Monday, April 02, 2012

Nukes Conflict: Of Rogue Men & States

Entire forests have been denuded in recent weeks as pundits speculate whether Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has been bluffing about launching air strikes against Iran's nascent nuclear program. If ever an important issue needed a time out this is it, and talks between Iran and the U.S. and five other major powers scheduled to begin next week could provide just that opportunity.

Let's get some stuff out of the way before we dive into the deep end of this superheated situation.

The Islamic Republic is a rogue state that threatens regional stability, as well as Israel's existence. No nation is more responsible for this than the U.S., which is justly viewed by the Tehran government, the ayatollahs who are its puppet masters, and many Iranians as a rogue state itself that propped up the Shah and backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war while providing Saddam Hussein with the chemical weapons that scarred a generation of Iranian men.

Israel is becoming a rogue state that also threatens regional stability because of its bellicosity toward its enemies real and imagined and an occupation of the Gaza Strip that has gone beyond the humanitarian pale, as well as its insistence on continuing to build settlements across the green line on the West Bank that by any reasonable definition are not only illegal but the reason there probably never will be a two-state solution.

After eight years of counterproductive Bush-Cheney sabre rattling, the U.S. finds itself being in the unusual position of being on the side of reason on the issue of Iranian nukes. The Obama administration has led the charge on tougher sanctions against the Islamic State that are having the desired effect -- compelling Tehran to join in those talks as a prelude to hopefully wind down its program. The U.S. and its allies also have had a welcome assist from the Arab Spring.

A personal note: Like my Jewish grandfather, I believe that Jews are people of the world and did not need to have their own state, but like my grandfather I would spill my own blood to protect its existence. This makes Israeli's devolution from a pillar of democracy into a mockery of its core values painful and deeply depressing. Add to this the fact that Netanyahu, like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is at least a little bit crazy.

My expectations for progress being made during the talks are extremely low. Netanyahu, who leads a nation with a nuclear bomb program that is an open secret, has set the bar too high while the ayatollahs have set it too low. Bluffing or not, the Israeli prime minister speaks in apocalyptic terms while the religious leaders see their nuclear program as an affirmation of Persian pride against the tutelage of the West, as one pundit well put it.

Then there is the reality that airstrikes, with or without the support of the U.S., would not cripple Iran's program. The uranium-enrichment plant at Fordow, near the holy city of Qom, is so far underground as to be invulnerable to attack.

Then there is the probability that Iran's nuclear program is nowhere near ready for prime time. This is borne out in most intelligence analyses, and as one Obama administration official put it, "They're keeping the soup warm but they are not cooking it."

Current and former U.S. officials say they are confident that Iran has no secret uranium-enrichment site outside the purview of U.N. nuclear inspections and are confident that any Iranian move toward building a functional nuclear weapon would be detected long before a bomb was made. It was on this basis that Obama has argued that there remains time to see whether sanctions will compel Iran's leaders to halt any bomb-building program.

Finally, there is one scenario that I and others are not taking into account in predicting that President Obama will win -- and possibly win in a landslide -- in November: A unilateral Israeli air strike that would plunge the Middle East into war and rupture relations between Washington and Jerusalem.

This is what would happen in the following days:

* Many of Iran's centrifuges, warhead and missile plants would be destroyed and the nuclear program merely delayed.

* There would be lethal reprisals against Israel although Iran's air force is not particularly strong and its navy is puny.

* The price of oil would spike.

* Communities across the Jewish diaspora, including in the U.S., would be put in danger from Iranian-sponsored terror attacks like recent attacks in India and Thailand.

* Relations between Jerusalem and Washington would end, leaving Israel only marginally safer and without the support of its largest benefactor.

This is not a happy prospect.


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