Friday, September 28, 2012

The Race for the Bomb

Iran wants a nuke. That seems to be the consensus of Western intelligent agencies. How close Iran is to actually getting their hands on one, though, is a matter of disagreement. Last week, Benjamin Netanyahu went on NBC’s Meet the Press and declared that “Iran is six months away from being about 90 percent of having the enriched uranium for an atom bomb.” That statement is both ambiguous and misleading. Americans nuclear experts agree that it won’t be before 2015 that Iran has the capability to build a crude atomic device. In recent days, however, Israel has begun voicing concerns that Iran is about to travel down a path of “no return.” It is easy to appreciate how Iran’s nuclear ambitions make Israel anxious: Iran has stated that it wants to wipe Israel off the map. But with a costly, decade-long war that was initiated through faulty intelligence just wrapping up in Iraq, it is understandable that Americans are leery about taking military action against another middle eastern country. The IAEA, the international nuclear watchdog agency, meanwhile, has openly expressed concerns that Iran is testing nuclear triggers and toying with warhead designs. In the city of Qum, Iranians have admitted that they are building a nuclear enrichment facility (for peaceful purposes only they say) deep underground, below 250 feet of granite. Even with the most advanced bunker-busting bombs, it might be a challenge for the U.S. military to penetrate that kind of compound. The West has said, though, that it is determined to stop Iran from developing a nuke, but what course of action can it take?

In office only a short while, Obama reached out to Iran and invited the leadership of the country to rejoin the “community of nations.” As part of his overture, Obama barely said a word about a brutal crackdown that occurred in the summer of 2009 when Iranian youth protested a rigged presidential election. But instead of taking Obama up on his offer of renewed diplomatic ties, the Iranian leadership has become even more confrontational in the international sphere. But just because soft diplomacy has failed doesn’t mean that war is the only other option. Iran’s economy has sagged over the last two years as sanctions have tightened their grip. The Arab Spring has shown that citizens unhappy with their governments do have the ability to overthrow them.

In 2006, President Bush, not liking the idea of going to war within Iran over its nuclear program, began a series of covert steps to thwart the country’s ability to enrich uranium, a basic building block needed for a nuclear weapon. Codenamed Olympic Games, the operation included sabotaging electrical supplies, altering Siemems control boards before they were shipped into the country, and, on occasion, colluding with Israel on the assassination of Iranian scientists. The highlight of the program, and the thing that gave the Iranians the most grief, was a computer worm that ended up damaging hundreds of centrifuges over many years. Later nicknamed Stuxnet, the computer worm damaged enrichment facilities by rapidly increasing or decreasing the rate at which centrifuges spun. The best part of Stuxnet was the fact the Iranians didn’t know that their computer network had been infected until the worm found its way onto the World Wide Web, where it was quickly detected by computer security firms. 

If Israel or the United States did attempt a precision strike against Iranian facilities, what would be the consequences? In order to keep its pride intact, Iran would probably launch a barrage of missiles at Israel in response. And regardless of whether it was Israel or the United States that carried out the attack, Iran would most likely close the Strait of Hormuz by mining it. The strike could also lead to a regional war if the Iranians decided to attack Saudi Arabia by bombing its oil fields in the east of the country and by encouraging Saudi Shia Muslims to rise up against the Sunni monarchy. If the Strait of Hormuz was closed and Saudi oil was flowing below capacity, the price of oil on the world market would skyrocket, potentially sending the U.S. back into recession.

Many experts agree that it would be near impossible to attack all of the nuclear sites around the country. A strike, even if successful in inflecting huge damage to current facilities, would only set back the program a few years. And it might make Iranians, even those who don’t now want the bomb, more determined than ever to join the nuclear club. The humiliating strike, Israel argues, might lead to the toppling of the government. Israel also points to the fact that after it bombed nuclear sites in Syria and Iraq, the atomic programs in those countries never really recovered. Without a strike, though,  Middle East advisors say, Iran getting the bomb would lead to a regional arms race. Saudi Arabia has already told Washington that it will have to develop a weapon if Tehran does.

Containment was the name of the game with the USSR, but would it work with Iran? It’s hard to say. With the USSR, the basic component of the policy was the belief that our enemy was rational. In Iran, where religious extremists hold all the major government posts, the likelihood that someone decides to launch a nuclear attack on Israel is probably not great, but it can’t be discounted entirely.

The Iranian debacle has largely played out in the media as a response to Israeli security concerns. While those concerns can’t be downplayed, America must condede that a major reason the current regime in Iran wants the bomb is to ensure its own survival. The West, we must admit, would be a lot more cautious about supporting an uprising in Iran if it was possible that nukes could disappear in the chaos.
Read more about it here: NYTimes and NYTimes