Iran: Ready to Defy

Munich, Germany. This week the West will again confront Iran — confrontation defined diplomatically — to persuade the rogue nation to abandon its atomic program or face tougher sanctions.  But Iran knows that the threat of sanctions is an empty one. There is nothing the West can do — or will  be permitted to do in the U.N. thanks to Russia and China — that will thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions.

It’s time for action — otherwise this crisis will spin completely out of control.
On Oct. 1, an Iranian diplomat will meet his counterparts from the P-5+1 (the permanent members of the United Nations security council the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France plus Germany), in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss Tehran’s nuclear program. Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promises a new proposal for the six nations to consider and then the P-5+1 will decide on their next steps if Iran is not forthcoming about its atomic programs.  

Last week while both sides postured for the upcoming meeting the Israeli prime minister expressed frustration with the delay. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to say it is time to take action against Iran.  But President Obama is expected to give Iran yet another ultimatum at the talks — three months for Iran to allow free access to inspect possible nuclear facilities and turn over documents related to its nuclear program or face more sanctions.

Obama and his counterparts prepared for the talks by making statements and backroom deals. At the U.N. last week, Obama singled out Iran and North Korea as nuclear outliers, stating, “If they are oblivious to the dangers of escalating nuclear arms races … then they must be held accountable.”  

While at the U.N., Obama learned how his suspected quid pro quo deal with Russia to scrap our European-based anti-missile system for help with Iran paid off.  Russian president Dmitri Medvedev said “… sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable.” Moscow’s support is critical for sanctions to work but China, also a P-5+1 member, continues to oppose tougher penalties for Iran.  

But Medvedev’s statement is carefully crafted. Russian support for sanctions seems an impossibility: its arms industry is selling Iran perhaps the world’s best surface-to-air missile system with which to protect its nuclear sites, Russia’s technicians are building Iran’s nuclear plants, and it is exporting gasoline to Iran, mooting the possible ban on such exports to Iran, which is the only sanction likely to work.

The Iranians prepared for the talks by creating a flood of distractions designed to cripple the negotiations.  

Last week at a military parade, Ahmadinejad spewed familiar combative rhetoric directed at the U.S. and Israel such as the Holocaust was a lie. Ahmadinejad said, “No power and no country can dare even to think of attacking the Iranian nation … Our armed forces will cut the hand off of anyone in the world before it pulls the trigger against the Iranian nation.”

That parade, which marked the anniversary of the beginning of the 1980-89 Iran-Iraq war, showed off sophisticated Russian-made TOR-M1 air defense systems and the Shahab-3 and Sejil ballistic missiles, which are thought to be nuclear capable and can range Israel and southern Europe.  Then on Sunday, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) successfully test fired short-range missiles to punctuate their readiness for the showdown talks.

Tehran also created a clever deception.  Last week, Ahmadinejad announced his intention to seek to buy from the U.S. enriched uranium needed for medical purposes.  He suggested this sale would demonstrate that the Obama administration is serious about engagement but it’s really “implied blackmail,” said David Albright of the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington.  If the material is not supplied, Iran could announce that it has no choice but to make the material, which is nearly 20 percent enriched a step toward the 90 percent level needed for atomic weapons.  

Next Iran startled the West by admitting to the existence of a formerly secret military uranium enrichment facility deep inside a mountain outside of Iran’s holy city of Qom.  The facility which is run by the IRGC could house 3,000 centrifuges, enough machines to annually produce fissile material for two bombs a year.  On Saturday, Iran’s spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the IRGC enrichment facility will begin to operate shortly.

The exposure of the military enrichment site feeds fears that the most sensitive parts of Iran’s program, weaponization, remain hidden from view.  The U.S. intelligence community claims Iran stopped weaponizing in 2003 but just released evidence indicates otherwise.

The opposition group that exposed the Nantez enrichment facility in 2002 last week identified two previously unknown sites where Iranian scientists are allegedly trying to manufacture detonators for nuclear weapons.  

This flood of atomic-related news creates pessimism about the upcoming talks and forces Obama to prepare to impose so-called “crippling sanctions” against Iran.  It’s widely expected curtailing gasoline trade with Iran is his “crippling” sanction.  

Tehran imports through the Persian Gulf at least one-third of its gasoline, and it’s hoped sanctions will devastate that government and compel it to make real nuclear concessions.  But past sanctions haven’t worked and, this time, Iran may be prepared to escape the intended consequences.

Iran is importing more than double its average gasoline consumption (176,000 barrels per day) to stockpile in preparation for sanctions. It has imposed strict gasoline rationing, and Venezuela recently struck a deal with Iran to ship 20,000 barrels of gasoline each day to help Tehran circumvent sanctions.  And last week China increased its gasoline exports to Iran by one third.  Russia is the anti-sanctions lynchpin because it could easily supply all Iran’s gasoline needs should the West successfully cut off supplies.

Stratfor, an American intelligence think tank, argues Russia’s refining sector could easily increase its output to cover Iran’s basic import needs.  It also points out that Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan which are close to Iran are net gasoline exporters with space capacity to assist Iran.

There are a number of shipping options available to these states. Current gasoline shipping across the Caspian Sea could be increased and rail shipments are possible. The former Soviet states have a vast series of rail interconnections that could transport gasoline to Iran in a matter of days.  The Russians have overcome the problem of different rail gauge with Iran and since 2003 have mass-produced liquid tank cars that, according to Stratfor, are “sitting idly in Russia.”

That’s why Russia holds the keys to the success of any gasoline sanctions.  Expect Moscow to carefully weigh its options and price for support.  Likely, Obama’s decision to scrap European anti-missiles may only be a down payment for Moscow’s sanctions support.  Russia could insist America stop engaging former Soviet states like Georgia and Ukraine, for example.

Now watch Israel as the P-5+1 keep talking.  Israeli officials told The Jerusalem Post the revelation of the secret uranium enrichment facility means the Oct. 1 talks must be the “… last opportunity for engagement with Iran.”  But those same officials said they doubt “Russia and China understand this.”

Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman was blunt.  “This ends the dispute over whether Iran is developing military nuclear power or not, and therefore world powers need to draw conclusions,” Lieberman said.  He urged immediate action to “… overthrow the mad regime of Tehran.”

Obama’s diplomatic and sanction approach with Iran is proving to be a total failure that ratchets up the crisis and could literally explode at any time into a major war with global economic and security implications.