Iran, Uranium Hexafluoride and the Sequel to the Cold War

It’s the sequel the geriatric cold warriors have been wet dreaming about.  In early 2007, the Bush administration wrestled internally with the prospect of a nuclear Iran.  War drums beat then as they do now, but the facts seem less clear now than they did during the brief economic peak of the Bush years.  The twilight of the overheated consumer credit economy.  The boom years of CDS’s and other “derivative” financial products.  The February 10-16 2007 edition of The Economist featured a picture of America’s stealth bomber, the B-2 Spirit, (presumably named for what it turns people into), with the caption “Next Stop Iran?”  As the article detailed, the question mark was only about 70% rhetorical.  Strangely, it ends with the question with which it should have begun:

“But America is still uncertain which is worse: to let Iran go nuclear, or to try to stop it by force.”

This question frames the current debate as well.  What looms is the threat of an overnight 20% decrease in world oil supplies, a protracted war, a commitment of troops, money, weapons, uneasy alliances (with the option for blowback, cf: mujahudeen in Afghanistan) and a guarantee of an entrenched recession.  None of which we can afford at this time.  Not to mention, there appears to be no good reason to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranian civilians who would rather be engaged in solving their own government’s problems than leave that role to “the Great Satan.”  And that is their right: to be a self-determining nation.  But what is the reality of a nuclear Iran, and more pointedly, what does a nuclear Iran actually entail?  Is any threat acceptable?

The author of The Economist article sympathizes with John Negroponte, the outgoing National Intelligence Director, a Jewish-American of Greek descent, former ambassador to Iraq and Honduras, for his skeptical position regarding Iran’s declared aims of their nuclear ambitions.  Laying aside the questionable wisdom of making Mr. Negroponte America’s ambassador to Iraq prior to his appointment as NID, he has acted as nothing short of an agent provocateur regarding Iran.  A month before the Economist article went to print, he claimed that:

“We assess that Iran regards its ability to conduct terrorist operations abroad as a key element of its national security strategy….  It considers this capability as helping to safeguard the regime by deterring US or Israeli attacks, distracting and weakening Israel, enhancing Iran’s regional influence through intimidation, and helping to drive the US from the region….”

As if the intelligence community could increase its credibility gap, Mr. Negroponte’s “intelligence assessments” could well have been handed down directly from Tel Aviv.  Now, let me be clear about what Mr. Negroponte is correct about: that Iran runs proxy militias in Lebanon (Hezbollah) and in Gaza (Hamas).  Iran has been essential in harnessing the energy from these groups to be a counterforce to the IDF–as Hezbollah demonstrated most recently in forcing the IDF to retreat from their second invasion of Lebanon in (2006?).  He is also correct that Iran would use a nuclear device to strengthen its grip in the region.  However, Mr. Negroponte is being disingenuous in his usage of the phrase “terrorist operations” to refer to Iran’s proxy militias.  His crystal clear implication is that these groups represent a viable threat to the security of the U.S.– a statement which is difficult to back up with real data.  However, it is the kind of statement designed to sound ominous, designed to be followed by “I told you so.”

Mr. Negroponte’s use of the word “abroad” solidifies in the reader the impression that these groups have the destruction of the U.S. as a mission statement.  Again, this is a sales pitch based on fear more than an honest assessment of the threats facing Americans.  Four years hindsight is not necessary to extract Mr. Negroponte’s dissembling, however, it makes our current war-hungry bureaucrats appear all the more transparent.

