August 21, 2004

Osirak '81; Bushehr '04?

Lots of Iran chatter these days--mostly on the nuclear angle.

For one, Iran signals that preemption talk can work both ways:

"We won't sit with our hands tied and wait until someone does something to us," Shamkhani [the Iranian Defense Minister] told Arabic channel Al Jazeera when asked what Iran would do if the United States or Israel attacked its atomic facilities.

"Some military leaders in Iran are convinced that the pre-emptive measures that America is talking about are not their right alone..."

"Any strike on our nuclear facilities will be regarded as a strike on Iran and we will respond with all our might."

That's pretty strong jingo-jawbone from Teheran. Much of it bluster, of course. But with crude prices soaring (hedge fund managers will doubtless help push it north of $50 soon), an election in the U.S. looming (ie., the view from Iran is that Bush can't start another war pre-election), the, er, sensitive Najaf going-ons and potential for a greater destabilizing Iranian role in Iraq should the U.S. pursue more punitive actions contra Iran--all are likely emboldening Teheran that it can get a bit more boisterous about both the pursuit and protection of its nuclear capacities.

Zeev Schiff has more on all this with the view from Israel.

So, with the U.S. less likely to take any preemptive action, might Israel (whom Teheran suspects has perhaps received a green light from Washington to do so--an erroneous analysis, in my view) instead?

Martin van Creveld, in the pages of the IHT, thinks it's quite possible. So, the big question--might an Osirak redux be in the works?

Numerous foreign sources have claimed that to counter the perceived threat from Iran, Israel has deployed missiles on land and at sea that are capable of inflicting awesome damage on Iran. Should Israel decide to strike at the Iranian nuclear installations, though, it is more likely to use its F-15 fighter-bombers.

The only country whose reaction to such a strike would carry great weight with Israel is the United States. Because Iran is suspected of supporting at least some of the insurgents in Iraq, many U.S officials might privately welcome an Israeli strike on Iran, just as they welcomed Israel's destruction in 1981 of the nuclear reactor that Saddam Hussein was building near Baghdad. With the United States now in the midst of a hotly disputed election campaign, if Sharon wanted to act, the time to do so would be between now and November.

And so the pieces may be falling into place, one by one. If Israel strikes, Iran may react by launching its own missiles at Israel, but this is unlikely. Tehran may ask Hezbollah's leader, Sheik Nasrallah, to open fire on Israel, in which case it is very likely that hostilities would not be limited to Lebanon but would spread to Syria as well. It remains to be seen how Egypt would react if Israel attacked Syria. In the past, President Hosni Mubarak has said Egypt would not take such an action lying down.

[emphasis added]

I have to say I strongly disagree with the portions of Creveld's analysis I bolded above. An Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, apart from increasing the prospects of a regional conflagration (including in the Levant, it should be noted), would actually serve to increase our difficulties in Iraq.

Shi'a radicalization will increase dramatically if Sharon strikes Iran and Sadr (or the memory of a martyred Sadr) will benefit with legions of new volunteers entering the fray and picking up arms against coalition forces.

Nor do I think that Bush would want Sharon to attack pre-election, as Creveld speculates. The risks of a major regional escalation (and of a more active and naked Iranian scuttling role in Iraq) would likely prove a net negative for Bush in the election. Put differently, when the cup looks to really runneth over--some fence-sitters or distraught voters will look to vote Kerry calculating he will be the guy to pull our troops out of the entire (increasingly chaotic) 'region' more expeditiously.

No, my best guess is that the U.S. is going to try to drag this entire Iran mess into the UNSC in the coming half year or so--with the Brits, French and Germans continuing to be active participants in a soi disant 'muscular' multilateral approach that aims to at least make the going somewhat tougher for Iran to go nuclear. The danger with this strategy, of course, is NoKo policy paralysis on the Iran question too.

Regardless, and ultimately, we need to signal to the Iranian people whether we are opposed to Iran ever going nuclear or merely Iran going nuclear when it is (largely) run by theocratic fanatics. I don't know where I stand on the issue (I gather Iran-watchers like Michael Leeden are O.K. with a nuclear Iran if the government were deemed Washington-friendly).

