November 14, 2011

Iran - IAEA report forces candidates' hands

Now that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has released its long-awaited report on the Iranian nuclear program, there is an official document - other than Israeli and American intelligence assessments - that Iran is in fact developing a nuclear weapon. More alarmingly, according to the report, the Iranians are close to having the ability to field a nuclear weapon much sooner than thought. In contrast to the now widely discounted U.S. National Intelligence Estimate of 2007, the IAEA reports that the Iranians have been working on a nuclear weapons capability continuously since at least 2003.

This should come as no surprise to anyone, except maybe the few holdouts at State Department that cannot fathom that the Iranians are actually determined to build a nuclear weapon. Why is that? It's hard to quantify, but in my dealings with foreign service officers, and in a few instances, intelligence analysts in the department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research, there was a tendency to always give the Iranians the benefit of the doubt.

I attribute this to the fact that many of the officers had served in Iran prior to the fall of the Shah in 1979, and virtually all of them regarded their postings in Iran as a positive experience. Those good feelings about pre-revolutionary Iran have often clouded their judgments and assessments when it comes to the current Islamic Republic of Iran.

Hopefully the publication of a report that even the most dovish members of the Obama Administration will find hard to dispute - most of them are big supporters of the United Nations - we can get past the previous argument over whether or not the objective of the Iranian nuclear program was the development of nuclear weapons. It is. The Iranian regime's ludicrous claims that the purpose of the program is the development of an electrical generation capability has been refuted, not that many serious analysts ever bought such drivel.

Now that it would appear that everyone is now on the same page, we need to deal with it. Well, the current administration and any potential Republican nominee that will challenge Barack Obama for the Presidency in 2012 will have to deal with it. Unfortunately, I suspect that there will be stark contrasts between the incumbent president and the Republican challenger.

Let's take a quick look at President Obama and his plans to prevent the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In 2008, Presidential candidate Obama stated, "It is unacceptable for Iran to possess a nuclear weapon, it would be a game changer." He further said that diplomacy and sanctions were preferable to military action, as if we needed reminding of that. Of course, this is the same Barack Obama, then a Senator, that complained that earlier sanctions on Iraq were ineffective. Candidate Obama also said, “It’s sufficient to say I would not take military action off the table and that I will never hesitate to use our military force in order to protect the homeland and the United States’ interests.”

However, since Obama has been President, he has walked that back. One of Obama's chief supporters, Harvard University law professor and former Special Advisor for the United States Consumer Financial Protection Bureau Elizabeth Warren hailed the President’s “nuanced response” with “no chest-thumping...that could backfire.”

It appears that we have gone from "unacceptable" to "nuanced response." The President just last week cited the United Nations sanctions protocol as having had an "enormous bite." That claim flies in the face of the reports that Iran is within a year of developing a nuclear weapon.

The President also claimed that Russian and Chinese leaders are united with him to ensure Iran does not develop the weapons capability. Again, that claim flies in the face of reality - both the Russians and Chinese have been very vocal in their objections to any increased sanctions on Iran. In fact, both countries are suppliers of technology and weapons to the Islamic Republic.

Unfortunately, the Iranians have assessed that there is almost no possibility that President Obama would consider the military option and thus have no intention of halting or slowing their weapons development program. They also have assessed that their close relationships with China and Russia will impede the imposition of any increased sanctions in the United Nations.

On the Republican challengers, there is not unanimity of opinion of how to handle the Iranian nuclear weapons issue. For example, Ron Paul believes that the best course of action is to "offer friendship." I won't touch that one.

Most of the Republicans are more in line with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. His words: "If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon...if you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon."

Neither President Obama nor virtually any of the Republican candidates want the Iranians to acquire a nuclear weapons capability - that is not the point. The point is how that position is portrayed to the Iranians. A "nuanced response" with "no chest-thumping" probably isn't going to have much effect in Tehran. One need only look at how effective the Administration's engagement policy has worked for the past 35 months.

What we need is both of the final candidates for President - the incumbent Barack Obama on the Democratic side and whoever emerges as the Republican challenger to unequivocally state, "We will not permit the Islamic Republic of Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon." Too nuanced?