Iran’s nuclear program, which has been hovering in the back round since its post election turmoil, was thrust to the forefront at the G-20 summit last week. In a scenario worthy of a best selling spy novel, events unfolded rapidly beginning with a cryptic note from the Iranian government.
Last Monday the government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a world nuclear watchdog agency, announcing they had a small, pilot nuclear facility that it had never declared to the international community. On Tuesday the agency contacted President Obama’s senior advisors and told them about the letter.
Although American intelligence discovered the disclosed nuclear site, built into a mountain near Qum, about six years ago they had not expected Iran to admit its existence.
With shades of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President Obama huddled with his closest national security advisors all night in a room at the Waldorf Astoria to determine what to do with the information. The White House decided to share the news with their allies first and then announce it, with a united front, to the public. On Friday morning, flanked by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain, Obama called the Iranian facility “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the nonproliferation regime.” (NY Times)
All this highly sensitive political intrigue was unfolding behind the scenes of the UN General Assembly and the G-20 Summit.
In response to the threat of heightened international sanctions, Iran announced Sunday that it had test-fired at least two short-range missiles, warning that they can reach any place that threatens the country, including Israel, parts of Europe and U.S. military bases in the Mideast. (AP)
Why did Iran decide to release the information about the nuclear site, and now that it has, what are the ramifications?
Odds are they released the information in a bid to outflank American and Israeli exploitation of the facility after realizing the secrecy of the project had been compromised. Nonetheless, the ramifications of such a facility are great, as they not only complicate things in the Middle East, but the entire world. Just how great the ramifications are, will largely depend upon Iran’s willingness to allow U.N. and IAEA officials unfettered access to the facility, as well as the rest of its nuclear program. The likelihood of this happening though, even after President Ahmadinejad publicly declared this week that U.N. officials would be allowed such access, is slim. After all, what does a corrupt Iranian regime have to lose?
Right now, Iran is a regime struggling for legitimacy domestically and internationally. It is looking for something—anything—to take international attention off of its laughably rigged presidential election and the revolutionary fervor that followed. The revelation of this facility could do exactly that by allowing Iran to play its oldest trick in the book: When things are bad at home, find, or make up, an international threat (i.e. blame someone else). How Iran reacts to international pressure could create the perfect storm, allowing this corrupt regime to regain the initiative at home by escalating nationalistic fervor through fear and propaganda. This would not be good.
Right now, America’s biggest problem is convincing Israel not to strike Iranian nuclear facilities before multilateral talks. This could be a hard sell, especially since Iran’s provocative missile tests this week. Some experts give Iran until the end of the year, others give them weeks before Israel strikes these facilities. This is not a stretch. Israel is surrounded by enemies on all sides and in a constant state of war with the Palestinians. What is more, Israel has already proven to the world it is willing to nip security threats in the bud before they reach fruition—and if that means going it alone, so be it. Israel attacked facilities in both Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and most recently in Syria with little or no notice to its allies.
So, could Israel win this war on its own? That depends on how it all plays out. Israel can certainly strike Iranian facilities, and it has proven time and again it can hold its own in brief border wars. However, if the provocation were to turn into a long drawn out war it would likely need international assistance. This could be a problem. America is stretched thin at the moment, and Europe is fed up with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Neither is looking to pick any new fights, especially in the Middle East. So how will this whole debacle unfold?
Unfortunately, the pros for Iran maintaining the status quo seem to outweigh the cons. Even if its program is peaceful, Iran’s power as a rogue nation lies in its secrecy. Such secrecy allows Iran to play a bigger hand than it has. It also allows them to suppress discontent domestically and get noticed internationally. Were Iran a legitimate democracy it might behoove them to come clean and gain international favor. But a rogue regime needs a threat to stay in power. Such threats take the focus off of domestic failures and are used to justify suppression. Verdict: Iran waits for someone else to make the first move.
For Israel on the other hand, the pros for changing the status quo absolutely outweigh the cons. Iran has been a threat Israel has been trying to contain for decades with little avail. Iran supports Hamas and Hezbollah, it has publicly stated it wants to wipe Israel from the face of the planet, and just to rub salt in the wounds, has declared the holocaust is a lie. Israel is fed up and losing patience. The latest Israeli elections prove this. If the new Israeli Prime Minister does not act he won’t be prime minister for long. Verdict: If Iran does not allow full access to its nuclear facilities, it is not a matter of if Israel strikes, but when.
America’s stake in how this all unfolds is more complicated. It is certainly in American interests not to have another country obtain nuclear weapons, especially an unfriendly one. However, it is not necessarily in American interests to shake things up in the Middle East too much at the moment. An Israeli strike on Iran would undoubtedly increase Iranian support to combatants in both Afghanistan and Iraq, stall the Palestinian/Israeli peace process, and oh yeah, the price of oil will sky rocket. You ready for $400 barrel oil? I’m not.
A key to understanding America’s stake in this whole affair is that whatever unfolds, America will most certainly be praised or blamed for it. That’s part of being a superpower. Perhaps then, America has more at stake here than anyone else. It is for that reason America is the only country that can solve this issue without it escalating to war. America, and only America, will be the facilitator in this process.
However, make no mistake, American involvement in this affair will lead to a change in dynamics in the Middle East, regardless of the outcome. Obama was up front with Iran very early in his presidency: I am willing to talk, but you have until September to come to the table. Obama seems to be following through with his threat. By killing America’s nuclear defense program in Poland he has prepared the way for stronger relations with Russia and a foreign policy that focuses on immediate threats in the Middle East, like Iran. He is also trying to create a Sunni/Israeli coalition in the Middle East to counter Iranian hegemony in the region. This may be a stretch, but if there is any group the Sunnis and Shias hate more than the Israelis, it is each other. Believe me, the rest of the Arab world does not want to see a Nuclear Iran. Verdict: If Iran does not allow inspections of its nuclear facilities America will impose further sanctions, regardless of whether the entire security council is on board or not; it vamps up naval presence around Iran; and it gives tacit approval for an Israeli strike.
Final verdict: In the end, talks will probably take place but it is unlikely much will change as a result. What is likely, however, is an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. What happens after that is anyone’s guess. The Israelis and America hope such an attack will stand as a warning to Iran to shape up or face further action. The Iranian regime will use such an action to garner domestic outrage and nationalistic fervor, cementing itself firmly at the reins of power for a long time to come.
In a way this is just one big international pissing contest, one where the stakes are extremely high and the testosterone is raging. But such contests are often what foreign policy boils down to—posturing, one-upsmanship, saving face, weapons displays, off the record gestures—just look at the how the cold war played out. Whatever you want to call it—a pissing contest, chicken, a stand off—the stakes have just been raised. Who will flinch first is now the question we are all waiting to find out.
Sean McMorris and Cheri Cabot
Sean McMorris is a recent graduate of Columbia University in New York City with a degree in Political Science and an emphasis on International Relations. Prior to transferring to Columbia, Sean studied at the University of Vietnam in Hanoi, Vietnam for two years. He is planning to return to Vietnam to live and work.
Cheri Cabot, Politics Correspondent
Cheri’s column, “Personal About Politics,” published every week, will reflect on how the life of a 60 year-old, middle class woman is affected by politics, policy and the current state of the nation - a look at the personal aspects of politics. Her column is part of Gather Essentials.
Cheri is a freelance writer, living in Southern California. She has two grown children and is the proud grandmother of three.
You can find all of Cheri’s columns on Personal About Politics at www.personalpolitcs.gather.com, The Obama Watch at theobamawatch.gather.com or her home page at www.ccabot.gather.com