American Enterprise Online
January 9, 2006
By Alan W. Dowd 

After years of warnings and worries in the West, 2006 is shaping up to be a year of turning points—or breaking points—for Iran’s nuclear program. 

First things first: Iran simply does not need nuclear energy. Unlike South Korea, France or other nuclear-power-dependent states, Iran has an abundance of fossil fuels to power its own industry and feed its economy. Consider that Iran produces 79 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year and uses just 26.7 billion, with proven reserves of 26 trillion cubic meters. It produces 3.9 million barrels of oil per day, and it consumes just 1.4 million barrels per day. Iran has proven oil reserves of 130.8 billion barrels—enough to meet its current energy demands for 256 years.  

In short, Moscow’s recent offer to enrich uranium safely for Iran is built on a faulty premise. 

Indeed, the notion that Tehran’s nuclear plants will be devoted to peaceful purposes is laughable—at least as long as the current regime is in power. At the very least, the mullahs and their hand-picked strongman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, want an insurance policy against regime change. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught them that the US military has the capacity, quite simply, to erase their regime in a matter of hours. So they are racing to build the only thing that seems to give America pause—a nuclear bomb. At the very worst, they want a weapon that will enable them to achieve what their regime has always talked about—the elimination of Israel. 

To date, Washington has forced Tehran to concede that its scientists were conducting illegal plutonium-separation experiments as late as 1998. Up until June 2005, they insisted that all such experiments had stopped in 1993. In late 2003 and 2004, international nuclear inspectors reported that Iran had breached agreements to suspend uranium-enrichment activity, including efforts to manufacture and acquire centrifuges. Also in 2004, Pakistan confirmed that A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s bomb, had shared his secrets with Tehran. 

Even the Europeans have lifted their heads from the sand. In December, British diplomats joined the Bush administration in concluding that documents turned over by Tehran provide fresh evidence that Iran intends to manufacture nuclear weaponry. Led by Britain, the EU seems ready, at long last, to refer the matter to the UN Security Council—a step Tehran has implied would serve as some sort of trigger.  

Speaking of triggers, President George W. Bush seems less than eager to pull the trigger on Iran. After all, Iraq and Afghanistan have reminded his administration that building nations can be harder than winning wars. As a consequence, US forces are stretched thin. This is to be expected in a time of global war; however, it limits US options and capabilities in Iran.  

Yet the risks are too high simply to cross our fingers and hope for the best. A nuclear-armed Iran would threaten the United States in a range of new ways, raising the specter of nuclear terrorism, nuclear blackmail, a new nuclear arms race, even a regional nuclear war. Allowing Iran to crash into the nuclear club is simply too dangerous, which is why Bush will pull the trigger if he has to. He has said “all options are on the table.” And if America’s friends and foes have learned anything from the last five years, when Bush says “all options,” he means it.  

* * * 

If the situation is dangerous for America and the EU, it’s worse for Israel. After all, Iran has called for the destruction of Israel for decades. Since the mullahs have never possessed the one weapon on earth that has the capacity to erase nations, the threats remained in the realm of distant nightmares.  

Soon, very soon, the nightmare could come to life: Arguing that the Holocaust is a myth, Ahmadinejad has advocated the relocation of Israeli Jews to Europe. With nuclear weapons within reach, and radicalized leaders in place, is it hard to imagine a nuclear-armed Iran giving Israel an ultimatum between a latter-day Holocaust and a latter-day Diaspora? 

With the power plant at Bushehr scheduled to go online this year, Israeli intelligence believes Tehran will be able to produce a nuke before the end of the decade. Thus, it’s no wonder why members of the Israeli cabinet are also saying that “all options” are on the table. For his part, would-be prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu has vowed “to take every step required to avoid a situation in which Iran can threaten us with nuclear weapons,” including preemptive strikes. Stroke-stricken Israeli Prime Minster Ariel Sharon has said, obliquely, that Israel is “taking measures to defend itself.”  

What sort of measures? Some we can see; some we cannot.

