Obama's New Iran Strategy

The deadline for Iran to freeze its nuclear program is here and predictably the rogue stiff-armed the West.  What will President Obama do now?

Iran is the center of Islamic terrorism: its theocratic regime sponsors terrorist groups around the world, and probably poses a greater and more immediate threat to  Western security than any other nation.

American presidents have, for more than two decades, insisted that Iran cannot be allowed to have nuclear weapons, but the mullahs are clearly on the brink of achieving that goal.  

Obama should use the upcoming United Nations session on nuclear disarmament (Sept. 24) and the G-20 global economic summit (Sept. 24-25) to launch a new strategy that attacks the festering crisis with Iran.  But time is short and if the West doesn’t act soon to stop the atomic mullahs from acquiring nuclear weapons, Israel will attack in self defense.  The consequences of either outcome could be devastating.

President Obama and other world leaders agreed in June to give Iran until the end of September to take up an offer of nuclear talks and suspend uranium enrichment.  But just this month, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said his country will neither halt uranium enrichment nor negotiate over its nuclear rights.  But he is ready to talk with world powers about “global challenges.”

Last week, Ahmadinejad issued a five-page proposal announcing his readiness in principle to conduct negotiations on disarmament, trade, fighting terrorism and protecting human dignity.  But because the proposal sidesteps the request for a nuclear enrichment freeze, the document might not be accepted as the basis for starting talks.

Geoffrey Kemp, director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center, warns that Iran’s proposal “… is so huge that the talks will go on forever and meanwhile the clock is ticking on their nuclear program.”  Understandably Israel, which faces what it characterizes as an “existential threat” from an atomic Iran, is running out of patience with international efforts to stop Tehran.  

Experts monitoring Iran share the belief that Tehran is on a track to develop an atomic weapon perhaps within a year.  In February, Dennis Blair, U.S. director of National Intelligence, told Congress “Iran is clearly developing all the components of a deliverable nuclear weapons program — fissionable material, nuclear weaponizing capability and the means to deliver it.”  He believes Iran “… could have a weapon as early as 2010.”

Glyn Davies, the U.S. ambassador to the UN’s nuclear watchdog group the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran already has enough material for one bomb, should it decide to further process its uranium.  Davies admits Washington is concerned that Tehran might already have a “dangerous and destabilizing possible breakout capacity” to quickly make a bomb.

A “breakout capacity” would be hard to detect because, according to Blair, “Iran probably would use military-run covert facilities … to produce HEU [highly enriched uranium]” for atomic weapons.  Iran could already have covert atomic facilities.  After all, it kept its atomic program secret from the West for 18 years until a dissident group revealed the existence of enrichment efforts.

Even the normally Iran-sympathetic Mohamed El-Baradei, the outgoing IAEA director, said “there is a high probability” that Iran has worked on nuclear weapons.  He claims Iranian documents reviewed by the IAEA outline a study on the modification of the model of a missile to carry a nuclear warhead.  IAEA inspectors also believe the same Iranian group that runs warhead-design programs, Project 110 and Project 111, may be working on nuclear triggers, trajectories for missiles and above ground — read atomic — warhead detonations.

Unfortunately, El-Baradei’s answer — as a September 14 Reuters story reports — is to give IAEA more power but not impose more sanctions on Iran.  To cede more power to the UN, and not expect it to do anything with it, is something Obama must avoid, but may well embrace.

Obama’s new Iran strategy must avoid past failures — talks for enticements and sanctions with lackluster enforcement — to persuade Tehran to take up nuclear talks and suspend uranium enrichment.  A comprehensive and binding international strategy with a robust enforcement mechanism might work but only if it has broad support. Consider some possible strategy components and their drawbacks.

Any new sanctions must threaten to cripple the Iranian economy such as a ban on gasoline imports.  Iran lacks the refinery capacity to meet its own demand and must buy vast quantities on the open market.  But to work tough sanctions must overcome two problems.  Permanent UN Security Council member Russia promises to block new sanctions and to be effective these sanctions must be enforced by a strict blockade such as stopping Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez promised delivery of 20,000 barrels per day of gasoline to Iran.  

Obama’s new strategy might include a compromise that lifts all sanctions if Iran permits international monitors into nuclear and weapons facilities.  This is a radical proposal that permits Tehran to enrich and use domestically produced nuclear fuel but under strict international control.  The problem with this approach is that Iran could kick-out the monitors at any time much as North Korea booted IAEA monitors in the past.  

This approach would require numerous safeguards to prevent diversion to a secret weapons program but might win broad support, including Russia and China.  Israel would hesitate to endorse the approach unless the U.S. guarantees to take military action should Tehran divert nuclear material to its weapons program.

The strategy should propose a regional security alliance focused on deterring Iran.  U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called for Mideast allies to “strengthen their cooperation” among themselves and with the U.S. and believes this would send the “signal to the Iranians that this [atomic] path they’re on is not going to advance Iranian security but in fact could weaken it.”   The problems with this approach are the lack of time to create a persuasive alliance and fractured Mideast relationships.

The threat of a military strike must be part of the strategy.  The U.S. could execute such an operation from bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the Persian Gulf.  But so could the Israeli air force from its home bases.  The objective would be to set Iran’s atomic program back at least several years and — at the same time — destabilize the regime.  Even a successful attack wouldn’t guarantee the regime would abandon its atomic program and in fact might cause it to accelerate its efforts.  The strategy must also address the possible consequences of an attack such as Iran’s threat to close the Strait of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborne oil passes.

Finally, the strategy must not assume we are dealing with rational actors. Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei are followers of a Shia sect of Islam which believes in the twelfth Imam.  Allegedly born in 868 AD, the Imam has been in hiding since the age of five, but will someday return as the Mahdi, the Guided One, to lead Islam to victory over the world.  Believers like Ahmadinejad think they have a divine mission to hasten the Mahdi’s return through a major war.  Western thought simply cannot fathom such thinking and beliefs that could influence leaders to bring about the apocalypse. 

Obama’s new strategy must include both carrots and sticks.  The sticks must be credible: threat of attack, rigorously enforced higher order sanctions and/or an opposing regional security alliance.  The carrots could include new enticements and/or a compromise that permits the regime to enrich uranium but under very tight controls and credible consequences for cheating.  And the strategy must have a short fuse: it will succeed, or fail, before the dawn of a new year.