November 5, 2011

Iran, the IAEA and Israel - convergence coming?

There is a convergence of events looming in the Middle East over the next few weeks, events which could have a profound impact on the area for years to come. These events are the upcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on Iran's nuclear weapons program, the Iranian reaction to that report, the Israeli reaction to that report, and to a lesser extent the Obama Administration reaction to that report.

According to numerous sources who claim to have seen parts of the report, the IAEA is planning to "reveal" that Iran has been working clandestinely to develop a nuclear weapons capability, citing evidence that Iran has made models of a nuclear warhead. This comes to no surprise to anyone who has been following the progress of the Iranian "peaceful nuclear energy" program for the past decade or more.

The question on the minds of most Middle East analysts is, "What took so long?" The easy answers are that there was not concrete evidence, or that former IAEA chief Muhammad al-Barada'i did not want to find that Iran had an illicit weapons program. There is probably some truth to both, but given the size of Iran's program and its unwillingness to live up to agreements it had made was enough for me. The program is much too small to develop a nuclear power generation capability, but just the right size for nuclear weapons production.

IAEA documents reportedly show that Iran is working on a nuclear warhead that can be mounted on a ballistic missile. This makes sense - Iran has a large arsenal of ballistic missiles complemented by an aggressive missile development program which draws heavily on technology imported from North Korea. It is important to note that Islamic Republic is the only country to develop a 2,000-km (1,100 nautical miles or 1,250 statute miles) missile without first having a nuclear weapons capability. Absent a nuclear warhead, Iran's medium-range missiles remain militarily ineffective, although capable of creating terror and confusion.

The United States, United Kingdom and France are urging the IAEA to report all of its information, while Russia and China are calling for the report to be postponed or totally discarded. That comes as no surprise. There has always been this split between the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. It remains to be seen if the two apologists for Iran - sorry, that should read: It remains to be seen if Iran's technology and weapons suppliers will attempt to veto the report. The intransigence of these two major business partners of Iran is the reason that there is no crippling sanctions protocol in place against the Islamic Republic.

Anyone who believes that the Iranian nuclear research and development program is not aimed at the acquisition of a nuclear weapon is either in a state of denial or has misread the Iranian regime. Those in a state of denial - and that includes part of the U.S. intelligence community - would rather not address the uncomfortable truth that a nuclear-armed Iran is not the same as other nuclear states, be it Pakistan, India or Israel. These other states, for the most part, have rational governmental structures in place to oversee their nuclear arsenals.

I am not certain you can say the same for the theocracy in Iran. While most states have acquired nuclear weapons for deterrence, no one is certain that is the rationale for the Iranians. They may or may not have the intention of actually using a nuclear weapon, but are we willing to live with that uncertainty? I guess the real question is are the Israelis, who have much more at risk, willing to live with that uncertainty?

As you would expect, the Iranians claim the IAEA report is a fabrication resulting from pressure on the agency from the United States and its allies. While there might be some truth in that, it does not change the facts that point toward a clandestine weapons program. If the report clearly accuses Iran of having a nuclear weapons program, it should pave the way for real sanctions on the country. The Iranian president recently conceded that the sanctions protocols in place are having some effect, but for anything short of a military strike to end the Iranian program, much more stringent sanctions will be required, or as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once promised, "crippling" sanctions. We are not there by a long shot.

As long as there is the potential for Iran to develop a nuclear arms capability, Israel will remain the most concerned nation. I have spent quite a bit of time in Israel talking to a variety of Israelis, both government (military and intelligence) and civilians. They believe, and are not bashful to explain it, that a nuclear-armed Iran will constitute an "existential threat" to the Jewish state. They claim that three nuclear warheads could virtually annihilate the heart of Israel and kill a good portion of the world's Jews in one strike. There may not be enough of the country left to retaliate.

Israeli intelligence officials have told me that they assess that Israel has enough military power to deter any of its neighbors from attacking. They do not believe that Iran, on the other hand, despite Israel's "strategic capabilities" - that's diplo-intel-speak for nuclear weapons - Iran will not deterred. Many of them believe that if Iran develops nuclear weapons, there is a strong possibility that they will use them.

The Israelis are concerned that although most countries view Iran's quest for nuclear weapons as a world problem, many nations are hoping for an Israeli solution. Here again, an "Israeli solution" is diplo-intel-speak for an Israeli military strike, be it from the air, sea or a combination of both. While the United States and European countries declare that a nuclear-armed Iran is "unacceptable," Israel is the country that will bear the brunt of any misjudgment on the part of the mullahs in Tehran.

Is an Israeli military option on the table? Certainly, but this week's revelations that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lobbying the Knesset for support for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities has a strange feel to it. If the Israelis are talking about it, they probably aren't going to do it anytime soon. It's when they are not talking about it that we might expect them to act. Does Israel have the capability to attack the Iranian facilities? It is hard to say. On paper, yes, but there are so many things that would have to come off perfectly; there is almost no room for error.

A look at the map will tell you that Israeli aircraft will be in hostile airspace almost the entire way to and from the targets. I, and others, have written about how the Israelis might do this. Who knows, the Saudis - who have no wish to see arch-rival Iran with a nuclear weapon - might just green light Israeli aircraft through their airspace. Remember the well-known Middle East adage, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Even Israeli President Shimon Peres, not a hawk by any stretch of the imagination, declared, "What needs to be done must be done and there is a long list of options." For a man like Peres to utter those words is chilling to me.

On the American side, President Barack Obama says Iran’s nuclear program "continues to pose a threat...." Do you think? He further threatened that Iran would suffer the "toughest possible" sanctions. That's the same rhetoric we have heard for years. One of Obama's national security advisors (where do they find these people?) added that the United States is focused on is a diplomatic strategy which ... "increases the pressure on the Iranians, through financial pressure, through economic sanctions, through diplomatic isolation."

I would be crass and ask, "Great, so how is that working so far?" I think we all know the answer to that. The next few weeks may prove critical to the future of the Middle East, and whether we like it or not, our national interests are at stake. If the IAEA rises to the task and unambiguously states that Iran is developing nuclear weapons, we need to be ready to take effective actions to preclude that from happening. More "engagement" may not be the right answer...."