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A US Volte-Face?

Written by Asculai, Ephraim - The Institute for National Security Studies

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For the sake of argument, let us assume that the US administration has already arrived at the tacit conclusion that Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons is inevitable, in spite of all US and international efforts to prevent this. What would the repercussions be if this conclusion became known? How would the administration behave if its conclusions became known to the public? How would it work to minimize the ensuing damages from this revelation, both internally and internationally?

If the conclusions are made public, the effects will not be far off from those that would follow a realization that Iran had achieved its aims. Without elaborating, the main damages would probably be in the following areas: increasing threats to US allies in the Middle East states in general and to the Gulf states in particular; threats and pressures on the oil market; serious damage to the prestige and standing of the US; increasing stature to both Russia and China in the international arena; increasing threat to Israel from both Syria and the Hizbollah; and possible increase in world terrorist activities. It is also possible that if not managed correctly, the acceptance of a nuclear Iran could cost President Obama his post and the Democrats the majority in Congress. Indeed, it is hard to see any long term benefits that the US would reap from such a situation. It is in the short term, however, that the US needs to make up its mind on how to act to calm the situation, since it could easily get out of hand.

For its part, if the US has come to see a nuclear Iran as inevitable, it would need to act prudently on several fronts to avoid any significant increase of tensions with Iran. It would need to present a facade that it has not come to terms with a nuclear Iran; thereafter, it would need to assure its allies both in the Gulf area and outside that it will not permit Iran to use its newly found power for furthering its ambitions. It would also need to deter Israel from military actions against Iran's nuclear installations, since this could open a hornet's nest. Overall, these can be condensed into one expression: playing for time. This, if the above hypothesis holds true, constitutes a meeting of interests of both the US and Iran. It still would not solve anything, but postpone the crisis of exposure - when the new stance of the US administration is publicly acknowledged, or even generally perceived as such - which is a sort of an achievement by itself.

Playing for time is not so simple in this case, since Iran is rushing full steam ahead in its enrichment program, in its development of the explosive mechanism (if it is not already completed), and in its development of the delivery systems - the surface to surface medium-range missiles. At the moment the rate of enrichment is not very high, but a breakthrough in the development of newer models of gas centrifuge machines could change that very rapidly. With the exception of some states (led by Russia and China) there is wide agreement today that the Iranian project is aimed at the development of a full capacity potential for the production of nuclear weapons. It is immaterial whether the actual decision to complete this development has been taken, since the time difference between the decision and the actual completion of the task is relatively short.

So if the US has indeed accepted an inevitable reality of a nuclear Iran, how would the administration behave? It would encourage delays, particularly in the adoption of sanctions resolutions at the UN Security Council. It would accept weakened sanctions resolutions, since these would not lead to crises, and at the same time it would not pursue strong actions on the part of "like-minded" allies. It would not come out with strong statements condemning Iran for developing nuclear weapons, and would take actions to assure allies in the Gulf states that they are protected from Iranian hostile actions. It would try to convince strong Iranian allies (like Syria) that they would be better off not strengthening alliances with Iran but allying themselves with the West. And it would take strong diplomatic efforts to assure that Israel would not attack Iran on its own.

Yet is this not exactly what is already happening? Any deadline or pseudo-deadline that has been set since Mr. Obama assumed the presidency has come and gone, without any excuse. First were the delays until after elections in Iran, and then the (fruitless) October talks, whereby even if the nuclear fuel deal had been accepted, it would have given the US an illusory breathing space of maximum up to a year. The close of 2009 saw the unfulfilled end of the year deadline for an agreement on the suspension of enrichment in Iran, and more recently Secretary Clinton said that the issue of sanctions might take many months to resolve.

Then came the news that the sanctions would not be as severe as previously thought, would not target the central bank of Iran, would target only the Revolutionary Guards, and would certainly not attempt to cause difficulties for the people of Iran, in spite of the fact that only these could bring about a change of regime. Indeed, the US did not actively support the budding uprising of the people following the rigged Iranian elections. In addition, Newsweek reported that the new edition of the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that was supposed to correct the mistakes of the 2007 NIE would not be presented in the near future because of interagency bickering and differences of opinions, and even if approved, it was not certain that an unclassified version would be published. In this, the administration avoids the immediate necessity of taking strong action.

The US is increasing air defense capabilities of some Gulf states, which is another impressive sign of US acceptance of the inevitable, and the remarkable air lift of administration notables to Israel to persuade it not to attack Iran is certainly part of the larger picture. Taking all the above into account, it would need a large effort on the part of the US to persuade others that the hypothesis that the US is ready to accept a nuclear Iran, even if not immediately, is wrong.

The US is today the only international power that could, if it wanted, prevent Iran from acquiring the potential to become a nuclear state. If, as suspected, it is not going to act in this way, the countries that could be affected will have to take a renewed look at the situation and assess their options for their future.

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The Institute for National Security Studies - INSS Insight No. 166, March 8, 2010

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