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April 30, 2006

On the Brink with Iran
Posted by Suzanne Nossel

After last Friday’s report by the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Tehran has successfully enriched uranium and defied the UN Security Council’s Friday deadline to halt the process, we find ourselves in a frightening stand-off with an uncontrollable Islamic demagogue bent getting nukes.  I am not an expert on the region, but here’s my take on some things the U.S. ought and ought not do:

  1. Do everything possible to position this as a showdown between the Iranand the UN, not Iranand the US– Fortunately, as I’ve described before, Iranians are playing into our hands on this with its flagrant defiance of the Security Council.  China and Russia are unreliable partners when it comes to forceful action but, if positioned right, they will back the proposition that no government can get away with ignoring the Security Council.

  1. Align the world’s neutral nations behind a tough UN stance – Behind the scenes, the US and Europe should be working the 30-50 key capitals around the world – Australia, Malaysia, Nigeria, South Africa, Brazil, Poland, etc. – on the idea that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable, and that the time to stop it is now.  While many of these countries have economic and other ties to Iran, they will all recognize that Ahmadinejad is dangerous and is flouting the Council.  Having the support of these neutrals will back up claim #1 above and make it more likely that Moscow and Beijing ultimately come around.

  1. Stay close to Europe– This is obvious, but this Administration can't be relied on to choose rhetoric that ensures that no daylight opens up between Washington and Brussels.  Condi Rice’s reference to “like-minded” nations potentially acting outside the UNSC rubric prompted Javier Solana to retort that no European country would take part in such a coalition of the willing.  While Solana is wrong to offer Admadinejad the succor of believing that as long as China and Russia hold out he’s safe, the US should have known better than to beg the question right now.  For time being, the language needed to keep the EU on board starts with the letters U and N.  Other options must remain open, but well in the background in the short term.

  1. Hold firm on the idea that Iran cannot dictate to the UN – Ahmadinejad’s latest gambit was to allow robust international inspections, but only if their case is referred back from the Security Council to the IAEA.  It did so because only the UNSC has the power to act – through sanctions or force – in response to evidence of misbehavior.  The Administration rightly rejected this.  Iran cannot dictate to the international community how and where it addresses threats to peace and security. 

  1. Consider an outcome involving intrusive inspections under UNSC supervision – Given the provisions of the NPT that allow for civilian nuclear development, and the absence of a recognized exemption for countries that hide and lie about their weapons programs, its hard to see how international consensus coalesces around anything tougher than rigorous inspections under a watchful UN eye.  While that’s neither an ideal nor a permanent solution, the experience in Iraq suggests that if inspectors have unfettered access, they can go a long way toward cramping the style of a rogue state. 

Iran is currently estimated to be 5-10 years away from operational nuclear weapons.  The longer that timeline can be stretched, the greater the likelihood of regime change in the meantime which could open up possibilities for a more complete solution, potentially as part of a beefed up global non-proliferation framework.  If Iran defies the inspections, all other options come back on the table.

Before throwing up your hands on this approach, consider the alternatives: under the current NPT the UN will never back forcing Tehran to give up on civilian nuclear energy.  While the US rightly sees that as the safest outcome, achieving it through anything short of regime change seems impossible.  Everyone knows that an invasion is impracticable, and there’s no sign that Ahmadinejad’s particularly vulnerable internally (in fact, the international pressure is by some accounts strengthening him politically).  Sad to say, there’s no viable scenario in which a totally de-nuked Iran emerges in the short-term.

So while we’re right to continue to demand a complete cessation of Iran’s nuclear program, policymakers should privately acknowledge that this outcome is unlikely and be sketching detailed contours for the kind of inspection regime that would keep Iran on the reservation.  Getting even this won’t be easy.


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...under the current NPT the UN will never back forcing Tehran to give up on civilian nuclear energy. While the US rightly sees that as the safest outcome, achieving it through anything short of regime change seems impossible.

Iran's nuclear program started under the Shah, and by all accounts the program is popular with the Iranians. There's zero evidence that even a regime change would stop this, even if we somehow manage to install a compliant gov't.

