Thursday, January 12, 2006

Iran flouts the international community

Iran has given the world the figurative finger:

Iran has removed international seals from a nuclear facility to begin research defying foreign pressure.

The move ends a two-year suspension of research, and could result in Tehran being referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.
This comes on the heels of Tehran's decision to resume nuclear conversion last August. When that broke, it was supposed to be as far as Iran would go:

In conversion, yellowcake is turned into UF-6 gas. In the next stage of the process - which Iran has said it will not resume for the time being - the gas is fed in centrifuges for enrichment. Uranium enriched to a low level is used to produce nuclear fuel; further enrichment makes it suitable for use in an atomic bomb.
The 'time being' lasted a whopping four months. The Iranians claim, of course, that such research is solely for energy generation purposes. But in a country that exports 2.5 million barrels of oil per day, this claim appears dubious. It would be like Kansas wheat farmers moving toward rice cultivation--it makes no sense economically and would strain relations with Japan (or in the case of Iran, most of the non-Islamic world). And Moscow has offered to allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia, a proposal that Tehran has rejected.

Obtaining nuclear weapons might make Iran the de facto leader of the Islamic world. Currenly, only Pakistan has them, and Musharraf's government is a (tenuous) US ally. Obtaining such potency would make Iran a substantial player in world affairs, especially within the Middle East. And those plans for the Middle East might well involve the destruction of Israel. Iranian President Ahmadinejad has denied the Holocaust as well as, ironically, calling for its reinactment by wiping Israel off the map. An ayatollah and former Iranian leader certainly hinted at that last month:

Two-times former Iranian leader Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said earlier this month that the Muslim world would win a nuclear exchange with Israel, aggravating fears Tehran's quest for atomic weapons indeed has one purpose: the annihilation of what it calls the Zionist “cancer.”

“[The] application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel - but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world,” Hashemi-Rafsanjani was quoted as saying by the government-controlled Iran Press Service.

I am torn when it comes to Israel. Ashkenazi Jews have contributed enormously to the progression of humanity. They have, as a group, been more persecuted than any other in the history of the world and yet they have tenaciously continued to out do their neighbors everywhere. Israel is the third wealthiest, most modern, and most amiable country to the West in all of the Middle East, despite being smaller than New Jersey and having no oil. The nation is the canary in the coal mine when it comes to Islamic terrorism--innocent Israeli women and children being blown to bits in Tel Aviv buses might become New York City commuters if Israel is wiped off the map.

On the other hand, we have plenty of problems at home. The borders are open, health care costs are out of control, the tax code is arcane, a greying baby boomer generation is set to retire, ad infinitum. Getting mucked up in Middle Eastern politics has at least in part led to the Iraq debacle. If we could wean ourselves of oil, the Middle East would be as strategically important as sub-Saharan Africa and we could quit pouring so many resources and men into the miasmi. Further, Israel has done things to antagonize us, such as selling weapons systems to China.

The US is not happy with Iran's latest developments:

The US and EU immediately condemned the latest move.

Gregory Schulte, the US ambassador to the IAEA, said it showed Iran's "disdain for international concerns and its rejection of international diplomacy".
The so-called E3 (Germany, France, and the UK) are putatively taking the lead in negotiations with Tehran, but with oil going for $64 a barrel and Iran pumping 4 million barrels per day (coming to $256 million in revenue every 24 hours, or some $93 billion annually), threats of economic and diplomatic sanction have no teeth.

France and Germany do not strike me as hawkish enough to take military action against Iran. Great Britain is tied down alongside the US in Iraq. Russia, while feigning concern over Iran's actions, is trying to reestablish itself as a major force in global politics and has little reason to go to bat for the West. And China, with an insatiable appetite for energy that matchs its stellar economic growth, has a vested interest in staying on good terms with Tehran (the PRC's animosity towards the US doesn't make it any more difficult for China to support Iran, either).

The hapless UN should, not surprisingly, be ruled out as an effective source of stick as well. With China and Russia both permanent UN Security Council Members, there is no way a resolution of worth will be passed (any of the 15 members can veto a resolution).

This leaves three viable options:

1) Allow Iran to enrich uranium and continue on the path towards creating nuclear weapons. In response to international pressure, Tehran has not even flinched:

Iran threatened on Friday to block inspections of its nuclear sites if
confronted by the U.N. Security Council over its atomic activities. The hard-line president reaffirmed his country's intention to produce nuclear energy.
(Giving responsibility to the UN to halt Iranian nuclear activity is tantamount to allowing the country to enrich uranium). The risk is obvious here. Iran also has strengthening ties with Chavez in Venezuela, which could bring the threat closer to home. although a nuclear Iran poses a much more direct threat to Israel and Europe than it does to the US.

