Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Iran: Not a Time for Casual Games with Iran

By Ernest Corea*
Courtesy IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

WASHINGTON DC (IDN) – Compelling advice against a hasty, unilateral decision by Israel to “bomb, bomb, bomb” Iran has come – from Israel. The advice is significant not only for what was said, but for who said it.

Meir Dagan, former head spook of Israel’s intelligence service Mossad delivered the back-off counsel against impulsive military action. Presumably, his sense of caution is supported by information not in the public domain.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that Dagan in an interview taped for broadcasting by the CBS network said he does not think Israel should strike Iran’s nuclear industry anytime soon, an attack that would have to include “a large number of targets.” In keeping with Mossad’s reputation, he suggested going for “regime change” instead.

He was also quoted as saying that Iranians “are considering all the implications of their actions…They will have to pay dearly…and I think the Iranians at this point in time are…very careful on the project. They are not running…”

He was content to leave the issue in the hands of President Barack Obama – “I usually trust the president of the US” – adding that possible nuclear proliferation by Iran is not an Israeli problem; it’s an international problem.”

Public Support

Dagan’s urging of a cooling off on the “let’s go get them” front is likely to find support from the Israeli public that has been polling around 60 percent in support of diplomacy and against a resort to war.

Following his March 4-5 visit to Washington DC where he met Obama and also addressed the pro-Israeli lobbying group AIPAC (American Israel Political Action Committee), Prime Minister Netanyahu told a domestic audience that an attack against Iran is not a foregone conclusion, and that a diplomatic solution to the threat of Iran's nuclear program may still be found. More ominously, he said as well that an attack (on Iran) would not come in "a matter of days or weeks, but it's also not a matter of years."

On the other side of the divide, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, commenting on international reactions to his country’s nuclear enrichment program, has said: "The Iranian nation has never been seeking an atomic weapon and never will be. It will prove to the world that a nuclear weapon cannot create supremacy."

He is also reported to have said that constructing a nuclear weapon is a sin.

Can these assurances be accepted at face value, so that the disquiet generated by Iran’s nuclear program might abate? Perhaps not, for several reasons.

Written Undertakings

These range from Iranian resentment against past Western transgressions through American outrage over the invasion of the US embassy in Tehran, and the abduction and imprisonment of embassy staff, to unproductive relations between Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

With that record, guarantees of non-proliferation cannot be assured by the rhetoric of sweet reasonableness but by firm written agreements with international inspection, assessment, and penalties for non-compliance.

Two other variables create additional complications.

The government of Israel has declared that it will face an existential threat if Iran develops nuclear weapons, and must therefore be the sole arbiter of how to pre-empt that threat. At talks in the White House, Netanyahu claimed that role as a “sovereign right”. Wasn’t it a former Secretary of State who lamented that it was difficult to make client states do as they are told? Netanyahu’s assertion makes him a human time bomb that has to be handled with time-consuming care.

Additionally, the US, Israel’s strongest – perhaps, only – ally is in an election year when, customarily, many candidates and would-be candidates consider belligerent declarations of fealty to Israel’s security necessary for their own political survival. Their verbal meanderings can be a distraction from and an obstacle to the formulation of sound policy.

Tear It Down

The campaign of 2012 has not been an exception. Pander bears straddle the campaign trail. If aspiring Republican candidates mean what they say, the election as president of any one of them excluding Congressman Ron Paul would plunge America into yet another war.

Former Senator Rick Santorum has proposed that the US needs “to put an ultimatum in place” for Iran to abandon its nuclear programs. If the ultimatum is not met, the US should be prepared to “tear down” Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Frontrunner former Governor Mitt Romney has said that there would be no gap between Israel and a Romney administration. “Israel does not need public lectures about how to weigh decisions of war and peace. It needs our support.”

John Kerrey of Massachusetts, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, countered: “….the nuclear issue with Iran is deadly serious business. It should invite sobriety and thoughtfulness, not sloganeering and sound bites.”

A similarly sombre caution was offered by Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff who said an Israeli attack on Iran would be “premature” and “not prudent.”

Escaping Illusion

Obama was asked about these and related issues at his media conference on March 6.

