WILL BUSH BOMB IRAN?
Or will the charm offensive that worked on North Korea work on Tehran as well?
LUIZA CH. SAVAGE
Suddenly it’s two down and one to go in George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” North Korea agreed this week to close its main nuclear reactor, the key to its plutonium processing program that four months ago produced its first successful nuclear test. It also said it would invite back international inspectors, in exchange for enormous shipments of fuel and aid. The agreement was part of a package negotiated by six countries in Beijing. And, just as remarkably, the U.S. agreed to start bilateral talks about “normalizing” relations with the Communist nation with which it is still technically at war, lifting economic sanctions, and removing Pyongyang from its list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”
The developments were met with caution all around—the erratic dictator Kim Jong II famously reneged on agreements with the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Whether he meets the 60-day deadline to shut down the reactor will be an important early test (for now, North Korea gets to keep its existing nuclear arsenal, estimated at a half-dozen weapons). If Kim does so, he will receive 50,000 tonnes of oil, with another 950,000 tonnes to follow if Pyongyang takes further steps to abandon its nuclear program, under the agreement negotiated with South Korea, the U.S, Japan, Russia, and China.
The stunning deal came as Washington has been stepping up a military buildup aimed at pressuring another member of the Axis of
Evil, Iran, to suspend its uranium enrichment program, which the UN believes is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon. European nations have been trying to engage Iran in negotiations, but Tehran has refused to suspend enrichment, which analysts say could reach industrial scale in a year.
The North Korean breakthrough immediately raises two questions regarding Iran. If the Bush administration is prepared to begin normalizing relations with North Korea (Iraq was the third member of the Axis), would it be willing to do so with Iran? And what lessons can Tehran draw from the agreement— that it pays to freeze your activities and gather carrots from the international community, or that nuclear blackmail works, and you’re better off bargaining with a warhead already in your pocket?
John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, immediately criticized the deal as rewarding Pyong-
yang for steps that fall far short of completely ridding itself of nuclear weapons. “It sends exactly the wrong signal to would-be proliferators around the world,” he told CNN. And it’s clear that Tehran has been closely watching the North Korean developments. “Iranian officials have said they are trying to do a North Korea,” says Abbas Milani, an Iranian specialist at Stanford University. “They see it as an alternative to Saddam Hussein’s fortune. They think that what got [Kim Jong II] negotiations and not the gallows is a credible nuclear program.”
But U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice emphasized that the agreement would work in stages toward ridding North Korea of all nuclear weapons. “The goal is the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” she declared. “This is a good beginning for that effort.” And when pressed by reporters to explain why Iran shouldn’t see the deal as a sign that prolifera-
tion would be rewarded, she replied, “Why shouldn’t it be seen as a message to Iran that the international community is able to bring together its resources?” She called negotiations “a reasonable way” to achieve denuclearization, and said the agreement was “the result of patient, creative and tough diplomacy.”
BUT CAN SUCH PATIENCE, CREATIVITY
and toughness be brought to bear on Iran? At the moment, the Bush administration is sending mixed signals. Many of its recent measures suggest that, contrary to pursuing successful negotiations with Iran, Washington is laying the groundwork for a military attack sometime before Bush leaves office.
The USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear-powered super-carrier, along with its strike group of surface ships, submarines and air squadrons, is now nearing the Persian Gulf, where another battle group is already deployed. The last time so many American warships converged in the region was in 2003, just before the invasion of Iraq. A third carrier, the USS Harry S. Truman, is expected to arrive in the spring. Earlier this month, a navy admiral, William Fallon, took over as head of U.S. Central Command, which led the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps it is just coinci-
dence that a job previously held exclusively by army and Marine leaders is suddenly passing to a naval aviator whose expertise is waging war from carriers. Meanwhile, U.S. rhetoric about Iran’s involvement with the Iraqi insurgency continued to swell. The U.S. military last week showcased weapons that it said had been smuggled from Iran to Iraq by Iranian special forces. They included precision-manufactured armour-piercing explosives, mortar rounds, explosives, and rocket-propelled grenades. Briefers said they could have led to the deaths of 170 coalition troops.
“Everything is going into place as if we were in the process of going into war,” observes retired air force colonel Sam Gardiner, who has carried out war games simulating an attack on Iran. “We’ve sent a second carrier, a second marine amphibious unit, we are sending missile defence units, additional minesweepers, a squadron of F-l6s—and we’ve upped the rhetoric blaming Iran for what is happening in Iraq.”