2) Execute a NATO blockade of the Persian Gulf and shut off all marine transit therein. Economic sanctions, which would likely only be taken up by a few European countries and the US, belong under option #1--Iran sends less than 4% of its exports to the EU3 or the US. The only way to hurt the Persians economically is to physically stop their trade with the rest of the world. This risks retaliation by other countries, particularly China--the second largest recipient of Iranian exports and the fourth largest exporter to Iran. It would also accentuate tensions between the Christian West and the Islamic world.

3) Tacitly approve of Israeli air strikes. Israel may appear chaotic at the moment with Sharon down and probably out, but it is inconceivable that the country will allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. Israel considers Iran its gravest threat, and recent comments by President Ahmadinejad have augmented that opinion. But an Iranian target would not be as soft as Osirak was in 1981. Tehran's nuclear facilities are bunkered deep underground and difficult to penetrate by air (although Israel has recently acquired "bunker busters" from the US, designed to do just that). Instead, Israel might be forced to attack other Iranian targets.

The third option appears optimal to me. It also makes the first option unlikely. Israel can scarcely be loathed by the Islamic world more than it already is. Trying to compromise has gotten the country nowhere, as the Oslo Accords and stepped up Hamas terrorist activity following Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza Strip show. The second option risks escalating into a broader conflict, pitting the Muslim world and the Sinic dragon against the West, with Russia going either way or more likely remaining neutral.

++Addition++ The US is abnegating the leadership role in dealing with Iran to Europe. Ostensibly this is a conciliatory move, but with over 130,000 troops tied down in Iraq, a ground strike would require a large coalition (probably NATO) or the removal of US forces from other places of current station. The Iraq war is not, however, consuming most of our forces. There are 1.4 million active duty personnel and some 860,000 reservists--Iraq is thus currently home to about 6% of the US' total military manpower.

Presumably the deployments in South Korea and Japan will stay, although I'd like to see the US draw down forces in Asia while encouraging Japan to continue its substantial military spending--now third in the world behind only China and the US--while tacitly giving Koizumi's government the nod for nuclear weapon development if Japan should so choose. But there are 90,000 service people in Europe alone.

A military incursion would fully ignite the incendiary relationship between the West and the Islamic world. Declining birthrates in Europe and the growth of Islamic immigrants have brought to light a cultural and ethnic fault line developing on the Old Continent. As Europe grays and becomes more inundated with Muslims, reversing the trend will become more and more difficult. A showdown now might provide an impetus in Europe to halt Islamic immigration.

Unfortunately, that's a pipedream given Europe's political elites suicidal love affair with multiculturalism. Somewhat encouraging is a recent Reader's Digest survey of Europe that found "80% across the eight countries felt that immigrants should be required to learn the language, history and culture of their host country. The Germans (93%) backed this the most enthusiastically, followed by the Dutch (90%)."

Even if fullscale military operations were taken against Iran, it's questionable as to how that would benefit the US. Overthrowing the mullahs in Iran might weaken the reinforcement that hardline Shia in Iraq get, but an Iranian insurgency would probably be worse than the one in Iraq. The threat of production disruptions across Iran and Iraq, which account for more than six million barrels of oil daily, could send prices upward and slow the global economy.

Another reason Europe is being given the leadership position on Iran is that, fairly or not, the US intelligence community has lost credibility internationally, same for the Bush administration domestically. It is politically inconceivable that the Administration would try and gin up support for harsh action--someone else will have to take the lead.

Finally, where does Saudi Arabia come down on Iran's breaking of the UN seals? Persian, Shia Iran is arguably one of the two influential poles in the Islamic world. Sunni, Arab Saudi Arabia is the other:
Iran has a tradition of being the cultural leader of the Persian plateau, but it lost its position with the emergence of Islam. Other political and military revolutions also overshadowed its position. However, the 1979 Islamic revolution signaled the cultural revival of Iran, and after the breakup of Soviet Russia in 1991, Central Asian republics naturally gravitated toward Tehran, and since then it has actively courted them.

Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is the leader of the Wahhabite form of Islam, which is particularly anti-US, and in this capacity it supports movements for Islamic revival all over the world. The logical climax of these movements is jihad. (These movements define jihad as the struggle to uproot man-made systems and install divine guidance on earth.) The obvious result of this school of thought is controversy, conflict and war. Palestine, Kashmir and the Philippines are prime examples, and Saudi Arabia has openly funded the Philippines' Moro National Liberation Front, the Hamas in Palestine and the Lashkar-i-Taiba in Kashmir.
The idea of an Iranian invasion into Saudi Arabia has been tossed around before. Does the House of Sa'ud put any credibility into that threat? It doesn't appear that they've said anything publicly about Iran's latest move. My guess is that the country will try and keep a low profile as the Iran-West tensions play out.


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