By Paolo von Schirach
February 23, 2012
WASHINGTON – Any bright new ideas about how to stop Iran’s nuclear program? Well, not really, unless you want to count the bellicose pronouncements made by some of the Republicans now fighting for their party’s nomination. These are our action guys. They vow to stop Iran with whatever we’ve got. Rick Santorum openly disagrees with Chairman of the Joint Chief’s Martin Dempsey advice for caution in assessing the Iran situation and any US (or Israeli) response.
Bellicose Republicans vow to teach Iran a lesson
”Listening to the commanders in the field –Santorum said– when they are going up against a dangerous theocratic regime that wants to wipe out the state of Israel, that wants to dominate the radical Islamic world and take on the ‘Great Satan’, the United States, we do nothing. That is a president [Obama] who must go and you want a leader who will take them on. I will do that.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich said, “If you think a madman is about to have nuclear weapons and you think that madman is going to use those nuclear weapons, then you have an absolute moral obligation to defend the lives of your people by eliminating the capacity to get nuclear weapons.”
So here is the Republican juxtaposition. On one side you have the wavering and fearful Obama administration incapable of showing resolve, and therefore enboldening the evil Iranians. On the other side you have brave and resolute Republicans who cannot wait to teach the bad guys a serious lesson.
US does not have the tools to eliminate Iran’s program
But here is the problem. Beyond the belligerent Republican words, the truth is that the US, whatever your judgement about Obama’s courage, in this unhappily constrained environment, does not seem to have the resources to seriously follow up on any threat. And this is what came out from a February 23 CSIS Dialogue hosted by Bob Schieffer, anchor of CBS Face The Nation, featuring retired General James Cartwright, former Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, retired Admiral William Fallon, former Commander of the US Central Command and David Sanger, chief Washington correspondent of The New York Times and a leading expert on US foreign and security policies.
What came out of this discussion is that the US does not have the tools to go to war with Iran on this issue. Apparently the US lacks the military resources to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. Even an extensive US air campaign at most may delay it, but it will not cripple it. the Iranians now have the knowledge to start all over, even if precious facilities are destroyed through massive bombings. If this is so regarding much stronger America, even less likely that bombing strikes by Israel acting alone will be more effective. Israel simply does not have an air force large enough to accomplish this mission.
Well, this sobering consensus alone coming from people who do know the military speaks volumes about America’s diminished resources and consequent inability to influence events through meaningful threats. Iran is not the old Soviet Union. It is a significant country, but it should be no match for America, until yesterday the most powerful country on earth.
Nobody has a fix on Iran’s true intentions
Beyond that, according to the all discussants, we still do not fully understand Iran’s game plan. Are they just trying to go near the threshold of obtaining nuclear weapons or do they really want to get them? And, assuming they get them, what will they do with them? Lots of theories and speculation, but no real consensus. Also not clear for any of the panelists what the Obama administration may or may not do, should the Iranian enrichment program go beyond any level deemed permissible for civilian purposes. Lines have been drawn; but what will happen if the Iranians decide to cross them is anybody’s guess.
Sanctions are working
The only positive note is that there is consensus that the international sanctions this time are strong enough to inflict real harm. The Iranians can no longer conduct regular business because their banks no longer have access to international exchanges. Difficult for them now to have any normal international transaction. And with the oil boycott, they may forced to sell their crude at a discount. All this hurts. But again, not clear how the Iranians take all this. Will these punitive actions convince them to get a deal with the US and the rest of the world? Or is this something that pushes them to redouble their efforts? Amazingly, no one has a real handle on any of this.
Bottom line: the only people who really know what to do (even though they cannot really tell us how) are Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. However, since their chance of getting elected president and thus actually leading the charge are slim, it looks as if we will have to live with this Iranian nuclear uncertainty for quite a while.
The real issue is political intentions
In all this, it is clear that the problem is not about a nuclear program, but it is about the alleged political intentions of those promoting it. Germany and Japan have civilian nuclear installations, but no one is afraid that these are just precursors to aggressive nuclear weapons programs. Germany and Japan are stable democracies with no bellicose intentions.
The end of the Iranian theocracy would solve this problem
In Iran’s case we simply do not know about intentions, given the rather bizarre nature of this regime . We can only hope that at some point the Iranian people may be able to put an end to this grotesque theocracy, thus re-creating the basis for a normal dialogue with the rest of the world. While apparently no one can fathom the secret goals of the Mullahs, I would think that a more representative Iranian leadership would not be such a difficult customer.