America, Iran and mowing nuclear grass
Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.
In the long-running Western debate over what to do about Iran’s nuclear program, fresh language has been as rare as fresh ideas. But here’s a novel phrase worth noting: “Striking Iranian nuclear sites is like mowing the grass.” How so?
The man who coined the simile, Middle East scholar Aaron David Miller, argues that no strike, or series of strikes, could permanently cripple the Iranian capacity to produce and weaponize fissile material. Absent complete success in wiping out Iran’s hardened and widely dispersed nuclear sites, “the grass would only grow back again.” The Iranians would “reseed” the grass “with the kind of legitimacy that can only come from having been attacked by an outside power.”
The presidential hopefuls of America‘s Republican Party could do worse than take note of that assessment. In the first foreign policy debate of the Republican primary race on November 12, all but one of the nine would-be presidents supported an attack — by the United States or Israel — on Iran to stop it from getting the bomb, if sanctions failed, as they have done so far.
Unlike the presidential candidates, Miller is familiar with the subject. Now a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a Washington think tank, he worked for 25 years in senior roles at the State Department as a Middle East negotiator and adviser. He is not alone in arguing that an attack on Iran would only delay, but not end, Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In the United States, a long list of prominent experts on Iran and nuclear proliferation share that view and in Israel, Meir Dagan, the former head of the Mossad, the foreign intelligence service, has called bombing Iraq “a stupid idea” and repeatedly warned that an attack would have disastrous consequences for Israel.
The latest round of the “to bomb or not to bomb” debate, a recurring theme for the better part of a decade, was triggered by a November 8 report from the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which said Tehran appeared to have worked on designing a bomb and may still be conducting secret research to that end.
The qualifying word “may” quickly disappeared from most media reports and from discussions of the issue. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a few days after the IAEA report’s publication that it did not reflect the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program and warned that “Iran is closer to getting a bomb than we thought.”
That is music to the ears of Republican critics of President Barack Obama, whom they accuse of lacking firmness in dealing with the Iranian government and failing to rally international support for sanctions tough enough to convince Tehran that it is time to give up its nuclear ambitions.
Foreign policy is not likely to play much of a role in the 2012 presidential election and Obama has an impressive record of foreign policy successes, from the killing of Osama bin Laden to the U.S. role in ending the dictatorship of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya. But in a country whose citizens regularly name Iran as the greatest threat to the United States, according to Gallup polls, any perception of weakness towards Tehran could become an issue.
VOTE FOR OBAMA, VOTE FOR THE IRANIAN BOMB?
“If … we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon,” Romney said at the Republican foreign policy debate. “And if … you elect me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.”
How would he prevent this? If he were president, he explained in an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal, he would impose tougher sanctions, regularly send aircraft carriers into the Mediterranean and the Gulf, speak up on behalf of Iranian dissidents and increase military assistance to Israel.
“These actions will send an unequivocal signal to Iran that the United States, in concert with allies, will never permit Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Only when the ayatollahs no longer have doubts about America‘s resolve will they abandon their nuclear ambitions.”
For sanctions to work, they need to be global and there is no good reason to think that a Republican president would have more success than Obama in convincing China and Russia to agree to additional economic pressure against Iran. Obama’s latest attempt came in meetings with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Chinese President Hu Jintao at a summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation this week.
The outlook for the future of this confrontation looks as bleak now as it probably will after the 2012 U.S. elections — learn to live with an Iranian bomb or start yet another war with consequences nobody can predict.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters.com)