What’s happening in and around Iran sometimes sounds like something out of a Tom Clancy novel—and sometimes like a joke.
First, the joke side of the equation: Consider the strange spectacle of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton literally chasing the Iranian foreign minister around Manama, Bahrain, only to be rebuffed, ignored and dismissed. This would be laughable if it didn’t reflect so poorly on American prestige. The U.S. secretary of state should never reduce herself or her office to chasing after the diplomats of any country—especially those who represent the thugs running Iran.
Or consider the international community’s most recent round of we-mean-business-this-time talks with Iran. According to The New York Times, the talks were aimed at forcing Iran to “assuage international fears that it intended to build a nuclear bomb.” That’s akin to a pair of clueless parents demanding that their 16-year-old explain why he has a case of beer hidden in his bedroom. In other words, there is no good explanation for a teenager to have alcohol—or for the mullahs to have nukes. In both instances, it is illegal, wrong and dangerous. And nothing can justify it or “assuage” the fears triggered by it.
In this regard, recall that Iran produces 79 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year, with proven reserves of 26.7 trillion cubic meters. Iran has proven oil reserves of 130.8 billion barrels—enough to meet its current energy demands for 256 years. In short, the mullahs don’t need nuclear power. It’s a joke to pretend that they do, let alone to pretend that they will handle the atom the way responsible governments do.
As to the Tom Clancy-type stuff, the past several weeks have been filled with news of targeted assassinations of high-level Iranian nuclear scientists and defense officials. These follow the killing of a prominent Iranian scientist in January. Although the assassinations may have been carried out by internal enemies of the regime, Tehran blames Israel and the United States. If Tehran’s suspicions are correct, that’s not all bad. That may sound cold, but the men building Iran’s nukes are no friends of civilization. And if Tehran is wrong in accusing Western hit squads, it’s not all bad to have Mahmoud Ahmadinejad thinking this way. Fear can be a potent and helpful ally in the struggle with this regime.
Then there are the cyber-attacks—the Stuxnet virus—that sabotaged the computers that run Iran’s uranium-enrichment program and centrifuges in Natanz. The attacks were effective enough to force Ahmadinejad to concede, “They had been successful in making problems.”
Then there was the recent saber-rattling by Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who last month raised eyebrows by declaring, “We’ve actually been thinking about military options for a significant period of time.” That came as a surprise to many observers, given that Defense Secretary Robert Gates for years has contended the Pentagon was “not planning for a war with Iran” and has dismissed a military solution because it would, in his estimation, “only delay Iranian plans by one to three years.”
Then there are the revelations of the WikiLeaks mess, which, at least vis-à-vis Iran, could have a salutary effect. Among other things, the leaked cables reveal that Europe is getting serious about Iran because U.S. intelligence has tracked the delivery of advanced North Korean missilery into Iran, and that Iran’s Arab neighbors are imploring Washington to strike Iran preemptively. This has the feel—and could have the effect—of a psychological operation against the Islamic Republic.
Finally, there are a number of military moves around Iran:
• The UAE has opened a new naval base intentionally east of the Strait of Hormuz, which Iran has promised to close in the event of war. The UAE says the base “will provide a quick response to natural and man-made disasters.”
• For the first time ever, pilots from the UAE’s air force joined the U.S. Air Force at the Red Flag exercises in Nevada in 2009. The UAE has purchased $17 billion in F-16s, Patriot missile batteries and area-wide missile defenses.
• Likewise, the Saudis are beefing up their fleet of F-15 bombers.
• In May 2009, France opened a naval base in Abu Dhabi, directly across from Iran. It’s France’s first permanent naval base in the Persian Gulf.
• The U.S. let it be known that it has added a new bomb to its arsenal, the “massive ordnance penetrator,” or MOP, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. inventory. When asked if the bomb is needed for possible operations against Iranian or North Korean targets, a Pentagon official coyly called the MOP “a capability we think is necessary given the world we live in.”
• The U.S. and Israel have conducted joint war games focused on combating Iranian missile attacks. And we now know that Israel “secretly asked the Bush administration for the equipment and over-flight rights” to strike Iran in 2008, as The New York Times has reported.
The scary reality is that what’s happening in and around Iran is neither farce nor fiction.
If the stakes weren’t so high, some of us would find a measure of schadenfreude in the Iran mess. After all, President Barack Obama’s campaign speeches and early-presidential speeches were laced with verbal backhands against the “failed foreign policy” of his predecessor.
Obama vowed in 2008 to carry out “direct diplomacy that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons,” confident that he could “work more effectively with other countries diplomatically to tighten sanctions on Iran.” He believed international cooperation and sanctions would change Iran’s behavior. Indeed, he predicted that “When we take that approach, whether it’s in North Korea or in Iran, then we have a better chance at better outcomes.”
The sanctions may be tighter. The Europeans may be on the same page as Washington. But those aren’t the Obama administration’s goals—and they certainly weren’t the Bush administration’s goals. Sanctions and closer international cooperation are supposed to be means to a greater end, namely, preventing Iran from going nuclear.
In fact, Iran is far closer to its goal of deploying nuclear weapons than the West is to its goal of preventing that outcome. As CIA director Leon Panetta observed this summer, Iran has “enough low-enriched uranium right now for two weapons.”
In short, the past two years have proven that neither Obama’s approach nor that of President George W. Bush worked at forcing Iran to change course. That’s arguably not a failure of U.S. policy. The fact that neither approach worked actually underscores that the problem is in Tehran—not in how Washington tries to interact with Tehran. We’re dealing here with a revolutionary regime determined to upset the international system, a regime publicly committed to erasing a member of the United Nations. With such a regime, neither engagement (i.e. Obama’s policy of choice) nor isolation (Bush’s policy of choice) is effective.
With such a regime, there are no good options.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security.