The peril increases daily that Iran will become a nuclear power. Arab leaders are as alarmed as Israel. The West huffs and puffs, and huffs and puffs again, but is nowhere near blowing the house down. It is behaving as if it has all the time in the world. It does not. The year-end 2009 deadline set by the West for resolving the Iranian nuclear issue came and went and nothing happened. While the Iranians are enriching, the United States is hesitating. When Barack Obama became president, Iran had perhaps several thousand centrifuges enriching uranium. Now it may have thousands more.
It has long been said about diplomacy that the most dangerous course, even more dangerous than risking a tough response, is to raise a warning fist and then lose nerve. Iran sees the red lines the United States sets and crosses them with impunity. In the years since sanctions were imposed, Iran has blatantly circumvented them. It has purchased sophisticated technology for its nuclear programs through front companies in Dubai, and apparently also in Bahrain and Kuwait. Its leaders and enterprises use banks in these countries for illicit transactions and to launder money.
What is at stake here is too menacing for the world to delude itself that Iran will somehow change course. It won't. Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, does not want a seat at the negotiating table with the great powers, he wants to overturn the table. He is a messianic revolutionary, not a leader. As Abdul Rahman al-Rashed, general manager of the Dubai-based Al Arabiya news channel, put it, "The Ahmadinejad regime aspires to expansion, hegemony, and a clear takeover on the ground, and to do this he needs a nuclear umbrella."
A nuclear Iran, already a neighborhood bully, would export its revolutionary ideology and destabilize the Middle East. It would be more effective in its subversion of neighbors and its fomenting of worldwide terrorism. We'd see even bolder interference in Iraq and Afghanistan, more meddling in Lebanon, more incitement and aggressive support for Hamas and Hezbollah—both of which it already funds, trains, and arms to conduct terrorist attacks against Israel. It would sabotage any dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It would incite the Shiite populations in the Persian Gulf states and altogether threaten the survival of modern Arab governments there. Iran already plays an extensive role in Shiite southern Iraq. When American forces withdraw fully, likely over the longer term, an uprising may be fomented in Iraq that might well lead to a full takeover by an Iranian-dominated Iraqi government, which would then pressure its neighbor, Jordan. It would put at risk the whole international nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, foreshadowing a nuclear arms race all over the Middle East and nuclear weapons getting into the hands of non-state actors. A nuclear Iran, emboldened by its success in fooling and defying the world, might well be tempted to challenge its neighbors in the Gulf to reduce oil production and limit the presence of U.S. troops there.
The United States has declared that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. So if Iran succeeds, it would be seen as a major defeat and open our government to doubts about its power and resolve to shape events in the Middle East. Friends would respond by distancing themselves from Washington; foes would aggressively challenge U.S. policies.
As far as the war we're fighting in Afghanistan and its spillover into Pakistan, Iran has tremendous potential to make a very difficult situation even worse, given its influence on the western side of Afghanistan, some of which is linked to Iran's electrical grid. It could strengthen the Taliban with weapons such as surface-to-air missiles.
Why should Iran halt a nuclear program that would give it such new power in the region? The essence of the regime's policy is to keep the talks going and keep the centrifuges spinning until Iran completes its sprint to the finish line. It is taking the politics of procrastination to a whole new level.
From an American point of view, the issue is not just the nuclear program. It is the hostile intentions of a regime that since 1979 has waged war persistently against the United States and its allies. Iran is directly responsible for killing many Americans in Iraq by supplying guerrillas with high-tech roadside bombs and rockets. The savage irony that no good deed goes unpunished has played out in Iraq to the benefit of Iran. Our overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni dictatorship liberated Iran on one border from the threat he posed to its Shiite regime. On Iran's eastern border, our ouster of the Taliban in Afghanistan removed another potential threat. The result has been to free up Iran's ability to meddle in the broader Middle East.
What to do? A threat to bomb Iran lacks credibility while America is engaged in two massive and unpopular military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, this is an administration that believes essentially in "engagement." It even seems prepared to accept an Iranian bomb. If military intervention is ruled out, we are left only with sanctions. But there is no international consensus on what these should be or how to apply them. The U.N. sanctions were too weak. They did not touch Iran's need for gasoline or its fragile domestic energy sectors. Such sanctions may take very many years to bite. Too late, too late!