The linking of Iran to the Iraq war is more than just another notch in the escalation: tactically, it could allow the administration to argue that a military attack on the country is not a new “war” that requires authorization from Congress, but an extension of the Iraq conflict, and that Iran is acting in violation of international law. Adding to the suspicions is the refusal by Rice and other admin-
istration officials to answer a question lobbed by a succession of senators, most recently Democratic Senator Jim Webb of Virginia, a former navy secretary: “Is it the position of this administration that it possesses the authority to take unilateral action against Iran in the absence of a direct threat, without congressional approval?”
Delaware Democrat Joe Biden, the Senate foreign relations committee chairman, tried another tack: “Do you believe the President has the constitutional authority to pursue [Iranian networks] across the border into Iran or Syria?” Rice replied that the President’s powers were “broad.” She added, “The American people, and I assume the Congress, expect the President to do what is necessary to protect our forces.”
Iran’s supreme leader, the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned last week that Iran would respond to a military attack by targeting American interests around the Middle East, and noted there were plenty of potential hostages. “The enemy knows well that any invasion would be followed by a comprehensive reaction to the invaders and their interests all over the world,” he was quoted as saying. And on Sunday, as Iranians celebrated the 28th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said he would soon issue a major statement relating to the country’s nuclear program. He is expected to announce that Iran last week began installing equipment beneath its central desert at Natanz that will allow it to enrich uranium on an industrial scale.
Ahmadinejad has vowed that his country will become a “nuclear superpower,” and
analysts predict Iran could produce its own nuclear fuel on an industrial scale as early as a year from now. Estimates of when it could have an actual nuclear weapon vary from a few years to a decade—but the intelligence is so poor that no one really knows for sure. Khamenei has put out a fatwa stating that a nuclear weapon is un-Islamic, and has reined in Ahmadinejad’s hot talk. But the UN Security Council doesn’t buy Iran’s assurances that nuclear technology will be used for civilian purposes only, and has demanded Iran stop what the UN believes is progress toward nuclear weapons. Iran has until Feb. 23 to suspend the program or face a ratcheting up of sanctions.
While it appears that Iran isn’t on the verge of developing nuclear weapons, the Bush administration may not be inclined to see it that way. No one can really be sure how far Iran has actually proceeded or when it might achieve a weapon, and Vice-President Dick Cheney has articulated the famous one per cent doctrine—if there is a one per cent chance that Iran has nuclear weapons that could fall into the hands of terrorists, the U.S. must act. Bush, meanwhile, gives the impression of adhering to a self-imposed deadline of the end of his term. “The perception is that President Bush really doesn’t want to leave this file to his successor, because he thinks his successor, especially a Democrat, would not handle this properly, and may allow Iran to go nuclear,” says Afshin Molavi, a fellow at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, and author of The Soul of Iran. “He believes he has this historical burden to solve this problem.”
U.S. officials insist that an attack is not
imminent. “The President has made clear, the secretary of state has made clear,
I’ve made clear—nobody is planning, we are not planning, for a war with Iran,” U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates assured reporters this month. But Nicholas Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, has added a notable caveat to such denials: “We’ve been very clear we don’t intend to cross the border into Iran, we don’t intend to strike into Iran—in terms of what we are doing in Iraq.” That qualifier still leaves the nuclear issue, about which Bush has repeatedly made clear that “all options are on the table.”
Moreover, some of the administration’s plans may depend on the definition of “war.” Do surgical air strikes against select nuclear targets qualify as war, which must be approved by Congress? Successive presidents have flouted that aspect of the constitutional division of power. By statute, presidents can order military actions for up to 60 days without congressional authorization. And prior to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, secret air strikes against almost 400 targets in Iraqi no-fly zones had begun in July 2002—three months before Congress authorized Bush to use force against Saddam Hussein, and shortly after the President returned from travels during which he repeatedly told world leaders, “I have no war plans on my desk.”
“I think it’s entirely appropriate for the world to be extremely concerned about the prospect of a U.S. pre-emptive attack on Iran,” says Natalie Goldring, a specialist in nuclear proliferation and disarmament at Georgetown University. “I think people should take
that seriously. To the extent that other governments think that is a serious concern, they should be talking with the Bush administration, and they should be doing so now.”