The fact is that maintaining Israel's nuclear monopoly in the region isn't sustainable, and it's time we acknowledge this reality and adjust to it.

You also haven't mentioned what you'd offer the Iranians (assuming they're willing to negotiate). As you said, their hard-line position has made them popular. They can't afford to back away from this now just because the West threatens them. You have to offer them something positive to save face.

Well, this is all rather hysterical.

I'm having trouble squaring your breathless "on the brink" rhetoric with your acknowledgement that Iran is currently estimated to be 5-10 years away from operational nuclear weapons, and that the real goal is just to stretch out the timeline.

This statement from the UK last month captures the true flavor of the "brinkmanship" over Iran:

In Berlin, British officials admitted that no consensus had been reached on what measures to take should Iran ignore the latest deadline. Conscious of Russian and Chinese reluctance to move to sanctions, the US, Britain, France and Germany are considering relatively soft penalties, such as restricting access to nuclear technology and exports and limiting trade. Other options include banning the Iranian leadership from travelling abroad - a measure that would prevent the government attending this summer's World Cup in Germany. Yesterday, however, Foreign Office officials were doubtful. "I don't think there is any support for expelling Iran from the World Cup," one said. He added: "I'm not sure Ahmadinejad [Iran's president] goes skiing in Austria. But there are a series of measures we can take."

Travel restrictions. I guess they're all really scared over there in England and Europe about our hideous situation on the brink of the precipice. El Baradei had it right:

And Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said: "Sanctions are a bad idea. We are not facing an imminent threat. We need to lower the pitch." He told a forum in the Qatari capital, Doha: "My message to Iran?: the international community is getting impatient and you need to respond by arming me with information."

The real heat here is between the US and Iran, and we're ultimately going to have to deal with the Iranians ourselves, by talking with them as Senator Lugar recommended, rather than hiding behind our allies. We hold most of the high cards, so we shouldn't be afraid of dealing. But Iran does have one significant card in its hand. It's obvious to the world that for political reasons the US is unwilling and afraid to talk with Iran, and conduct straightforward diplomacy with them. So long as that posture is unchanged, it will be hard to gather broad-based global support for any US initiatives.

By the way, I think it is wrong to raise people's hopes for "regime change" in Iran. The Iranians seem to have done a pretty good job of consolidating their revolution and form of government since 1979, and I don't think it is realistic to pin any hopes on the regime's collapse. The civilian nuclear program is, by most accounts, quite popular in Iran. Raising the regime change possibility over and over, in the manner of the administration's spokespersons and flacks, only encourages a faith-based approach to this problem rather than a reality-based solution.

I have just two points.

1. I would be careful with the term 'regime change.' I would prefer a phrase like 'internal change of government' rather than a term too closely associated with forced change.

2. Sensible proposals are all good and fine and should be pushed when possible but we've reached an unprecedented point where all discussions on these things must include a recognition that Bush's credibility is low and that profoundly affects all discussions. Ideas that can bring credibility to the table should be considered. For example, don't underestimate your audience. Russia and China could both use deeper explanations of why letting the Iran problem twist in the wind is not to their advantage. Bush and his inner circle are not the only ones guilty of unrealistic thinking.

For a normally-very-thoughtful progressive site to post an article where the premise "So while we’re right to continue to demand a complete cessation of Iran’s nuclear program.." is taken without question is a bit disheartening.

As Susan points out, the real problem here is between iran and the USA, and the rest of the world is more concerned that we'll make another aggressive attack than that iran will get nukes any time soon. We desperately need to reframe the issue to something other than two rogue states having a disagreement.

We need to offer some sort of concessions. Both to get the iranians to save face and deal, and to get support from other nations.

We currently have just under 10,000 nukes ourselves. In exchange for either iranian capitulation or UN agreement for drastic action, we might agree to reduce our arsenal to 1000 warheads, with inspections to verify compliance.

Also, we could agree to pressure israel to accept a limit of 100 warheads with inspections.