But revolutions come and go; governments come and go. No one is hyper-sanguine that Pakistan has nuclear weapons merely because cuddly Pervez is running the store in Islamabad. A 'friendly' future government in Iran could become decidely unfriendly later. And, of course, if Iran goes nuclear (whatever the government in power); Saudi Arabia will increasingly feel she needs a nuclear capacity as well....

NB: More on the whole nuclear proliferation issue here too:

Rather than renouncing their nuclear programs to avoid the fate of Saddam's Iraq, other states have chosen to develop a viable nuclear capacity as quickly as possible. With U.S. troops tied down in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a presidential election approaching, Iran and North Korea may have calculated that now is exactly the wrong time for the U.S. to be confrontational with its antagonists and to back up its threats of war in yet another country.

The lesson that would-be rogue states have learned from the Bush administration is that it's extremely dangerous to have an ambiguous stance on proliferation. The tough choice facing such countries is not "renounce weapons of mass destruction or face America's military might." As Iran and North Korea have demonstrated, the real choice is "give up your weapons program immediately or develop it as fast as you can."

That is the logic behind Iran's increasing defiance of the United States, the European Union and the International Atomic Energy Agency, as it restarts work on its uranium-processing plants. That is also the logic behind North Korea's recent decision to reprocess its nuclear fuel rods, probably increasing its nuclear arsenal from two to eight weapons.

[emphasis added]

I've met and respect Ian Bremmer's work. But the part I bold above is a tad problematic. Iran and NoKo have been striving to go nuclear for many years now. Bremmer makes it sound like Bush's more robust counter-proliferation policies are a major reason that Iran and NoKo are hell-bent on going nuclear. In other words, the policy of preemption can cow a Libya (the good); but also have the effect of causing a NoKo to intensify her efforts to go nuclear--where she might not have done so before (the bad).

I don't really buy that line. Both Iran and NoKo have had as a strategic objective nuclear weapons capablity for many years now. To blame, in large part, their heightened nuclear appetites on Bush's policies (as Bremmer seems to) I find highly questionable.

Posted by Gregory at August 21, 2004 06:51 PM


I agree with your assessment of the wisdom of an Israeli strike against Iran at this point in time. The fallout would be disastrous, especially in Iraq, but it would also reverberate throughout the region. Suffice to say, radicals, fundamentalists and Islamists would have their hand strengthened yet again.

But I must disagree with your attribution of Libya's disarmament to the policy of pre-emption. This ignores the decades of efforts made in this area, which in fact laid the implementation groundwork for the current plan, and also turns a blind eye to the many overtures Qadhafi has made in furtherance of his goal to re-enter the international community. He condemned terrorism strongly after 9/11, offered his allegiance in the war on terror, settled the Pan Am lawsuits, and then disavowed his WMD program. The last move in that string was taken because he knew it would score big points with the American administration, and because he was already traveling down that road to begin with.

Posted by: Eric Martin at August 23, 2004 06:25 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree about the problems we'd have after an israeli strike. Of course the "more likely" nonnuclear strike would be vastly preferable to israel using their nukes and becoming the second nation ever to nuke another country.

But the Bush administration has never yet agreed with me about foreign policy, why would they start now?

Suppose that israel made a nuclear strike on iran. There would probably be some literal fallout on iraq including our troops. We would have the political issue of which americans supported israel and which americans condemned the attack. If Kerry criticised that attack while Bush gave his unconditional support, that would swing the zionist vote his way and guarantee him the election. If he agreed with me about this analysis, don't you think it would take priority over anything else for him?

I really can't predict what the UN would do after an israeli nuclear attack. The USA would presumably veto any action critical of israel. Would they make israel a permanent member of the Security Council or not?

Posted by: J Thomas at August 24, 2004 03:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Various nations have been setting things up so they could build nuclear weapons if they chose to, without quite violating the nonproliferation stuff. They've been doing that for years and years.

Now we're giving some of them an incentive to go ahead and build their nukes as fast as they can.

Before, they wanted to have the option. Now they have to figure, use it or lose it. We are likely to take drastic action against them whether they do or not, unless they succeed.

Why again did Bush make those loud announcements about Axis of Evil? Was it perhaps for domestic political reasons?

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