Day: January 23, 2012

The diplomatic screw turns

While Americans are distracted today by Newt Gingrich’s South Carolina primary victory over Mitt Romney and the entry of the New York Giants and New England Patriots into football’s “Superbowl,” the big international news is the European Union agreement to halt imports of Iranian oil within six months.  Yawn.  No wonder it hardly gets a headline.

This may not be the final turn of the diplomatic screw, but it is an important one.  Iran’s economy and currency are in a tailspin.  The stage is now set for P5 (that’s U.S., UK, France, Russia and China) + 1 (Germany) talks with Iran on its nuclear program.  Turkey wants to host, but a date has not been announced.

If this next stage of the diplomatic efforts fails, as the effort a year ago did, the slide towards war will accelerate.  Iran is rattling its saber, which is long enough to try to close the strait of Hormuz to outward-flowing traffic, thus denying the world oil market about 20% of its supplies and causing a sharp price spike.  They will also make trouble for Americans in Iraq and possibly elsewhere.  The Americans and Europeans, whose warships traversed the strait today in a show of force, will then draw their oil stocks to dampen the price and use military force to keep the strait open, and possibly to deny its use to the Iranians (who need it to import oil products).

While talking about military action less than at times in the past, the Americans and Israelis are conducting a “stealth” war against the Iranian nuclear program, blocking supplies of vital materiel, infecting software with at least one computer worm and assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists.  None of this effort can stop the Iranians in their tracks if they are committed to nuclear weapons.  Even bombing of their nuclear facilities won’t do that–they will almost surely react by redoubling their efforts.  In the absence of an agreement, the best we can hope for is to slow Iran down.

Today’s turning of the diplomatic screw is intended promote a negotiated solution.  It is unrealistic to imagine that Iran will cease and desist from trying to obtain all the technology it needs to build nuclear weapons.  But it is still possible they will agree to abide by the terms of the Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) they have signed and ratified.  Many other countries have stopped on the threshold of nuclear weapons–the ones I know best are Brazil, which acquired the necessary technology but reached an agreement with Argentina for a mutual standdown, and Italy, which opted for a dual key arrangement for control of American weapons deployed on Italian territory.

Arrangements of these sorts are not possible with Iran.  No matter how much my idealist friends press the idea of a Middle East nuclear free zone, it is impossible to imagine the Israelis going for it, especially under the current Netanyahu government.  And if the Americans, who asked Israel decades ago not to build nuclear weapons in the first place, can’t even get the Israelis to stop building settlements, what are the odds of success in getting Israel to give up nuclear weapons?  “Never again” is not only a slogan–it is an objective that all Israeli governments will adhere to.  Nuclear weapons are an important means to that end.

So is there no hope?  On the contrary, I think there is.  Iran gains little and losses a lot if it actually deploys nuclear weapons:  it gets targeted by both Israel and the United States, with the former likely to launch on warning.  The United States is committed not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapons states.   Against nuclear weapons states, first use is not prohibited in American doctrine.

What does Iran hope to gain by developing nuclear weapons?  Prestige, to be sure, and a more secure and powerful role in the Middle East.  But most important is that the Iranians believe that nuclear weapons will guarantee no American invasion and thus survival of the theocratic regime.  This is a perception problem:  even if we resort to bombing, there isn’t going to be an American invasion of Iran, which is far too large and populous a country for the Americans to imagine that things would come out better than in Iraq and Afghanistan.  If the price of blocking Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a pledge that the United States will not invade, it is not too much to pay.

We need however to be cautious.  We should not sell out Iran’s Green Movement, or the rebellion against Bashar al Assad in Syria.  Nor should we do anything that will help Hamas and Hizbollah to continue their trouble-making.  We should not be guaranteeing regime survival in Tehran, only saying what we all know to be true:  America hasn’t got the resources or the desire to take on another major ground war in the Middle East.


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