What would an attack look like? The popular perception that a brief bombing campaign could take out the relevant facilities is most likely false, says Gardiner, who has taught military strategy at numerous war colleges. Military action against Iran would likely involve some 400 individual strikes aimed at dozens of suspected targets, but Gardiner predicts it would not end there. B-2 stealth bombers would also hit chemical weapons plants and medium-range ballistic missiles. To reduce Iran’s ability to retaliate, military planners would also want to target Iranian airfields, and any weaponry that could threaten Gulf oil shipping, such as cruise missiles, submarines and other vessels.
Gardiner estimates a military campaign would take five nights, and result in low American casualties. He also predicts the U.S. would try to do more—such as target the leadership of the regime itself in the belief that a “decapitation” would lead Iranians to rise up and replace their government with one friendlier to U.S. interests. “It is hard to believe, after the misguided talk prior to Iraq of how American troops would be greeted with flowers and as liberators, but those inside and close to the administration who are arguing for a strike on Iran actually sound as if they believe the regime in Tehran can be eliminated by air attacks,” he wrote in a September report
for the Century Foundation. Gardiner estimates that U.S. commandos have been operating in Kurdish areas of Iran since 2004, planting radiation sensors, and have been involved in direct actions in the region of Baluchistan. But the die is not cast, Gardiner believes. “I don’t believe the White House has made a decision,” he told Maclean’s.
The risks of an attack would be huge. It would likely spark retaliation against American interests in the Middle East, and against Israel. Iran could increase its arming of Shia militias in Iraq; Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the Shia Mahdi Army, has said publicly that he would attack U.S. forces in such an event. Iran could also cut off the flow of oil in Iraq, or even try to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, a 34-km choke point between Iran and Oman through which most of the oil from the Persian Gulf passes. Presumably, escalation on both sides could continue. Oil prices could hit US$100, even US$200 a barrel.
And Iran’s nuclear ambitions could be emboldened by a U.S. attack. “The 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor in Iraq was a tactical success, but from a strategic perspective it was a failure,” says Goldring. “By attacking, they slowed the Iraqi nuclear program, but it’s clear from accounts afterwards that Saddam’s interest in nuclear weapons and sense of urgency increased after the attacks. We would risk exactly the same thing.”
CAN WASHINGTON AND TEHRAN WALK
away from this precipice? There is reason to believe they are trying. On Monday, Ahmadinejad called for negotiations. “We shy away from any kind of conflict, any kind of bloodshed,” he told ABC’s Good Morning America.
“As we have said repeatedly, we think that the world problems can be solved through dialogue, through the use of logic and a sense of friendship. There is no need for the use of force.” The same day, Bush also emphasized sanctions over strikes. “Our objective is to keep the pressure [on Iran] so rational folks will show up and say it’s not worth the isolation,” he told C-SPAN.
The sticking point is this: the U.S. wants Iran to suspend enrichment as a prerequisite to talks; Iran sees suspension as a potential outcome of such talks. “Red lines have been drawn,” says Molavi. “I’m not optimistic.” Analysts from across the political spectrum suggest it will take a lot more than attempts at negotiations, which have been tried by the European Union and rebuffed by Iran. It will take sticks, punishing economic sanctions that would push the already weakened Iranian economy to the brink, and carrots— assurances that Washington may be loath to make. Unlike North Korea, Iran’s population is not starving. Tehran can’t be bribed with offers of aid. However, there may be an economic price that is simply too high to pay—as others have discovered.
Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s dictator, was persuaded to abandon his nuclear program after years of international efforts and crippling sanctions. Argentina and Brazil were hamstrung by technical sanctions long enough to allow dictatorships to give way to democracies with more peaceful priorities. Rice herself pointed out that North Korea had been working on nukes for perhaps 30 years, and the process takes time.
Iranians have a different concept of time and negotiating, says Sanam Vakil, a professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University. “You don’t go into the bazaar and say this is what I want right away. You walk around, you look at a number of things, you ask questions, you sit down, you have tea, you ask how the man’s family is, you make conversation, and finally you ask about the carpet you like. You can’t be afraid to walk away, and then, at the 11th hour, the man will make you an offer,” she observed in a telephone interview from Tehran, where she is conducting research. “Anglo-Saxons like to sell things right away—cash! Now! Today! Their negotiating position is that everything has to be done today before we move forward. These are important nuances to understand.”