-The respected British paper the London Sunday Times reported last spring that Israel had drawn up plans to use air strikes and commandos against Tehran’s nuclear sites. The report noted that Israel had been practicing the preemptive operations in its own Negev desert facilities. Other reports indicated that Israel would hit six nuclear sites simultaneously.

-In late 2004, Israel confirmed that it was buying hundreds of bunker-busting bombs from the US.

-To carry those bombs into battle, the Israeli air force has acquired 25 F-15s (one of the most sophisticated bombers in the US arsenal) and a number of modified F-16s. GlobalSecurity.org notes that the planes, once mated with special under-wing fuel tanks, will be capable of reaching nuclear sites in Bushehr and Esfahan. 

Stratfor, a Texas-based research firm specializing in international security, calls an Israeli preemptive strike “risky, difficult and politically delicate—but not impossible.” It notes that Israel’s most likely routes of attack would be through Iraq (the most direct route) or Turkey (which partners with Israel on a range of security issues).  

With Turkey a NATO ally and Iraq ostensibly under US control, either angle of attack would present diplomatic challenges for Washington. Iraq, it pays to recall, is dominated by a freely elected Shiite government. A raid on Shiite Iran through Iraq would likely inflame a large portion of the Iraqi populace and could jeopardize the government (and thus the US nation-building operation).  

A raid via Turkey presents its own problems: As we were reminded in the buildup to Operation Iraqi Freedom, Turkey’s ruling party is no longer the secular, hard-nosed, realpolitik variety we once knew; instead, it is an overtly Islamic party. It is difficult to imagine the current Turkish government allowing Israeli warplanes to strike another Islamic state. Even so, on New Year’s Eve the Jerusalem Post reported that the US had begun coordinating plans with NATO allies, including Turkey, for a strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  

This prospect opens a vast array of military options for any anti-ayatollah coalition. Iran is surrounded by neighbors that either distrust or despise its government, each representing routes of attack. Afghanistan, with its secluded US bases, sits to the east. The open waters of the Arabian Sea lap at Iran’s southern coast. A number of secular, US-friendly emirates sit just across the Persian Gulf. And although Saudi Arabia has done plenty to prove it is both America’s friend and America’s enemy, it is definitely Iran’s enemy. If the old saying about the “enemy of my enemy” holds, then Saudi bases or airspace could come into play.  

In short, Israel, working in quiet or even anonymous partnership with Washington and other friends, has many more options than we might think.       

Of course, Washington’s willingness to talk with regional and NATO allies about preemptive strikes underscores that the Bush administration is being motivated by common sense: If and when Iran’s nuclear sites are hit, the US is going to be held responsible for the consequences. One can almost hear some sage colonel or general in the Pentagon saying, “If we’re going to be blamed—or credited—for doing something, we might as well do it ourselves.” 

* * * 

Perspective is everything, and from the mullahs’ perspective perhaps the only thing more worrisome than watching the fractured transatlantic allies come slowly together is reading press reports about the Israeli military training in the Negev to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Doubtless, Tehran recalls Israel’s no-nonsense record when it comes to nukes in its neighborhood: A preemptive strike on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981 stunned the world—and arguably spared Washington from a nuclear showdown with Baghdad a decade later.  

In this atmosphere, where Iran is diplomatically isolated and arguably just as threatened by Israel as by yet another US-led coalition of the willing, perhaps Washington can quietly offer Tehran a choice between shutting down the plants voluntarily and watching the Israeli air force do so with laser-guided bombs. After all, only Washington can preempt Israel from acting preemptively. (Recall how the elder Bush thwarted Yitzhak Shamir’s bid to flatten Baghdad in 1991.) 

If Nixon could go to communist China, if Reagan could hold summits with the evil empire, why couldn’t the younger Bush—architect of the war on terror, liberator of Afghanistan, slayer of Saddam’s regime—send an emissary to Tehran to lay out Iran’s options (and America’s), thus making it easier for the mullahs to accept a face-saving EU plan to denuclearize?  

If the White House sent the right person—someone who knows the neighborhood, someone who commands the attention of the listener, someone like Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf—neither our friends in Israel nor our enemies in Iran would misread America’s gesture or intent.