The recent release of the three month old secret memo written by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates about the Obama Administration's failure to develop a strategy i.e. contingency plans, to deal with Iran's progress towards eventual development of nuclear weapons has generated more heat than light on the issue. However, it does bring back into focus the diplomatic stalemate surrounding the Iranian efforts.
Originally embarrassing to Administration officials who denied Gate's assertion, the issue has been somewhat diiminished politically because Gates, a loyal team player, has provided some cover by subsequently saying that in the memo he just wanted to "contribute to an orderly and timely decision making process" and that it “was not a wake-up call.”
For several years Iran has denied any military purpose for it's nuclear program but international intelligence efforts, Iran's lack of full cooperation with IAEA inspectors and their continued expansion of nuclear facilities has created a consensus among the U.S., EU and Israeli leaders that Iran's nuclear program is indeed intended to create the capability for developing nuclear weapons. On April 18, 2010 Iran announced the construction of a third enrichment facility.
In February, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which is the UN's nuclear proliferation watchdog , reported that Iran was actively pursuing nuclear weapons capability.
Whether the Gate's memo is correct or not, and it probably is, the policy choices for the Obama Administration are both limited and unappealing for different reasons.
1. Continued reliance on a diplomatic solution.
This strategy is preferred by the political Left both here and abroad and among several conflict avoiding prominent officials at international organizations. These individuals seem blind to two important facts. Diplomacy is a process not a goal. Diplomacy i.e. the negotiating process must have an end game i.e. what will be the consequences if the process fails? These consequences, provide an incentive for the compromises necessary for success. So far, all diplomatic efforts have failed because of Iranian stonewalling i.e. IAEA inspections; acceptance of some concessions and then retraction i.e. nuclear fuel swaps to ensure enrichment at levels only suitable for energy production; and then simple refusing to participate.
2. Economic sanctions: Very limited sanctions (almost to the point of being symbolic) have been applied by the U.S. and some European nations. Attempts at passing strong sanctions in the UN Security Council which would give them the force of international law have been stymied by the objections and probable veto of both Russia and China. Russia is currently sounding as if they would consider stronger sanctions but probably not anything on the level of significant coercion. China remains intransigent. The current conventional wisdom seems to be that the most effective sanction would involve an embargo on the import of refined petroleum to Iran, which produces very little domestically. President Netanyahu of Israel also wants a ban on Iran's export of crude petroleum, their major source of international exchange. The downside of these proposals even if they could be enacted are several.
A. A ban on oil exports from Iran would throw the international oil markets into chaos. Iran is OPEC's second largest producer. Oil prices would rise dramatically, whether justified by the law of supply and demand or not as speculators controlled the market. A dramatic increase in the price of oil while the world's economies struggle to climb out of the economic recession would be a major setback.
B. Even such a serious blow to the Iranian economy would probably not be effective in terms of modifying it's nuclear agenda. The history of economic sanctions has shown that they are rendered inefficient because of non-complying suppliers of embargoed goods. The incentive for these suppliers goes up as the price of the goods, now in short supply, goes up. Non-compliance by both major players (China) and minor players based on the prospect of future political and economic benefits also remains in play.
C. Economic sanctions often provide an unpopular government with a domestic political advantage by its ability to demonize the external powers for causing the domestic hardships, thus allowing them to rally political support in a "us against them" posture.
Of course, these difficulties do not mean that more punitive economic sanctions will not be sought. The Obama Administration shows no signs of giving up the effort even if it means a sanctions policy "of the willing" as opposed to universal, UN approved sanctions. Such a policy, even if believed by the government to be ineffective has certain unstated advantages. It might be seen to appeal to domestic (U.S.) groups to avoid the charge of inaction. It might be seen as political appeasement of hard line foreign governments and populations (Israel) for the same type of political advantage.
3. The third option is military engagement to destroy or seriously delay Iran's nuclear development capability. Given the significant problems with this option, its main advantage may be simply "keeping it on the table" publicly. This could serve as the possible end point consequences necessary for successful diplomatic negotiations.
The actual use of air power by manned attract aircraft and cruise missiles, is highly problematic.
A. They might not be effective against hidden or hardened Iranian nuclear facilities.
B. They would almost certainly cause a Iranian military response: missile attacks against U.S. troops and facilities in neighboring Iraq; the closing of the oil commerce important Straits of Hormuz with the disruption of world oil markets.
There is also the possibility of a unilateral Israeli military effort if all other options fail. This seems highly improbable without U.S. knowledge and cooperation. Any Israeli air strike would have to over fly Iraq. The U.S. controls Iraqi airspace so an Israel over flight would be physically impossible without U.S. knowledge and politically impossible without U.S. cooperation. Even without U.S. participation, the U.S. would be blamed and the aforementioned Iranian responses plus missile attacks on Israel might be forthcoming. Unfortunately, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Admiral Mike Mullen has taken away the use of the military option for diplomatic purposes by his recent statements which essentially remove it as a possibility.
Predictions: Punitive UN sanctions will not be approved or applied but lesser sanctions probably will be. The Iranian government will continue to develop the capability to produce nuclear weapons. When Iran becomes a nuclear capable power, the U.S. response, in cooperation with the major nations of the European Union will be one of a policy of deterrence, which will require a credible nuclear policy on the part of the U.S. in spite of President Obama’s naiive stated desire to create a nuclear free world.