War drums are beating again in Washington, nearly a decade after the push to invade Iraq over stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that turned out to be non-existent. This time critics warn that time is running out for President Barack Obama to stop Iran’s alleged progress toward building a nuclear weapon. A growing chorus of hawkish voices say the United States—or Israel—must soon bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities or else accept a world in which the theocratic Islamist regime wields nukes, and then try to “contain” the threat.
The world’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, concluded in a report on Nov. 8 that Iran is closer than ever to obtaining nuclear weapons. Then, on Friday, Nov. 18, the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors, including representatives from China and Russia, voted to censure Iran. “The information indicates that Iran has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device,” said the agency’s head, Yukiya Amano.”
The IAEA said Iran has been acquiring large quantities of enriched uranium, and that it was working toward perfecting an “implosion device” that would turn it into a weapon. “It is no longer within the bounds of credulity to claim that Iran’s nuclear activities are solely peaceful,” said Glyn Davies, the chief U.S. delegate to the IAEA.
Tehran’s response was to dismiss the report as American fabrication, insisting that its nuclear program is only for civilian energy. “We will not budge an iota from the path we are committed to,” President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a public speech the day after the report’s release. So what now?
On Monday, the White House, along with Canada and Britain, announced toughened sanctions on Iran’s petrochemical industry. But there is pressure on Obama to do much more. “If we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” declared former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at a Republican presidential debate this month. Romney called for tougher economic sanctions and a “very real and very credible military option,” bolstered by the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean Sea and Persian Gulf. Another Republican presidential rival, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, called on Obama to sanction the Iranian central bank “right now and shut down that country’s economy.”
Bipartisan pressure is also mounting in Congress. In August, 92 out of 100 U.S. senators signed a letter calling for a ban on transactions with Iran’s central bank. On Nov. 17, House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi wrote to Obama asking for the same. “Clearly, the time available for the United States and responsible nations to prevent Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear capability is running short,” the lawmakers wrote.
There have been mysterious incidents that some believe are Western attempts to sabotage the program: scientists linked to Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been mysteriously gunned down, a virus called Stuxnet damaged their centrifuges and, earlier this month, an explosion at a munitions base killed a senior Revolutionary Guard commander who worked on the missile program.
But so far in public, Obama is moving cautiously—and to his critics, timidly. Administration officials have expressed concerns that clamping down on the Iranian central bank might create a spike in oil prices that could pummel the teetering global economy. Those concerns led to a heated exchange at a House subcommittee hearing on Iran chaired by Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah, who demanded of an administration official, “Why is the price of a gallon of gas the primary driver in our—in the Obama administration’s quest to supposedly make sure that they don’t get a nuclear bomb, for goodness’ sake?” The Treasury Department’s leading official on sanctions, Adam Szubin, responded that while the price of oil is not the primary driver of Iran policy, “It is certainly a consideration because it is a primary driver of the recovery that’s going on worldwide and the strength of our economy and that of many of our allies.” Szubin also noted that a spike in oil prices could give Iran a financial windfall.
The administration sounds even more skeptical of military strikes. Like his predecessors, Obama has said that a nuclear armed Iran is “unacceptable,” and the administration has said all options, including military strikes, remain open. Even so, officials have continued to talk some of them down. “The President has not taken any options off the table,” Colin Kahl, deputy assistant secretary of defence for the Middle East, told a House hearing last week. “But I also want to emphasize our continued belief that, at this time, diplomacy and pressure remain the most effective tools for changing Iran’s behaviour.”
On Friday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered the same message—that the administration would stick with diplomatic pressure and sanctions. “Obviously to go beyond that raises our concerns about the unintended consequences that could result,” Panetta said.
U.S. analysis suggests a strike on Iran would set back its nuclear program—which Tehran says is only for peaceful purposes—by one or two years at most. It could also invite retaliatory attacks on U.S. forces in the region. Other considerations include the delicate state of the Arab Spring, says Matthew Duss, director of Middle East progress at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington. “If the U.S. took military action, you would see a wave of anti-Americanism in the region that would be devastating to our effort to facilitate a positive transition.” Furthermore, military strikes could cause Iranians who have turned against their regime to rally around it.
Rather than take such risks, the Obama administration is operating on the assumption that multilateral pressure will have the biggest impact on Iran in the long run. “The Obama administration is trying to work much harder to create international consensus and to be seen as working within that consensus,” Duss says.
The approach is causing concern in some quarters that the White House is preparing to accept the inevitability of a nuclear-armed Iran, and laying the groundwork for a Cold War-style strategy of containment. “I think the administration is leaning toward the containment option, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a military option,” Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former official in the administration of George W. Bush, told reporters.
Critics say that the White House’s dovish approach is hurting its diplomacy. “The fact that there is not a credible use-of-force option on the table—at least not one that the Iranians believe—has to some degree disabled the diplomacy,” says Eric Edelman, a former diplomat and undersecretary of defence in the Bush administration,
Edelman argues that the timing may be right for military strikes—to wait longer is to risk waiting too long. In a recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “Why Obama should take out Iran’s nuclear program,” Edelman and his co-authors say that while the consequences of military strikes may be troubling, “the possibility of a nuclear Iran is likely even worse.”
Once Iran obtains weapons, the nuclear balance that will matter will be between Iran and Israel, and it will be “inherently unstable,” says Edelman, now a fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “And you are likely to get a cascade of nuclear weapons in the region.” A Middle East with four or five nuclear powers would be less stable than the old U.S.-Soviet rivalry, he said. “It could exponentially increase the chances that these things get used for the first time since 1945.”
Edelman also questions whether concerns about oil prices are valid. After all, the U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks last year quoted the Saudi ambassador to the United States as saying that King Abdullah was urging Washington to “cut off the head of the snake” in Tehran by launching military strikes. “I can imagine an effort by several OPEC countries to hold oil prices down,” says Edelman. Lower energy revenues is a price Saudi Arabia is presumably willing to pay.
While the Obama administration talks down military strikes, they are being talked up by Israel. Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, warned that a strike was possible, and according to news reports that option has been discussed by the Israeli cabinet. After Dec. 31, at least one operational limitation to a potential Israeli strike—flying though U.S.-controlled airspace over Iraq—will disappear as the U.S. withdraws fully from that country. “From the Israeli point of view, it might be a time to go ahead and act and do something,” says Edelman.
But others are skeptical that Israel is preparing to move. Duss speculates that the Israeli rhetoric is aimed at putting pressure on the U.S. as much as on Iran. He notes that when Israeli air strikes took out a partially built reactor in Iraq in 1981 and a suspected reactor in Syria in 2007, they were preceded by no sabre-rattling or warning.
“When they go silent,” says Duss, “is when we should get scared.”