In the meantime, not only are the centrifuges still running, but Iran is expanding its influence and threatening the smaller Gulf countries like Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, which do not have options that may be available to larger countries. Those states need cast-iron assurances that America will be at their side. What confidence can they have in America's will to resist an expansionist Iran? The Iranians understand the equation of fear. The official Iranian news agency recently warned the Gulf states: "There is no lion in the region save for the one that crouches on the shore opposite the Emirate states. . . . Those who believe that another lion exists in the vicinity [meaning the United States]. Well, his claws and fangs have already been broken in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Palestine."
Saudi Arabia is another country targeted by Iran. The Saudis are particularly worried because in the kingdom's east, where the largest oil reserves are located, a sizable Shiite minority is now subject to incitement by Iran. The clash between Saudi security forces and Iranian-back Houthi rebels who infiltrated from Yemen has intensified the conflict between the Saudis and Iran. Yemen has become the main dispatch point for supplies from Iran to radical opposition groups in the Gulf region, including various arms of al-Qaeda. An Iranian clandestine network has been exposed in Kuwait, and an Iranian-backed Hezbollah cell in Egypt was poised to blow up ships in the Suez Canal and major tourist sites in Egypt to weaken the central government and improve the prospects of the Muslim Brotherhood. The UAE is now in a direct confrontation with Iran over three Gulf islands belonging to the UAE.
Then there is Iran's role in hiring Bedouin tribes in Sinai to smuggle arms into the Gaza Strip (where Israel has now eased the passage of ordinary goods). These arms may arrive by a chartered ship from Iran that sails up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal, anchoring in Egyptian waters near Rafah, the Gaza border town. Under cover of darkness, the arms are placed in watertight containers and transferred underwater to a small Palestinian boat, which takes them to shore. The Bedouins, with access to hundreds of tunnels, then smuggle them into Gaza. This has armed Hamas with thousands of rockets and mortars. It is all part of Iran's highly organized strategic campaign of delivering arms to radical forces throughout the Middle East.
There was a ship called the Francop which the Israelis captured last November and exposed. The world has now forgotten, but not the Israelis. The Francop was but one of a number of cargo ships interdicted by Israeli naval commandos. It turned out to have as much as 10 times the weaponry as the infamous Karine A, intercepted by Israel in 2002, that so aroused the Bush administration. It is no mystery why the Israelis want to preclude Hamas from being rearmed by a sea lane into Gaza.
The Gulf states are justifiably worried that Iran's drive to influence the agenda in the region is now being transformed into an effort to dictate the agenda. The Arab states see clearly what is happening. A new study of public opinion shows that most Arabs in the Gulf see their region as a more likely target than Israel from an Iranian bomb. If we wait for that threat to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. As the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has said, we might be left with a choice of "an Iranian bomb or bombing Iran." The only thing worse than bombing Iran, according to Sen. John McCain, is letting Iran get the bomb. All the choices for the United States are bad. The only option is to find the one that is the least bad.
The minimum we must do is station missile defense systems in or provide them to local states, including missiles with the range to hit Tehran. Second, we must provide a security blanket and guarantee to selected Gulf states including Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Third, we must impose an embargo even more extensive than the one we imposed on Cuba at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. This would include a ban on the sale or purchase of products or services to or from Iran, a ban on all financial transactions of any kind with Iranians for their businesses, a ban on all travel to and from Iran, and more. This policy must make it absolutely clear that any companies or individuals who violate the embargo will be banned from doing business with the United States.
It is painfully obvious that the international community has no idea how to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. No one has a magic solution. Thirty years of negotiations and sanctions have failed to end the Iranian nuclear program and its war against the West. Why should anyone think such attempts will work now, given that the Iranians are probably less than a year away from the finish line in their race to achieve nuclear weapons capability? In an article entitled "Has Iran Won?" the Economist magazine put it this way: "Who would have thought that a friendless theocracy with a Holocaust-denying president, which hangs teenagers in public and stones women to death, could run diplomatic circles around America and its European allies?"