These concessions would look like a big deal to the rest of the world, but they aren't. Any war we can't win with 1000 warheads, we aren't going to win with 10,000. Similarly for israel, any war they can't win with 100 nukes isn't going to go any better if they use 2000 nukes.

We don't really lose anything but we look much more responsible and less rogue-nationish. And israel looks much better if they agree ahead of time instead of requiring pressure.

I agree that the US needs to frame the situation in terms of the UN dealing with Iran. Iran may enjoy mouthing off to the US, but I think it would be a lot more difficult to mouth off to the United Nations, especially if they were truly United on this issue. At least as a body of nations our demands would look more legitimate.

The idea of concessions is also interesting, but unrealistic. We all know the US wouldn't make any real concessions to encourage Iran to step down. There is too much conceit. If the US doesn't care to be involved in UN Millennium Development Goals, I doubt they would care to sacrifice power or resources in other areas.

Than, if the USA won't offer the UN any concessions, why should they unite behind our leadership against iran?

Surely to any reasonable person the USA -- with 10,000 nukes and led by Bush/Cheney -- looks like a far greater threat than iran -- months to a decade from their first nuke.

The answer is so simple and since NO ONE has breathed a word of it this is most likely America's plan for action.

A one night blitzkrieg of conventional missiles, stealth aircraft, drones and ol' timey special ops aimed at killing the top 20% of Iran's murderous, illegitimate, corrupt regime. Any wanna be 'supreme leader' had best think fast before their own people stomp their guts out in the streets.

This would protect Iran's resources and infrastructures and insure a move towards a fair and responsible government.

The regime is the enemy. Such a strike would have the happy benefit of scaring the daylights out of such wonderful tyrannies as Syria and Egypt.

As far as a 'backlash' against America - so what? Is it really possible to inflame the Islamic street anymore than it already is?

Siggi, what you say makes some sense. But wouldn't we want to also do something about the nukes? Like, in your scenario we could find their enriched stuff and confiscate it, and maybe also confiscate their UF6, and their yellowcake, and so on. So to start up a nuclear program they have to go clear back to mining fresh ore. Far more useful to raid the installations and take the nuclear material than just bomb them and hope the fallout wasn't too bad. If we spread radioactives around then for the next 200 years every time somebody gets a deformed baby (which happens close to 1% of the time anyway) they'll think of us.

Now, you want to kill the top fifth of the iraqi government plus the various quasi-government guys who might really be in control. To do that, don't we also have to take out their air defense network and all their airbases? And also all the sites they might use to launch missiles and cruise missles against our bases and against oil tankers etc. And we'll have to smash their communication systems, military and nonmilitary. Once we do that we don't have to worry about their army except when they blunder upon some of our guys and we have to destroy them. But we have to take out their navy.

Can we do all this in one day? We're talking about hundreds of military sites, and thousands of politicians, and who knows how many nuclear sites. Some of them will get away and have to be chased down. Better plan on a week or two. But by then they'll have time to develop some disorganised resistance. Everybody who can get guns will be carrying them, hoping for a shot at us. We'll have to kill lots of civilians who shoot at us and civilians who're in the same ten acres as people who shoot at us. It's likely to get kind of messy. But we might do it.

Now think about the likely results. Imagine that some foreign nation sneaked a whole bunch of terrorists into DC and one night they killed the President and Vice President and cabinet and every republican senator or representative. Now, I feel about our current government probably just about the way the majority of iranians feel about their current government. These idiots are driving this country straight into the ground and I don't like it one bit. But if a foreign nation staged a sneak attack and killed them, I wouldn't put up with it. I wouldn't do one single thing to keep them from being replaced by new republicans and I'd support whatever revenge we could reasonably get. If anybody gets to kill these sleazebags it's going to be a proper execution after a fair trial. Not some enemy government that wants to control us.

I wouldn't be at all surprised if a whole lot of iranians feel the same way.

