To bomb or not to bomb Iran

By Jonathan Power

The talk is talk. Or will it walk? Mitt Romney, the US Republican candidate for the presidency, says that on his watch Iran would not be allowed to build a nuclear weapon but that on his watch President Barack Obama will let it happen.

In the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a mouthpiece of the American foreign affairs establishment, Mathew Kroenig has penned an article “Time to Attack Iran”. The time for talk is over, he says.

He seems to forget that it was the US who encouraged the Shah 40 years ago to begin Iran’s nuclear programme. The first discussion I attended on whether Iran was wanting a bomb was at the Institute for Strategic Studies 30 years ago. Time passes but the argument barely changes. All one knows is that in all this time many opportunities for a sensible negotiation have been ignored.

Koenig writes that, “If Iran begins enriching its uranium to weapons grade levels of 90% or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom the US must strike immediately.”

While admitting that it would be “enormously difficult” to destroy Iran’s nuclear plants it could and should be done. New bunker-busting bombs would take care of underground facilities. They can penetrate through 200 feet of reinforced concrete. However, he admits that the one at Qom would be a challenging target since it is built into the side of a mountain.

He tries to knock down those critics who point out that Iran could retaliate, launching missiles at US military installations in the Gulf, closing the Strait of Hormuz, the relatively narrow (but not that narrow) water that tankers pass through at the opening to the Persian Gulf, firing missiles into Israel and activating proxies abroad in Iraq, Lebanon and in countries seized with the Arab Spring.

The US, he argues, could retaliate with devastating military action. Iran won’t be able to resume progress after its entire nuclear infrastructure is reduced to rubble.

He discounts much – that this would strengthen Iran’s hardliners as it did in Germany after the blanket bombing of Dresden.

Thankfully the pro bomb faction has just been undermined by Israeli’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, who said last week that any decision on an Israeli attack on Iran was “very far off”. Apparently Israel believes that Iran has “not yet decided” whether to make a nuclear bomb. Perhaps too one should not overlook statements made by the hierarchy of Iran that it goes against the Koran to build a weapon of mass destruction.

Added to that Kroenig underestimates how Iran is building safer and safer hideaways. It can match any bomb by digging deeper. Does the US want to get drawn into another Middle Eastern war which would have serious spill-over effects in further radicalising Pakistan, Afghanistan and big chunks of the population throughout the Middle East?

There are alternatives to bombing. Sanctions are being ratcheted up by the day. The European Union is matching the US’s severe oil sanctions and South Korea and Japan are likely to follow suit. Diplomatic engagement is still in its infancy as far as the US is concerned. There have not been sustained and serious negotiations with Iran for 30 years. Iran has often said that it would be open to intrusive inspections by the UN if it were accepted that Iran had the right to enrich uranium for energy production.

Interestingly, Israelis appear to have got the message already.

According to a poll conducted by the American Brookings Institution and the Israeli Dahaf Institute only 43% of Israeli Jews support a military strike even though 90% of them think Iran will eventually acquire nuclear weapons. When asked whether it would be better for both Israel and Iran not to have such weapons 65% of the Jews said “yes”. A remarkable 64% support the idea of a nuclear-free zone.

Moreover, it is supported by such unexpected characters as the Mossad (intelligence) chief, Tair Pardo, a former Mossad chief, Ephraim Halevy, and a former chief of staff of the military, Dan Halutz. Could Iran refuse the proposition of a nuclear-free zone?

The Israeli government has always put the cart before the horse. It says a nuclear-free zone cannot be considered until there is peace between Israel and its neighbours. But the answer to that, argues Harvard professor, Nicolas Burns, is there will be no peace as long as Iran and Israel are at loggerheads. Since Israel is the one who possesses an arsenal of nuclear weapons it must be the first to take steps towards reconciliation. He quotes the former Israeli spy chief, Meir Dagan, who argued earlier this month that Israel’s current stance stance might accelerate Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons and encourage other Arab states to follow suit.

As Burns says, “strategic patience” is what we need.

Copyright Jonathan Power

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