Saturday, May 8, 2010

Iran Nuclear Showdown Looms Closer

Iran's nuclear program is one of the most controversial issues in one of the world's most volatile regions.  American and European officials believe Tehran is planning to build nuclear weapons, while Iran's leadership mainains that its goal in developing a nuclear program is to generate electricity and preserve its vast oil reserves.

Top American military officials said in April 2010 that Iran could produce bomb-grade fuel for at least one nuclear weapon within a year, but would most likely need two to five years to manufacture a workable atomic bomb.

Pronouncements from Tehran have been all over the map.  In a recent statement by Iranian cleric Ahmad Khatami, Iran has entered the world's "nuclear club" and major powers should accept it.

Khatami, a conservative hardliner also warned the major powers that Iran could "endanger your entire world" in any future confrontation.

The United States and Israel, Iran's arch foes, have not ruled out military action if diplomacy fails to resolve the row.

Iran, a predominantly Shi'ite Muslim state, has said it would respond to any attack by targeting U.S. interests in the region and Israel, as well as closing the Strait of Hormuz, a waterway crucial for global oil supplies.

One key to reaching a non-military solution has been the cooperation of the United Nations Securtiy Council.  China, which imports 12% of its oil from Iran, has been the most reluctant to endorse stringent sanctions.

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France told President Hu Jintao of China that nations would have to impose new sanctions on Iran if it refuses to curb its nuclear program, official Chinese news organizations reported on last week.

France has joined with the United States and Britain in pushing for a new package of economic sanctions from the United Nations (UN).  Those countries accuse Iran of using its nuclear program to try to develop weapons.  Iran has said it is interested in pursuing nuclear power, not arms.

Addressing the UN, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran said that relations with the United States might never be repaired if new sanctions were imposed against his country, that the United Nations atomic agency had no authority to interfere into matters like missiles and that, despite his contested re-election last year, Iran had not become a republic of fear.

Later in the day, he suggested that relations with Tehran might never recover from a United States push for new economic and military sanctions against Iran through the United Nations Security Council.  New penalties would “mean relations between Iran and the U.S. will never be improved again,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said at a news conference.

Of major concern is what options the U.S. has in response to a threatened attack by Iran against Israel or in attempting to sabotage Middle East oil supplies.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has warned in a secret three-page memorandum to top White House officials that the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s steady progress toward nuclear capability, according to government officials familiar with the document.

One senior official, speaking anonymously, described the document as “a wake-up call.”  But White House officials dispute that view, insisting that for 15 months they had been conducting detailed planning for many possible outcomes regarding Iran’s nuclear program.

Mr. Gates’s memo appears to reflect concerns in the Pentagon and the military that the White House did not have a well prepared series of alternatives in place in case all the diplomatic steps finally failed.  Separately, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote a “chairman’s guidance” to his staff last December conveying a sense of urgency about contingency planning.  He cautioned that a military attack would have “limited results,” but he did not convey any warnings about policy shortcomings.

Thus, as Iran continues the development of its nuclear arsenal, options available to contain the situation appear limited.  Israel has repeatedly warned of a pre-emptive strike if diplomatic initiatives fail.  So far, the Obama Administration has successfully convinced Israel to remain patient while discussions are taking place.

However, given the stated intention of Iran to retaliate if sanctions are imposed, the potential outcomes are strewn with high risk.  The last thing the sputtering world economy needs is a major disruption of Middle East oil supplies or an all-encompassing regional war.

Marko's Take

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