Little remarked upon last month except by the anti-war left and the journalists covering the foreign policy beat for an elite readership, the United States has given notice to the Islamic Republic of Iran that it has by March to begin substantive cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), or else. That else, it would seem, is a U.S. declaration that if Iran does not do so, then Washington will push for the IAEA governing board to refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council.
That, in turn, raises important questions. The first, of course, is what then? What might be authorized by the IAEA governing board and the UNSC if, by March, Tehran fails to “come clean” as the United States demands?
The first possibility is that nothing will occur – that this is bluster by Washington to either once again mollify the neo-conservative right in America or the pro-war hawks in Israel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has hinted that this may be the case when, in response to questions about the spring deadline, she noted that March provided space between American elections in November and Iranian elections in June of 2013 to pursue “serious negotiations” on Iran’s nuclear program.
This, however, seems unlikely. First, the IAEA and other members of the international community have been “negotiating” with Tehran over its suspected nuclear weapons program since 2002. Why March 2013 should be a particularly opportune time to pursue more “jaw, jaw,” as Churchill famously put it, is not at all clear.
Second, regional and global trends seemingly provide a window of opportunity for U.S.-led strikes on Iran that did not exist in previous years. For one, U.S. military commitments in neighboring Iraq is significantly reduced – meaning there are no U.S. troops to hold hostage there as there were at the height of the insurgency in 2005 and 2006. Similarly, though U.S. troops retain a significant presence in Afghanistan, reductions are planned and NATO forces on the ground are becoming fewer and farther between – putting fewer Western ground forces at risk of retaliation in the event of hostilities with Iran.
Another “positive” development that may tip Washington’s calculus is the recent Israel-Hamas stick fight in Gaza, which has been seen by some as a trial run for a war with Iran. Though the Israelis may not have won much politically or strategically vis-à-vis Hamas, the success of Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system potentially provides Israel a significant defensive advantage against Hezbollah’s massive rocket arsenal in southern Lebanon.
Combined with Israel’s total command of the air and the disruptive chaos caused by the Syrian civil war, Hezbollah may find its ability to strike Israeli targets significantly degraded. At the very least, the Syrian rebellion has forced Hezbollah to commit forces to aiding troops loyal to the regime of Bashar Assad – meaning Hezbollah would be fighting on two fronts if Iran was struck.
Oil, Israel and the Persian Gulf
A third factor at work in potentially pushing the White House toward war with Iran in the near future is a significant decline in world oil prices from earlier highs and, more importantly, the growth of U.S. domestic energy supplies. Though both are likely to be only temporary buffers against increases in prices in the long run, they nonetheless somewhat shield the U.S. and the wider global economy from the repercussions of a military campaign against Iran’s nuclear sites in the short term. Additionally, the U.S. may believe it can successfully neutralize Iranian attempts to close the Straits of Hormuz or that Iran will be so hurt by a cut-off in the Gulf oil trade that it will be hurt worse than the U.S. and its allies if the Persian Gulf becomes an active war zone.
Fourth, the ascendency of the Israeli far-right and Israel’s greater sensitivity to Iranian nuclear ambitions may make a U.S. strike inevitable given the influence of pro-Israel factions in U.S. domestic politics. The Israeli elections, slated to occur in late January, is widely expected to solidify the right’s grip on Israeli politics – potentially giving Israeli leaders the domestic political cover they need to force a showdown with Tehran. March, of course, would be after Israeli elections, too – not just America’s presidential contest this past November.
Fifth, the U.S. military buildup in the Persian Gulf, described this past September by the then Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, as “impressive” is likely to have been complete, or near enough as to make no difference. Since early in 2012 the U.S. Navy has kept at least two of its powerful carrier battle groups in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea. This armada was reinforced in July with the additional dispatch of F-22 and F-15 fighter aircraft, minesweepers, drones and a probable special operations command ship to the Persian Gulf, and reports now put the number of U.S. carriers in the region at four. This is in addition to the significant multinational naval flotilla dispatched by U.S. allies and already in the Gulf that could be expected to protect sea lanes if war occurs. For point of reference, the U.S. Navy had five carrier battle groups operating in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.
It also was revealed this October that the U.S. asked Britain for the use of its bases in Cyprus and Diego Garcia for military action against Iran – especially critical as both are key locations for the staging of refueling and long-range bomber aircraft. Though rebuffed by London, it is by no means certain that the U.S. does not have access to these bases already. Indeed, it seems difficult to conceive of a situation wherein the U.S. would not have access to them if circumstances warrant – such as Security Council authorization to use force.
International pressure, IAEA
Finally, the last element in the correlation of forces pointing toward a U.S. strike against Iran sometime after March of next of year is that time is running out in two ways. The first, of course, is the prospect that Iran may very well be close to developing some sort of “breakout” nuclear capability where all the pieces are in place for it to assemble a working weapon very quickly. Though Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has denied that Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons and has publicly stated that such weapons are sinful, there is some evidence to support that this wasn’t always his position. Furthermore, a working weapon is different than one which is disassembled and its parts dispersed – which may give Khamenei the theological “out” he needs to have his nuclear cake and eat it too. Such nuclear ambiguity – where a country both has and does not have an actual working weapons capability – can be useful, as the long standoff between India and Pakistan and Israel’s nuclear “ambiguity” would confirm.