So I think this is probably a stupid strategy. It is unlikely to get the result we want. Before we try it we should look for some way to get data whether it would work. Would iranians be happy we killed their government and a bunch of religious leaders? Or would they go hyper-nationalistic? My guess is it would have a very bad result. But we'd do better to get reliable evidence than depend on anybody's guess. The stakes are pretty high.

As far as a 'backlash' against America - so what? Is it really possible to inflame the Islamic street anymore than it already is?

Well, yes, it is possible. How many muslims have volunteered to be suicide bombers so far? Is it one in a million? Or possibly as many as one in a hundred thousand? They could get a whole lot more inflamed.

This is some of the most unmitigated bullshit I have ever read. Why, oh why, do you seek to provoke another reckless, idiotic attack against yet another country that REALISTICALLY POSES NO THREAT WHATEVER TO AMERICA?

You make no mention, and deliberately ignore the fact, that when Russia had thousands of nukes pointed at us the theory of Mutually Assured Destruction worked just fine to keep the peace. Your "plans" regarding Iran completely ignore any true diplomacy at all, and we have seen the results of "undiplomatic", bullying false diplomacy with North Korea.

Even if Iran had nukes now they would not dare use them for that reason, mutually Assured Destruction - they would be immediately destroyed and buried under ten feet of glass. If they developed a nuke, gave it to someone else, and that someone else used it, the nuclear signature would lead straight to the source and again, they would be immediately destroyed.

I am so sick of all the fear-mongering, from EITHER side of the isle; it's embarrassing to me as an American. Why?

Because I am an American who refuses to let others try to make me live in fear. Bushco has so fucked up the mentality of America with its reckless wars and bullshit rhetoric. Why, as a seemingly intelligent person, do you want to pursue courses of action so deleterious to the safety of this country?

I FEAR NO COUNTRY! even as broken as our military is becoming we can, and, I'm sure, would wipe any nation that attacked us with nukes right off the face of the earth, so why the hell should I care about Iran having nukes? Muslims may have different religious views, but they aren't stupid. But WE would be ridiculously stupid to wage ANOTHER useless war of criminal aggression.

At the war crime trials of Japan the court ruled that aggressive "preemptive first strikes" was unlawful (and, oh yeah, that was their first line of defense: they had to attack America for their safety before America might attack them. Sound at all familiar?), and many a Japanese general was imprisoned for THAT war crime. I can only pray that all these fear/warmongers will someday face the same charges – they have made the world and America demonstrably LESS SAFE. (Terror attacks and deaths resulting from them have gone up five-fold – and you think it is a great idea to increase that danger exponentially by attacking another sovereign nation without provocation?)

The main reason they want a nuke is to prevent the rogue country that Amerika has become from attacking them. If you have oil, Amerika will find or manufacture a reason to attack you IF YOU DO NOT HAVE NUKES. Even we aren't stupid enough YET to attack a nuclear armed nation and ensure the destruction of America. Mutually Assured Destruction works.

If we attack yet again another Muslim nation without provocation (and their legitimate pursuit of nuclear power or even their desire to be able to provide for their defense against nuclear armed aggressors IS NOT sufficient provocation) the entire world may go up in flames, especially if the insane Bush administration attacks a non-nuclear armed nation with nuclear weapons!

If you thought the international riots over cartoon was bad, wait until Bush provides PROOF POSITIVE (to the Muslim world) that he intends to destroy all Muslims. 1.2 Billion of them, 300-million of us. Why, only one-third of them need to kill just one American each and WE will be wiped from the earth.

Bush has already show that he will lie, cheat, obfuscate, conceal important info, misuse intelligence and anything else he must do to further his messianic vision of Armageddon and the coming of the Rapture. he just reaffirmed last week that his foreign policy is dictated by God, whom I suspect Bush talks to AND HEARS ANSWERS FROM. Why would ANY reasonable person ever again believe the neocon bullshit?

No, the destruction of America, the ideals and standards we developed over the last two hundred years is not enough for King George. He must destroy the world to save it, just as he will lie to us again and tell us Iran must be destroyed to 'save" it.


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