By Dana H. Allin and Steven Simon
The Wikileaks trove of diplomatic documents confirms what many have known for a long time: Israel is not the only Middle Eastern country that fears a nuclear armed Iran and wants Washington to do something about it.
If Tehran was listening, the truth of this fear was apparent last month in Bahrain, where the International Institute for Strategic Studies organized a large meeting of Gulf Arab ministers, King Abdullah of Jordan, Iran’s foreign minister Mottaki, and top officials from outside powers including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The convocation was polite: no one said it was time to “cut off the head of the snake,” as Saudi Arabia’s King was reported, in one of the Wikileaks cables, to have urged in regard to Iran. But Arab anxiety about Iran’s power, and how it could be augmented by nuclear power, was palpable.
As one might also expect, the closer Arab capitals are to Iran, apart from Baghdad, the more fervently their rulers implore Washington to take vigorous action – up to and including military action – against Iranian nuclear facilities. Some, like Saudi Arabia, have offered to make up for Iran’s lost oil production in the event of war to limit the adverse effect of higher prices on a weak US economy. In those countries closest to Iran, moreover, the Arab street shares regimes’ worries. In a poll last year in Saudi Arabia, 40 % of respondents in three large cities said that the US should bomb Iran, while one out of four said that it would be OK with them if even Israel did the job. The governments of countries farther away but within range of Iran’s Shahab 3 missiles – such as Egypt – are also nervous. In an act of not-so-subtle messaging, Egypt has agreed to let nuclear capable Israeli warships through the Suez Canal, so that the Israeli Navy can get to the Persian Gulf quickly. These ships would not be going there for a port visit and shopping at the Sharjah souk.
It should be said that Wikileaks’ reckless disclosures threaten to box in both Washington and its allies in damaging ways. The purpose of secret diplomacy, as opposed to public throat clearing, is to allow governments to express views freely, experiment with positions, and bargain without creating pressures for rash action or causing paralysis. The problem with Wikileaks’ irresponsible revelations is that they complicate diplomatic coordination in matters, literally, of war and peace.
Yet, despite the muddle, there is no reason for Washington to change its basic course. A military option against nuclear facilities will not be ruled out in any event; yet the purpose of US policy should be to forestall the moment when the US must choose whether to disarm Iran or settle for a strategy of containment. The relative weakness of of America’s current position dictates this approach. The United States still has large numbers of troops committed to two wars, faces the possibility of conflict in Korea, and remains mired in the unemployment emergency created by the financial crash and Great Recession. European, American and Russian cohesion on Iran policy is still fragile. In the fullness of time, these debilities can be overcome.
And there is time. To be sure, among the new revelations was an alarming report of Tehran’s cooperation with North Korea to produce more powerful ballistic missiles. Iran now possesses 33 kilograms of uranium enriched to the 20% threshold for highly enriched uranium, as well as large stocks of low enriched uranium and about 8000 centrifuges, at its enrichment facility at Natanz. Yet only half of these centrifuges are operational. It appears that a combination of poor centrifuge design, technology export controls and covert action has hobbled Iran’s program. The Stuxnet computer worm, which caused delicate centrifuges to spin out of control, is a limited example of what can be done short of war.
Washington’s implicit policy of playing this string out is therefore the right one, and it starts with certain advantages. Although it is not clear that sanctions will have the desired effect of changing Iran’s behavior, the diplomacy behind them has strengthened the coalition against Tehran’s defiance of UN resolutions and the Obama administration’s policy of improving relations with Moscow has helped, too. This is the beginning but not the end of effective strategy, which will require military, political and deterrence measures. Conventional military preparations, including arms sales to Arab Gulf states and Israel, will be necessary, as will U.S. bases and naval presence in the Persian Gulf.
Political and ideological measures are also important. This is one reason why the Obama administration has pressed hard on the Israel-Palestine peace process, and has sought a freeze on Israeli settlements in occupied territory. Success would neutralize a source of Iran’s ideological appeal in the Arab world. Washington also needs to up its game in Lebanon. In marking the November anniversary of Lebanon’s independence, President Obama declared that he was “committed to doing everything [he] can to support Lebanon and ensure it remains free from foreign interference, terrorism, and war.” To counter regional perceptions of Iranian strength and deflate Tehran’s own reckless sense of power and impunity, Lebanon is critical terrain. The U.S. should push for more effective UNIFIL action to block Iranian arms entering Lebanon via Syria and engage more energetically on behalf of Lebanese political parties cowed by Hizballah’s military power. Mobilizing international support for the gradual decommissioning of Hizballah’s arsenal—as the US did in the case of the IRA – will be necessary in the long run.
The final element would be a tacit nuclear guarantee to threatened states, especially Israel. Explicit nuclear guarantees are probably unnecessary and may be counter-productive. But Washington can make clear that Iran’s use of nuclear weapons would trigger overwhelming American retaliation through whatever means were necessary.
None of these measures implies fatalism about Iran as a nuclear weapons state. Indeed, there are circumstances under which the United States might have to use military force to block Tehran from weaponization. Nor do they foreclose a negotiated solution. They would, however, foster the regional stability and national strength that brings the US closer to a successful – and hopefully peaceful – resolution of its three-decade grudge match with Tehran.
Dana H. Allin is a Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Steven Simon is Adjunct Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. They are the authors of The Sixth Crisis: Iran, Israel, America and the Rumors of War.