September 25, 2009

Iran - the stakes go up

One day after one of the strangest United Nations General Assembly and Security Council sessions, Iran admitted to the International Atomic Energy Agency that it has been operating an undeclared nuclear facility. The revelation was prompted by the fact that the Iranians had discovered that their secret was a secret no more, that American and French intelligence services had been monitoring the site for over a year.

That begs the obvious question - why didn't President Obama reveal this little gem when either addressing the General Assembly or chairing the Security Council meeting on, of all things, nuclear proliferation? That would have been a perfect opportunity to put the Iranians on the spot, on the defensive. For whatever reason, the President opted to keep the information to himself.

Fearing that the information was about to be released, the Iranians decided to take control of the release and notify the IAEA. This prompted a three way announcement from President Obama, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, condemning Iran's failure to abide by international agreements and Security Council resolutions.

Iran is already under economic sanctions, ineffective though they may be. There are talks scheduled for October 1 between the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany on one side and Iran on the other. Iran had provided a rambling document on what it has agreed to discuss, insisting that the nuclear program was not up for negotiation. The revelation of the new, undeclared nuclear facility may change that.

France came to the United Nations meeting not in favor of tougher sanctions on Iran. After the Iranian acknowledgement of its failure to abide by the rules, the French may go along with an American and British call for the new sanctions. The most effective sanctions will be a cut off of Iran's imports of refined gasoline.

The key to effective sanctions will be Russia and China. Russia is now favorably disposed toward the United States after President Obama's surprise cancellation of the ballistic missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. There may have been a quid pro quo - we dismantle the missile defenses and Russia supports sanctions on Iran.

That leaves China. China has recently begun shipping gasoline to Iran. China has been against any increased sanctions on Iran. At best they will not support tougher sanctions, at worst they will veto the attempt. In any case, sanctions are not likely to be effective.

This is not happening in a vacuum. The Iranian oppossition group Mujahidin-e Khalq (MEK) claims that Iran is working on detonators for nuclear devices. Once regarded as alarmists with no credibility, the MEK was the first group to provide accurate information on the Iranian nuclear program. If this information is equally accurate, it shows that the Iranian program is nearing the weapons design stage. Once they have enriched enough uranium to the level required for weaponization, they will be able to construct a crude device.

The Israelis are of course aware of all this information. They have been uncharacteristically vocal about their intentions to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability. If there is no effective United Nations or other international action that prevents Iran from developing a weapon, the Israelis will attempt a difficult, complex military operation.

The consequences of military action against Iran will reverberate around the world. Iran is not only positioned between two deployed American forces - Iraq and Afghanistan - they are providing weaponry to both sets of enemies. Additionally, they are the world's premier supporters and practitioners of terrorism. Expect increased activity on all these fronts.

Sanctions are unlikely to deter Iran, so military action - most likely from Israel since the current American administration seems unwilling to really "engage" Iran - seems unavoidable.

The stakes have gone up. Now is the time to address the Iranian problem - it has been festering since 1979. I hope President Obama is up to the task. Given his track record thus far, I am unconvinced.