Foreign Affairs

Day after Iran tests the bomb

Iran will become an atomic weapons state because it already has the raw materials, technology, the ambition, and no single or group of nations is willing to do what is necessary to deny that outcome.

Atomic weapons in the hands of the radical Islamic Republic of Iran has been “unacceptable” to both the Bush and Obama Administrations and most of our allies, especially Israel which considers the proposition an existential threat. 

Our “unacceptable” policy translated into half measures – weak sanctions, covert action, and military threats – to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions.  But only two alternatives will stop Iran’s atomic weapons program: a popular uprising that installs a government which abandons atomic arms and foreign invasion.  Neither alternative is likely which is why it is time to prepare for the day after Iran tests the bomb.

Before considering the “day after” it is helpful to appreciate Tehran’s bizarre motivation for atomic weapons, its hurried-up nuclear arms program, and why our half measures will inevitably fail.

First, the Islamic Republic of Iran is ruled by clerics and devout Shi’ites who hate the West and is driven by an apocalyptic branch of Islam that believes its duty is to begin world war that brings the return of their Mahdi (messiah) – an Imam so powerful he will bring the world under Islamic rule.  An atomic bomb is Iran’s war trigger. 

Second, the regime is making rapid progress acquiring an atomic weapons capability.  Last fall the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), announced evidence of Iran’s accelerating atomic weapons program.  The agency’s report states Iran created computer models of nuclear explosions, conducted experiments on triggering a fissile reaction and completed advanced research on a miniaturized nuclear warhead that could be delivered by a medium-range missile. 

Last week the IAEA confirmed Iran’s nuclear material enrichment program took a dangerous turn.  The regime shifted its 20% uranium enrichment activities to the underground site at Fordow near the holy city of Qom, which offers protection against air strikes.  By the end of this year Iran is expected to have more than enough 20% enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb which could quickly be turned into weapons-grade material (90%) in a month or less.

Finally, the West’s efforts to deny Tehran atomic weapons are doomed.  Tehran’s opponents have been attempting for years to use a combination of diplomacy, sanctions, and covert action to persuade the mullahs to abandon the bomb.  And now there is talk of limited military action which will also fail. 

Years of increasingly tough economic sanctions failed to persuade Iran to abandon its atomic weapons program.  Now the Obama administration is hosting the strongest sanctions yet which target the Central Bank of Iran, the main conduit of oil revenues.  Those sanctions also target companies like China-based Zhuhai Zhenrong Co., the largest supplier of refined petroleum products to Iran.

But these sanctions which enjoy international support are doomed because Russia and China refuse to fully cooperate.  Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov accused the West of imposing sanctions “which go far beyond the boundaries of achieving nonproliferation objectives.” China, a major consumer of Iranian oil, threw cold water on the tougher sanctions as well.

A Chinese ministry of commerce spokesman said China will not heed the U.S.’s request to sanction Iran because it “will do serious damage to China’s domestic economy.”  Iran is China’s third-biggest source of oil, supplying more than 5% of total needs.

Covert operations are part of the West’s failing campaign to persuade Iran to abandon atomic arms as well.  An American diplomatic cable disclosed by WikiLeaks listed “covert measure” as one of the pillars of Israel’s approach to Iran. 

Iran alleges foreign covert operatives are responsible for assassinating five Iranian nuclear scientists, planting the Stuxnet computer worm to destroy enrichment centrifuges, and sabotaging a missile-testing site, near the nuclear facility at Isfahan.  But such covert activities are not enough to stop Iran’s atomic program because it includes hundreds of people across many widely scattered facilities. 

Military options are gaining attention especially now that Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said in mid-December that Iran can assemble a bomb within or year or even less.  But those options are ultimately doomed as well. 

Three military options are likely under consideration: target Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities; target the weapons facilities and regime assets; and launch a 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq-like operation.  We should immediately disabuse ourselves of the third option because the U.S. has no appetite for another land war in the Mideast. 

A limited strike option to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities could have unintended consequences and only stall, not end, the Iranian nuclear drive.  After all, America’s bombing effectiveness, the best in the world, is rapidly deteriorating because Iran is burying its atomic facilities out of reach for even our biggest conventional bombs like Boeing’s 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator.

The second option would also target regime assets such as command centers to reduce Iran’s ability to retaliate.  The goal would be to trigger an uprising that would topple the regime, an unlikely outcome. 

But both options will earn quick retaliation.  The mullahs will close the Strait of Hormuz through which 35% of the world’s seaborne oil passes daily, launch ballistic missiles at allied strategic facilities, conduct preplanned covert actions, and unleash its terrorist proxies like Hezbollah.

Therefore, because sanctions, covert action, and limited military options are likely to fail we must prepare for the inevitable atomic Iran. 

So what should we do?  Last week, the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), an Israeli think-tank that enjoys a particularly close relationship with the top echelons in Israel, conducted a simulation exercise to consider the “day after” scenario.  It concludes that an Iranian nuclear test would radically shift the whole power balance of the Middle East.  The INSS outlined what might occur the “day after.”

The US would try to restrain Israel from military retaliation by proposing a formal defense pact, according to the INSS report.  Then Russia would propose a defense pact with the U.S. to arrest regional nuclear proliferation in part to try specifically to prevent the Saudis from developing their own atomic arsenal.  Meanwhile, the newly minted atomic Iran will demand new borders with Iraq and sovereignty over Bahrain.

But in an interesting twist, even though the simulation showed that Iran will not forgo nuclear weapons, Tehran “will attempt to use them to reach an agreement with the major powers that will improve its position.”  That conclusion parallels an emerging perspective shared by some Israeli elite.

Last year, Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad (Israel’s intelligence organization), objected to an Israeli strike on Iran because it would engulf the region in war.  Then last month he added that a nuclear Iran “did not necessarily threaten Israel.”

Two things are becoming obvious regarding Iran’s atomic quest.  The U.S. has neither the will nor the international support to topple the regime and an Arab Spring-like Iranian revolution doesn’t appear likely either.  What does appear likely is the grudging acceptance of an atomic armed Tehran, and a radically changed Middle East.

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