The West should also pay less—a lot less— attention to Ahmadinejad. For one thing, the Iranian presidency is a weak office in Tehran—making him only fifth or sixth in the power hierarchy—and the president actually has little influence in foreign affairs. Khamenei may have found it useful to allow the firebrand former Tehran mayor to speak out for a while, but has since put him on a short leash. “We in the West have conflated Ahmadinejad’s powers,” says Vakil. “He isn’t Man of the Year. He has very little influence in the Iranian system. We have created him.” And his influence appears to be waning. Ahmadinejad was elected on an economic platform, but the Iranian economy is plagued by double-digit inflation and high unem-
ployment. His supporters endured large defeats in local elections in December, while sanctions have dried up investment and prevented many foreigners from doing business in Iran, crippling the development of the country’s oil riches. “Iranians are not waking up in the morning hoping their government is enriching uranium. They are waking up worrying about the price of meat and about jobs,” says Molavi. “The nuclear issue is a test of whether Iran wants to be a cause or a country.”
But there must be a united front against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “The most important thing to do right now is to have broad co-operation among industrialized countries to implement the UN resolution as vigorously as we can, because that will slow down the program and give diplomacy more time to work,” says Patrick Clawson, a deputy director of research for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Raising the economic costs to Tehran is key—but the U.S. can’t do it alone, and so far no one else is willing to cut off all trade.
Working together certainly seems to have borne fruit with North Korea. Asked why she believed this week’s agreement would be more effective than the one the Clinton administration reached with Pyongyang in 1994, which was eventually violated, Rice said, “This implementing agreement has the advantage, first and foremost, of being multilateral. It has as a part of it China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States— all countries that have the right set of incentives and disincentives at hand not just to make a deal with North Korea, but to make sure that one sticks.” Rice made clear that China’s role with regard to North Korea helped make possible an agreement that the U.S. previously failed to achieve. “I don’t think you could argue that six years ago China—I want to thank the Chinese—was playing anything like the role that it is playing now as a key member of the six-party talks, not just hosting those talks, but really an active member.”
In the case of Iran, China, a major investor in that country’s oil industry, also has a major part to play—if the West can bring it onside. “I think the next step will be a more concerted effort to isolate Iran economically,” notes Peter Brookes, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asian and Pacific affairs under Donald Rumsfeld. “China is getting a lot of oil out of Iran—they are investing a lot there because others are not. But the question is, are they willing to live with a nuclear Iran?” Russia is also a key economic partner of Iran and supports its right to nuclear power. It pushed to soften the Security Council resolutions against Iran, and calls demands that Iran suspend enrichment before negotiations begin “unreasonable.” Russia could be the biggest challenge to a united front.
Ultimately, any deal with Iran would have to offer Tehran security. That was a huge part of this week’s agreement with North Korea, Rice noted. “It is an agreement that is also more comprehensive in scope, in that it looks to the establishment of ultimately a mechanism for security and co-operation on the Korean peninsula.” Iran is a military power in the region, but it fears American attack. The U.S. could offer a respite from these fears. Likewise, Iran could be made to see that obtaining nuclear weapons could set off an arms race in the region—with Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and many other nations following suit. Such
a scenario would actually reduce Tehran’s current military superiority in the region.
Security would also involve the Bush administration abandoning any talk of regime change. The White House appears to have been willing to do so in the case of North Korea. Pressed by reporters to say whether the U.S. would try to topple Kim’s dictatorship, Rice demurred, saying only that “we’re looking for a comprehensive approach to peace and security on the Korean peninsula.” In Iran’s case, says Gardiner, “The administration’s strategy now appears to be applying pressure with the full spectrum of U.S. power— diplomatically, militarily and economically. They are doing it with the expectation that Iran will back down. The problem with that assumption is the supreme leader probably believes the U.S. is after regime change. So the Iranians are going to interpret what the U.S. is doing as confirmation that they are after regime change,” he says. “So why don’t you take regime change off the table?”
What Tehran seems to crave most of all is some sort of legitimacy, a welcoming into the international fold, and a recognition of Iran’s status in the region. Of course, Washington doesn’t want to be seen legitimizing a regime that throws dissidents in jails. But the Cold War taught that it is useful to engage with one’s adversaries. “There is an argument that you are selling out the democracy activists and dissidents in Iran, but that is not the case,” says Molavi. “Most democrats and dissidents in Iran tend to favour dialogue. When you have it, it tends to lower the tensions below and allows NGOs and activists to operate more freely.” M