Friday, March 10, 2006

What to do about Iran

After several years of fixating on Iraq, the Bush administration is finally waking up to the nuclear ambition of Iran.

Some observers argue that a confrontation with Iran may be politically helpful to Bush, giving him a chance to demonstrate leadership and regain some of the lost luster on his security credentials. But there are a lot of little things that will probably prevent it from rescuing his reputation.

Any confrontation with Iran will point up:

1. How much of our military capability is tied up in Iraq, leaving us unable to do much more than saber-rattle against real threats;

2. How much Bush ignored Iran in the last several years;

3. How passive Bush has been even in recent months, letting the Europeans take the lead in dealing with the problem.

So what can we do?

Our policy begins with an unwavering bottom line: Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. It's not just that they've signed the nonproliferation treaty; treaty or not, we would be foolish to let unstable states get nukes, and Iran grows more unstable every year.

However, we have to recognize Iran's legitimate interest in civilian nuclear power. A lot of people scoff at the idea of an oil-rich state needing nuclear energy, but they miss three points:

1. When the oil runs out it will run out for everyone, including suppliers;

2. As the price of oil climbs, every barrel of oil not used domestically is another barrel that can be sold for hard currency;

3. There may be remote places where it's more efficient to build a nuclear plant than run a pipeline or transmission towers.

As far as options, we begin with negotiations, of course. The basic outline of the Russian offer -- providing closely-accounted-for nuclear fuel to Iran, so that Iran does not enrich any of its own -- is a good solution. Iran has some legitimate complaints about sovereignity, but they mostly lost the right to complain about that when they were caught redhanded with an illegal enrichment program. If they want civilian nuclear energy, there will be serious strings attached.

What happens if we fail to reach a diplomatic solution?

Invading Iran just isn't going to happen; it would be plain stupid. Iran doesn't pose much offensive threat, but they could shut down shipping in the Persian Gulf at least temporarily, and I wouldn't want to dig a few hundred thousand infantry out of those mountains. Never mind what China or Russia might do, or how much further we'd inflame the Middle East by knocking over yet *another* Muslim country -- this one full of Shiites, our erstwhile allies in Iraq.

Besides, we don't have enough troops to provide security in Iraq, population 27 million. How are we going to occupy Iran and its 70 million?

We can try sanctions, but sanctions alone are unlikely to solve the problem. And our experience in Iraq was that strict sanctions hurt the populace far more than it damaged Saddam.

If it comes to the last resort, the best way to deal with nuclear ambitions is through coercive, muscular inspections, backed by the *credible* threat of force:

Step 1:
Establish a credible independent inspection regime under international auspices (not necessarily UN, but something that makes it clear this is not a U.S. operation).

Step 2: Get the inspectors in the country, with free access and the right to conduct unannounced surprise inspections. Part of the negotiations may well include "Let the inspectors in and give them free access or we will destroy anything we think is a nuclear facility." Then do so if they try to call our bluff.

Step 3: Once they're in, be consistent and deadly serious about enforcing their access. "Let the inspectors into this facility *right now* or we will bomb it" may be one tactic. Then do so if they try to call our bluff.

We won't necessarily find everything, and some facilities may be both hidden or buried so deeply that bombs can't reach. But that's okay. A nuclear weapon isn't something you can build in your basement. You need enrichment facilities, fabrication facilities, testing facilities... all of which leave a reasonably large footprint. Sufficiently intrusive inspections will make building a bomb prohibitively difficult and expensive.

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2 Comments:

Blogger dadahead said...

Are you out of your mind? Your suggestion is really to bomb Iran if they don't allow inspectors in, which they have absolutely no obligation to do?

3/10/2006 11:18 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I don't arrive at that conclusion easily, and it should obviously be a last resort. But unless Iran voluntarily gives up its quest for a bomb, how else do you propose to keep them from acquiring one?

3/10/2006 11:21 PM  

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