Is Iran close to being in such a position? That is something no one knows except, perhaps, Iran’s leaders and the many intelligence agencies working to uncover and/or sabotage Iran’s nuclear efforts. What is known, however, is that an Iranian program has likely existed in one form or another for 10 years, possibly longer, and continues, despite crippling economic sanctions and covert skullduggery, to exist. The IAEA, the global umpire on nuclear issues, also has cried foul of late – lambasting the Islamic Republic in early November for preventing access to suspected nuclear weapons development sites while at the same time doubling its uranium enrichment capabilities.
Of course, the IAEA has long been a pawn in great power games and claims of weapons work or existing weapons have been demonstrably and expensively debunked before – see the Iraq War debacle. But, IAEA skepticism on Iraq’s intentions in 2003 lends credibility to its view of Iran’s intentions now, and will no doubt go a long way toward convincing the international community that action is warranted. Certainly, Iranian intransigence in opening up its sites for inspection, even if Tehran is being completely honest, does nothing to help them and gives ammunition to those in Israel and the West who are calling for military action – and the fate of Saddam Hussein should be proof enough that trying to maintain the pretense of having weapons but not actually possessing them is an extraordinarily dangerous game to play.
In all likelihood Tehran is indeed working on some sort of nuclear weapons program. Given its dangerous neighborhood and the overt hostility the United States, Israel, Saudi Arabia and many others direct at it, can you blame them? If one finds oneself surrounded by enemies whom you believe are dedicated to your destruction, nuclear weapons can be a comforting deterrent. Israel – which is believed to possess around 200 weapons – has found this to be the case, so it makes sense for Iran to think so, too.
So, Tehran’s program could itself be nearing some sort of “point of no return” beyond which it would be very difficult to knock out. Another time factor, however, is the window of opportunity that the United States continues to enjoy by dint of its military superiority over the rest of the world. This, as I recently explored in the context of U.S.-Chinese relations, may be a dwindling advantage that may not be usable in the future. China is already exceptionally dependent on Middle East oil supplies and remains Iran’s top customer despite the imposition of increased economic sanctions on Iranian oil exports by the U.S. government.
China’s role in the controversy
At present, Beijing has no ability to deter a U.S. attack on Iran. But, in two or three years will that be the case given China’s rapid military modernization and naval buildup program? Will it be the case in five years? Certainly in 10 years China will possess enough military power to protect its interest in Iranian oil more forcefully than it can now. One could even conceive a future situation where Chinese ships escort Iranian tankers through the straits of Hormuz much as the U.S. Navy escorted Kuwaiti tankers through the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. For Washington, what then?
What then indeed. At that point Iran could call on Chinese protection and China could credibly provide it – daring the U.S. and the West to intervene. By then, of course, it would be too late to act and Iran could do whatever it wanted – including building nuclear weapons. The only hope then would be for a shift in Iranian domestic politics toward a pro-U.S. position, something not likely to happen given the ease with which the Iranian government cracked down on the so called “Green Revolution” there in 2009 and 2010. All the more reason then, decision makers in Washington might calculate, to act now during the current window of opportunity. All the short-term incentives point toward a strike while all the long-term incentives argue against – meaning that if the United States and Israel wish to quash Iran’s nuclear ambitions militarily, sooner, rather than later, is better.
March of 2013 could then turn out to be a point-of-no-return for all involved. Having publicly stated that Iran must give the IAEA something by March or else face a possible Security Council Resolution, Washington has essentially said that military action is not just on the table, but is the centerpiece. The U.S. and its allies tried and failed to get U.N. authorization to attack Iraq in 2003, but invaded anyway. The U.N. gambit then, as it turned out, was window dressing intended to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy for an invasion that was to go ahead anyway. One suspects that an effort by the U.S. at the U.N. in 2013, only this time aimed at Iran, will similarly result in a meaningless diplomatic dog-and-pony show before the shock and awe of the main event.
So, as our newly-elected Caesar prepares his legions for action against the Persian hordes, it would do well to keep the old maxim, “beware the Ides of March” in mind. The original warning, of course, was given by a blind oracle who had prophesized that the victorious Julius Caesar, who was to be assassinated by a plot hatched by his friends and peers in the Roman Senate, would come to great harm on that date. However, I suspect that a better warning to our militaristic leaders might be the one that the Romans themselves provided to victorious generals and emperors in the form of a slave who whispered in the ear of the conquering hero as he paraded in ceremonial triumph through the city’s streets: “Remember, Caesar. Thou art mortal.” Good advice for the leaders of a country made weary by a decade of recession and war.