of arrogant power, notably the White House . . . as the goal and purpose of the Islamic Revolution.” Seeing itself as a world-transformative power, Iran has been the foremost inspiration and supporter of jihadist violence, its prestige enhanced by its serial humiliations of the U.S., and by its genocidal aggression against Israel, the “little Satan” to America’s “great Satan.” Given its massive oil reserves, which mean it will always have a source of revenue, an Iran with nuclear arms will be virtually untouchable, and thus able to dominate the Middle East and damage our interests, whether by holding oil exports hostage, sparking a larger arms race in the region, attacking our ally Israel, or handing off nukes to one of its numerous terrorist proxies.
Equally obvious is the feckless response of the West to this threat, which seems to have followed a Micawberesque policy of hoping “something will turn up.” Unwilling to act, for years now we have substituted inspections, “talks,” and sanctions as toothless substitutes for action. At least we are consistent, for this is precisely how the West handled the embassy hostage crisis in 1979. Then too we tried sanctions, secret offers to negotiate, and trade embargoes in order to change Iranian behavior. But political, national, and economic self-interest rendered them all ineffectual. For example, the NATO countries were begged to impose a trade embargo, but threats by President Bani-Sadr to cut off oil to Europe––sound familiar?–– led to a weakened and hence ineffectual policy. As the Economist pointed out at the time, “The denial of material things is unlikely to have much effect on minds suffused with immaterial things.” The Iranians never have acted by the materialist calculus we have used in our dealings with them.
Moreover, today’s Iran has North Korea as the model for dealing with the West by using diplomatic and inspections processes to create time for achieving nuclear capability. And North Korea is an economic basket case that can’t even feed its own people, unlike Iran, whose oil somebody will figure out a way to buy no matter how many allegedly “crippling” sanctions the West imposes. Yet despite this history, Western leaders continue to assert that “sanctions are working” and that a bit more time will bring Iran to its knees, as Dennis Ross, who was Obama’s Middle East advisor, recently asserted. Meanwhile, Iran’s thousands of recently announced new-generation centrifuges will soon start spinning out even more enriched fuel necessary for weapons.
We all know that military action is the only way to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of a state led by religious fanatics with a world-historical mission to wave the banner of Islam over the whole world. Yet the only credible threat of force resides with Israel, and we have been doing everything we can to undercut our ally, for whom a nuclear Iran represents an existential threat. In various ways, the administration has put pressure on Israel not to attack but rather to endorse the magical thinking that Iran will suddenly change its decades-long pursuit of nuclear weapons because of economic pressure. Thus General Dempsey, at the same time he stated Iran was not pursuing such a weapon, also said of the Israelis, “A strike at this time would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve their long-term objectives. I wouldn’t suggest, sitting here today, that we’ve persuaded them that our view is the correct view and that they are acting in an ill-advised fashion.” Of course, however “destabilizing” such an attack might be, it wouldn’t be as much so as a nuclear-armed Iran. And Israel’s first priority is not the price of oil, or the political comfort of other nations, but the continued existence of her own people.
The other tack is to highlight the prohibitive difficulty of such an attack, as the New York Times did Monday in a cover story headlined, “Iran Raid Seen As a Huge Task For Israeli Jets.” Yet as David Goldman reports, an analysis by Hans Rühl in Die Welt “is highly confident that Israel could knock out Iran’s nuclear program for a decade or more with about 25 of its 87 F-15 fighter-bombers and a smaller number of its F-16s.” Over at the Wall Street Journal, Edward Luttwak argues that the difficulty of a U.S. attack on Iran results from exaggerated estimates of target numbers made by the Pentagon during the Bush administration: “The overall bill for this assault was thus hugely inflated into a veritable air armada that would last weeks rather than hours, require more than 20,000 sorties, and inevitably kill thousands of civilians on the ground.” Ruled out by such inflation was “the option of interrupting Iran's nuclear efforts by a stealthy overnight attack against the handful of buildings that contain the least replaceable components of Iran's uranium hexafluoride and centrifuge enrichment cycle—and which would rely on electronic countermeasures to protect aircraft instead of the massive bombardment of Iran's air defenses.” In other words, a decision not to act resulting from political self-interest and a geopolitical failure of nerve is rationalized as based on military concerns.
The Obama administration’s pressure on Israel is baffling. It must know that no matter what, Iran will not give up its facilities or conveniently forget the expertise they have acquired over the last few decades. This means that any solution––cooperating with U.N. inspectors, for example, or agreeing to a “freeze” on enrichment––that leaves this equipment and knowledge in the hands of the current Iranian regime will not prevent the mullahs from eventually acquiring the bomb. Like North Korea, Iran will cheat, lie, delay, and otherwise game the process to buy time to complete developing the weapons. Thus for Obama to browbeat Israel as he has been doing is inexplicable. As Mario Loyola writes at NRO:
“The U.S. should be helping the Israelis deter Iran’s further nuclear advance by helping them to scare the Iranians into thinking that an attack is coming. Instead, the Obama administration is doing everything possible to telegraph to Iran that we’re terrified of a conflict and are doing everything to prevent it. That’s exactly the same as inviting the Iranians to continue their pursuit of nuclear weapons. If there is an explanation for this, other than incompetence, I would love to know it.”
One should never rule out incompetence when explaining anything the Obama administration does. But history shows that people are usually more influenced by the unforeseen consequences and risks of action than they are by the consequences and risks of inaction. That’s where leadership comes in: good leaders show their people that the dangers of not acting are usually greater than those of acting, that there are always risks and costs to defending a nation’s interests and security, and that there is no cost-free, risk-free way to stop a determined fanatical aggressor. That’s what Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan did in their times. And that’s what Barack Obama has proven he is incapable of doing in ours.
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