Friday, February 03, 2006

An 'Intolerable' Threat

The Wall Street Journal:
As we go to press, the Governing Board of the International Atomic Energy Agency appears set to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council. This supposedly indicates the seriousness with which the world views Tehran's decision to resume enriching uranium. Yet while the threat is very real, the seriousness is mostly pretend. The referral includes no call to action, which Russia and China object to in any event.

We will have future occasions to lament U.N. fecklessness vis-à-vis Iran. More worrisome is the hazy thinking about just what Iran's nuclear programs portend, and whether the risks of stopping it outweigh the risks of simply acquiescing in the "inevitable." For now, the weight of elite opinion, sighs and laments aside, seems to be on the side of acquiescence. And the Iranians know it.

"I would sleep happier if there were no Iranian bomb," writes former Times of London editor Simon Jenkins. "But a swamp of hypocrisy separates me from overly protesting it." Iran, he adds, "is a proud country that sits between nuclear Pakistan and India to its east, a nuclear Russia to its north and a nuclear Israel to its West. . . . How can we say such a country has 'no right' to nuclear defense?" In other words, what's the big deal? READ MORE

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Well, the deal is the combination of the world's most destructive weapons in the hands of clerical radicals who might use them. And even short of using them, Tehran's rulers could use the leverage of the bomb to dominate the Middle East and limit America's ability to defend itself and fight terrorism. Now that Saddam Hussein is in jail, the Iranian bomb is the gravest threat in the world to U.S. interests.

The most immediate threat in the region would be to Israel, an ally that only this week President Bush said we would defend against Iran. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has publicly mused that the Jewish state should be "wiped off the map," and former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has said that "the use of a nuclear bomb in Israel will leave nothing on the ground whereas it will only damage the world of Islam." Why should we assume they don't mean this?

All the more so because Iran's current leaders seem possessed of an apocalyptic Islamist vision that wouldn't mind an episode of pan-global martyrdom. "We must prepare ourselves to rule the world and the only way to do that is to put forth views on the basis of the Expectation of the Return" of the Mahdi (Shiite Messiah), says Mr. Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian President is sometimes dismissed as a figurehead, especially on nuclear questions, but he wouldn't have his job without the consent of the ruling clerical council for whom he also serves as a mouthpiece. His fanaticism suggests a mindset that isn't vulnerable to the normal calculations of deterrence that governed during the Cold War. The complacent tell us not to worry because no state would dare use a nuke because that would only guarantee its own destruction. But what if you're a cleric who likes that trade-off?

A bomb would also give Iran far more leverage to press its influence abroad since it will believe it is immune to retaliation. In Lebanon, the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah sits on Israel's northern border with 7,000 medium-range missiles, deterred only by Israel's conventional arms superiority. But the military balance changes once Hezbollah's patron becomes invulnerable.

A nuclear Iran could also wield a predominating influence in OPEC. It could disrupt maritime traffic in the Persian Gulf and force the U.S. Navy out of its narrow, shallow waters. It could menace Europe, and eventually the U.S. homeland, as its ballistic missile capabilities develop. It could arm Palestinian terrorists with sophisticated weapons, turning Gaza into a risk not just for Israel but the entire Mediterranean basin.

It would be in a position to extend its influence into the Caspian region and neighboring Afghanistan. It could meddle in the affairs of traditional rivals such as Saudi Arabia (which, like Iraq, has a sizeable Shiite population in its eastern provinces); the Saudis -- as well as the Egyptians and the Turks -- might respond by seeking nuclear weapons of their own.

It's also important to consider the effect that a nuclear Iran would have on the potential for a democratic Iran. Its nuclear project is often portrayed as a matter of national prestige, the implication being that any strike against it would rally the regime's domestic opponents to its side. What Iranian dissidents tell us is closer to the opposite. A nuclear Iran would enhance the mullahs' sense of invulnerability and facilitate domestic repression.

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The timetable under which the Iranian threat operates also needs to be reconsidered. For years, advocates of diplomacy have claimed the nuclear danger lies far away -- a decade, if last year's leaked U.S. National Intelligence Estimate is to be believed. Yet last month Mohamed ElBaradei, the director general of the IAEA, told Newsweek that if the Iranians "have the nuclear material and they have a parallel weaponization program along the way, they are really not very far -- a few months -- from a weapon."

As to whether such a parallel program exists, Mr. ElBaradei "won't exclude that possibility," and with good reason. Much of what now comprises Iran's declared nuclear facilities -- the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz; the heavy-water production plant at Arak -- were themselves part of a secret program until 2002, when their existence was disclosed by an Iranian opposition group. This week, the existence of the so-called "Green Salt Project" (referring to a byproduct of uranium enrichment) was revealed by the IAEA, further evidence that Iran's programs may be more advanced than commonly believed.

Whether the Iranians are months or years from a bomb, there is little question they are on their way. In past years, President Bush has described a nuclear Iran as an "intolerable" threat. It's time he begins explaining to the American people exactly why this is so.