March 09, 2012

This Week, Barack Obama Promised to Go to War On a Nuclear Iran. He May Live to Regret It

The last week has been consequential for the future of Iran and its nuclear programme. It has not, however, been very clarifying. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington, and came away with both more and less than he might have hoped.

On the one hand, he extracted from President Obama a quite remarkable pledge: that the United States would go to war if Iran obtained a nuclear weapon. Only one country – Israel – has ever waged war for this purpose alone, setting aside the idiosyncratic case of the United States nine years ago in Iraq.

Washington considered such preventive action against the nuclear programmes of Germany in the 1940s, China in the 1960s and North Korea in the 1990s. The Soviets thought about attacking the programmes of Israel in the 1960s and South Africa in the 1970s. India toyed with a strike on Pakistan in the 1980s. None of these countries ever had the stomach to go ahead. Now, America has issued a loud and historic commitment to do so – one that it may come to regret.

Israelis will welcome this safety net below them. 58 per cent of polled Israelis oppose a strike on Iran without US backing. Obama also sent a message of restraint. He expects Israel to wait for diplomacy to exhaust itself, and the sanctions to be tested, before any precipitous action.

Netanyahu complained last week that the sanctions – the fiercest ever imposed on the Islamic Republic – "haven’t worked". That’s a strange conclusion, because the sanctions haven’t even fully kicked in yet. Europe’s oil embargo and America’s effort to cut off Iran’s central bank come to fruition only in the summer.

It will take months after that to tie up loopholes, like Iranian efforts to blend their oil with others’, and months again for these policies to work through Iran’s already-ailing economy. So, all in all, Obama has very likely bought himself six or seven months – an arrangement possibly lubricated by the sale of bunker-busting bombs to Israel.

At the same time, the high drama and awkwardly forced bonhomie of the weekend’s AIPAC conference – at which Obama bent over backwards to assuage Israeli concerns – also suggests that American and Israeli redlines are sharply diverging.

Obama promised to avert an Iranian weapon. But Netanyahu, like some members of the US Congress, wants to rule out Iranian nuclear weapons capability. This is a term so nebulous as to be devoid of meaning. Japan – an exemplary nuclear steward, which has never toyed with the IAEA – could likely put together a bomb in anywhere from six months to five years. Iran is, of course, further along the curve than Japan – but how far is too far?

The only sure-fire way to remove nuclear capability altogether is to stop all enrichment, as the UN Security Council has been demanding in vain for five years. After all, no enriched uranium means no bomb (Iran has little prospect of going down the alternative, plutonium route).

The first problem is that much of the world doesn’t see a big problem with this. Peter Jenkins, one of Britain’s former envoys to the IAEA, has noted that, in contrast with a few years ago, "the West is all but isolated in insisting that Iran must not enrich". Of course, most countries would like to see Iran comply with the UN – but don’t expect them to push particularly hard.

The second and more serious problem is that Iran simply isn’t going to comply. Our insistence that any settlement end with Iran suspending all uranium is just as much an obstacle to talks as Iran’s own blatant, on-going obstructionism. Israel has gone even further, demanding that Iran export all its uranium and raze its enrichment facility at Qom. It is hard to see how that is anything other than an effort to sabotage diplomacy.

It’s true that the civilian rationale for Iran’s nuclear programme is highly suspect. Iran is enriching too much uranium for medical purposes (and doing so too late, with too much secrecy) but too little for energy-generation purposes (and on an obviously uneconomical basis).

But Iran may be clinging to the full fuel cycle for reasons of prestige, for reasons of domestic politics, and – yes – because it seeks the option of a nuclear weapon, as the US intelligence community and others have repeatedly assessed. However, it’s far more important to get Iran to agree to stringent inspections (codified in something called the ‘Additional Protocol’ to the NPT) than to stop enriching.

Under a strong inspections regime, Iran would be a nuclear weapons capable state. But it’d be enmeshed in tripwires and laden with alarm bells. If it ever tried to "break out" and dash for a weapon, we’d know. Iran would have to expel inspectors, withdraw from the NPT, or enrich uranium to weapons-grade under the nose of the IAEA. The full force of the international community would fall upon it.

If Iran is bombed, it will almost certainly reconstitute its programme underground – and then, Iran will once more become a nuclear weapons capable state. But it will have no tripwires and alarm bells. When Iraq’s Osirak reactor was bombed in 1981, Saddam Hussein injected twenty times the resources into what had previously been a haphazard nuclear programme. As former US Pentagon official Colin Kahl notes, it would have resulted in a bomb, were it not for the First Gulf War.

This is why, in the final instance, our bargaining position is rather weak. Since invasion and occupation is not on the cards, even our trump card – air strikes – turns out to be rather futile. Yet Israel’s strategic thought, like that of other countries caught up in a curious mix of self-confidence and vulnerability, is not always logical.

Netanyahu may have drawn his own redlines this weekend. Iran might cross them by upgrading its centrifuges, by producing a certain amount of uranium enriched to 20 percent, or kicking away the chair at the negotiating table next month. We don’t know. Perhaps Israel will see a closing window of opportunity in October this year, just as American election season reaches fever pitch, on the grounds that an electorally embattled president will be compelled to acquiesce in an Israeli assault.

In quantum mechanics, we have the idea of Schrödinger’s cat – a box containing a cat whose status, alive or dead, is simply unknown until the box is opened and the matter settled. In other words, the act of observation affects – in fact, determines – the thing being observed. When the first bunker-buster violently peels open Iran’s nuclear boxes, the deliberate ambiguity that has characterised the programme for nearly a decade will collapse.

We are at risk of winding up with one of two unpleasant outcomes: either an Iran that is ground down by years of futile but crippling sanctions, all the while accumulating enriched uranium, or – if Netanyahu ignores the counsel of his own public and President Obama – Schrödinger’s bomb.