Obama cannot afford a new war, whether he places US boots on the ground or not, particularly in the oil-rich Middle East. The domestic economic and social consequences of another military undertaking, including the desertion of the anti-war component of his base, would significantly endanger his chances of re-election.

At the same time, he is convinced that Iran has not crossed any “red line” that requires a response. “At this stage,” he said, “it is my belief that we have a window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically. That’s not just my view. That’s the view of our top intelligence officials; it’s the view of top Israeli intelligence officials.

“And, as a consequence, we are going to continue to apply the pressure even as we provide a door for the Iranian regime to walk through where they could rejoin the community of nations by giving assurances to the international community that they’re meeting their obligations and they are not pursuing a nuclear weapon.

“Now, what’s said on the campaign trail…. when I see the casualness with which some of these folks talk about war, I’m reminded of the costs involved in war. This is not a game."

Iran reacted to these temperate words with both a commendation and a smackdown. Obama’s disavowal of a rush to war, said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was “very good…these are wise words…an escape from illusion.” He scoffed at Obama, however, for pursuing the “illusion” that Iran could be “brought to its knees” through sanctions and other pressures.

Dirty Bombs

The consensus emerging among military experts, academics, and knowledgeable media analysts is that Iran has the “intellectual capital” to build a bomb, but is perhaps a year or two from actually being able to accomplish that task.

For that reason, an aerial attack on suspected nuclear sites would delay production of a bomb but not eliminate Iran’s technical capability. Nuclear plants could be reconstructed in new and safer locations. Would this lead to “periodic bombing” by Israel in the future – with the potential for destructive responses in the region?.

If it does produce a bomb, Iran is considered unlikely to use it directly against Israel, as that would amount to national suicide. The US response to a nuclear attack against Israel would be swift and unrelenting.

Iran would be tempted instead to franchise the use of “dirty bombs” to terrorists who would use them either to cause untold destruction or to serve as instruments of blackmail. The existence of a nuclear weapon in Iran is also considered likely to unleash a nuclear arms race in the region.

Thus, a hastily mounted military operation against Iran now, or a nuclear weapon in Iran’s possession later, would change the military and political dynamic in the Middle East – and elsewhere.

Some Options

It is against this background of caution, confusion, apocalyptic politics, and fear that the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia, the US plus Germany) are preparing themselves for an anticipated new round of negotiations with Iran.

Responding to an inquiry from Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalibi in February, the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton on behalf of the P5+1 wrote back earlier this month suggesting a new round of talks. No dates have been fixed, and no logistical arrangements proposed. A preliminary meeting among technocrats to agree on the framework for substantive negotiations is expected but not announced.

Several options for what the P5+1 should seek from Iran have been formulated by interested parties:

- A group of US Senators has proposed in a letter to Obama that Iran “cannot be permitted to maintain any enrichment or reprocessing activities on its territory for the foreseeable future” and said they “strongly oppose any proposal that recognizes a ‘right to enrichment’ by the current regime.”

- Un-named Western government sources have floated the possibility that Iran could “relinquish its stockpile of 20 percent-enriched uranium and end production of the material, reducing the speed at which it could generate fuel for a nuclear weapon. In exchange, Iran would receive medical reactor fuel and a slowdown of sanctions while negotiations continue.”

- P5+1 want inspectors given access to "all relevant sites," that are suspected of nuclear weapons development, especially the Parchin military complex. The request for access is a minimum demand, as a practical necessity and as a test of Iran’s credibility in negotiations.

- Among European officials there is said to be an emerging view that some “confidence building measures” should be introduced as an incentive to nudge Iran into authentic negotiations.

No significant action on the negotiating front is expected until after Iran’s New Year celebrations on March 20/21. Turkey reportedly expects talks to be held in Istanbul in April.

While the usual behind-the-scenes soundings and calculations go on, it is appropriate for the international community to recommit itself to the true guarantor of peace in the region: moving towards creation of a nuclear free Middle East. Not in an election year in the US, unfortunately. [IDN-InDepthNews – March 11, 2012]

Copyrigth © 2012 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

*The writer has served as Sri Lanka's ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon 'Daily News' and the Ceylon 'Observer', and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore 'Straits Times'. He is Global Editor of IDN-InDepthNews and a member of its editorial board as well as President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.

Picture: Israeli airforce | Credit: Webutante