Monday, December 6, 2010

Are Iranian nukes a done deal?

President Ahmadinejad (
With a pair of announcements this week, it seems that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons may be all but certain.  First, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki dashed Obama Administration hopes for negotiating an end to Iran’s nuclear enrichment.  Mottaki affirmed that Iran would not stop enriching uranium within its borders and denied that international sanctions are having any effect.

The following day, Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s vice president and head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, announced that Iran had taken uranium from its own mines and processed it into yellowcake, an intermediate step in achieving highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.  This means that the entire process of enriching uranium, from mining to processing, can now take place within Iranian borders.  It also means that, as more Iranian uranium mines open, that sanctions may not be able to prevent Iran from gathering the material to make nuclear weapons.

This week’s announcements are the culmination of efforts that date back to the reign of the Shah in the 1970s.  After the Islamic Revolution, the nuclear program was placed under the control of the Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s elite military organization.  In the past ten years, western nations have engaged Iran in a series of on-again-off-again talks, which were exploited by Iran to gain time. 

If Iran gains nuclear weapons, it can probably be expected to follow the model of North Korea, which has had nuclear weapons since about 2004.  The North Koreans have become increasing belligerent, sinking a South Korean warship in March 2010 and, more recently, launching an artillery attack at a disputed South Korean island in November 2010.  This is bad enough in a remote corner of East Asia, but such provocations in the oil-rich Persian Gulf could wreak havoc on the world economy.  Gas prices in Atlanta could spike far higher than the $4.00 per gallon we experienced after Hurrican Katrina.

The North Koreans have also been involved in the spread of nuclear weapons technology.  North Korea was involved in helping Syria to build a nuclear plant.  The Syrian plant was destroyed by the Israelis in 2008.  The North Koreans have also been implicated in aiding the Iranian nuclear effort. 

Similarly, Iran would likely become more threatening to its neighbors, sparking a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf.  Iran has already been involved in border skirmishes with both Iraq and Afghanistan.  Oil-rich nations like Saudi Arabia would also be endangered from Iranian missiles, some of which can even reach Europe.

Likewise, Iran would likely arm other radical Islamist nations and groups with nuclear weapons.  Iran has a long history of fighting covert wars using proxy armies such as Hezbollah, the Taliban, and Iraqi insurgents.  Using nuclear-tipped missiles launched from cargo ships, operatives might launch attacks on US cities that could not be traced back to Iran.  A missile launched from a ship hundreds of miles outside of Savannah could easily strike Atlanta.

For years, observers have held out hope that internal strife would bring down the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei.  Now, however, it seems that the government has consolidated its control of the country.  Likewise, many believed that President Bush would not leave office without striking at the Iranian nuclear facilities or, failing that, that the Israelis would strike.

As noted earlier, the Israelis destroyed a Syrian reactor in 2008 and Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in 1981.  So far, there has been no overt Israeli action, but many believe that covert killings of Iranian nuclear scientists and a cyber attack using the Stuxnet computer virus can be traced to Israel. 

An airstrike against Iran would be much more difficult for Israel to pull off than the raids on Baghdad and Syria.  The distances involved are much greater and Iran has been purchasing upgraded air defense systems from Russia as well as developing its own surface-to-air missiles.  Further, Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed around the country rather than being concentrated in one place.  This means that far more attacking aircraft are needed to do the job and the chances of destroying all facilities are more remote.

There is an even greater likelihood that Iran would use its nuclear weapons than North Korea.  While North Korea is a family regime bent on perpetuating itself, Iran is an Islamic theocracy.  Iran’s leaders have two main goals.  The first is to eliminate Israel and the United States.  President Ahmadinejad has said that his goal is “to have a world without the United States and Zionism” and that Israel “must be wiped off the map.”  The poster for Iran’s 2005 World Without Zionism conference shows a shattered ball bearing the American flag on the ground as a ball bearing the Israeli flag drops.

Supreme Leader Khamenei (
The historical nuclear policy will not work with Iran because of the Iranian government’s second goal.  Ahmadinejad and Khamenei are devotees of the Mahdi, a Shia Muslim version of the Messiah.  They believe that they can trigger the Mahdi’s return by sowing fear, destruction and chaos in the world.

Further, Iranians believe that they would win a nuclear war with Israel.  As Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani put it, “… application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”  In other words, even if Iran were totally destroyed in a retaliatory strike, the Muslim world would live on.  The destruction of Iran would be considered an acceptable price for the destruction of Israel.

At this point, it is all but certain that Iran will never voluntarily give up its quest for nuclear weapons.  It is almost as likely that President Obama will never order a US strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  The only remaining possibility for deterring President Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader is an Israeli strike.  Whether the Israelis could succeed is an open question.  While military action could spark a regional war in reprisal, it is a certainty that doing nothing will mean that the Iranians will soon have the means as well as the motive to launch a nuclear attack.

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