So what then are the real consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran?  Do they immediately arm Al Qiada with the hopes of a nuclear strike on the U.S. or Israel?  Do they launch against these targets directly?  Although there remains a possibility that the owner of a weapon will use it unwisely, it defies all reason to assume Iran’s leaders would be so foolish as to unleash their newly-acquired weapons on targets that would guarantee massive retaliation on their own soil.  These are the well-known consequences of an Iranian nuclear strike, yet we are to believe Mr. Negroponte (or the cacophony of hawks and their surrogates today) who decries the possibility of a nuclear Iran for fear of a nuclear strike?  Are we to believe the Persians are lead by suicidal maniacs who would guarantee their own death and misery for the sole purpose of inflicting it on their declared enemies?  Again, not likely.  If this were true, why haven’t we seen a proxy attack in the U.S. by Hezbollah or Hamas or some other phalangist or splinter faction that Iran surely has in its pocket?  Because that would be counter-productive to the aims of the Iranian regime.  Their aim is to control as much of the Persian Gulf traffic as possible, not to fight unwinable wars against vastly more wealthy and powerful countries who already wield a global nuclear strike capability.

What then is the motivation of the hawks?  Or, what does a nuclear Iran REALLY portend?  What it means is, in part, a new cold war between Russian and Chinese interests backing the Persians and U.S. interests behind Israel, but with both these countries having nuclear capabilities.  It means Iran will have a much more powerful place at the bargaining table–a fear which Tel Aviv holds close.  It means ultimately, a leveling of the playing field.

The significance of a level playing field in the Middle East cannot be overstated, because since the end of WWII, the geopolitics of that region has been artificially manipulated by Western powers.  If not for the U.S., neither Saudi Arabia nor Israel would be militarily and politically dominant.  They are buoyed by U.S. support.  Iran, however, is one of the few countries in the region whose borders have not been drawn by Western powers.  It is also one of the most populated countries in the region and consequently has the largest standing military in the Gulf.  They are the natural hegemon of the region.  With the advent of nuclear arms, there would be little recourse to a Persian Gulf controlled by the Persians outside of an expensive war (both in money and blood).  Leaving out the possibility of a false-flag nuclear operation by Western powers, a nuclear Iran would reshape the politics of the ME.

The most likely consequences of a nuclear Iran would be an end to Israeli settlements on disputed territory, America would gain a trading partner, and Iran would take its place as a shot-caller in the global oil markets.  As the Economist article concluded, there is little that could be done to actually stop Iran from (eventually) developing a deployable nuclear device.  Even with state-of-the-art bunker busters, ground forces and air superiority, the sheer number of underground facilities would make cessation of enrichment nearly impossible.

“Another choke point is the Natanz enrichment facility; but this is buried some 15-18 metres under soil and concrete, and modern bunker-busting bombs might not be able to destroy it.  The use of ground forces to secure the area long enough to do the job would be highly risky; the use of a low-yield nuclear weapon, as some suggest, might work physically but is hardly conscionable politically–or morally.

“In any case, centrifuges can be rebuilt and hidden elsewhere in a large, mountainous country like Iran.  A study last August by the Centre for Strategic and international Studies (CSIS), a think-tank in Washington, DC, said there were 18 known nuclear sites, many of them underground or close to populated areas, and perhaps as many as 70 unknown ones…

“Many of the sites are protected , and any operation would have to suppress at least part of Iran”s air defences, and all its missiles and naval power, to limit any retaliation.  The CSIS study concluded that even a large-scale attack, taking several weeks to complete, could leave much of Iran’s technological base intact, and allow the country eventually to reconstitute an underground nuclear programme.  In short, it would be very difficult to stop a determined Iranian regime from going nuclear, either by military action or by sanctions, if it were williing to pay the cost.”

It’s not a stretch of the imagination that an American or Israeli strike would galvanize the Iranian people and likely speed up the process of weaponization of fissionable material, not delay it.  We are dealing with an inevitability, not just a possibility.  We must come to terms with this inevitability as we have learned to do with Pakistan, India, and all the other countries that have come into the nuclear club since the advent of “the bomb.”

We must realize that Iran’s leadership wants essentially what the leadership of any country wants: to prosper and to determine its own fate.  If we continue to treat them like dumb savages or suicidal ideologues, we guarantee our own shock upon their acquisition of the inevitable.  We set ourselves up for overreaction to what we can safely predict.  We imperil ourselves by giving into the fears of those leaders in a position to manipulate our perceptions.

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