Since the beginning of the Obama administration, I have been convinced that Iran would obtain nuclear weapons capability, without any serious opposition from the United States. My guess is still that sanctions will never prove adequate to stop a highly ideological, and quite brutal, regime from pushing forward with its march towards nuclear capability, and that neither Israel nor the United States will use military force to prevent it from doing so. But for the first time there is at least something to argue about.
The passage of weak sanctions by the U.N. has been followed by additional sanctions, with considerably more bite, by the United States the European Union, Canada, and Australia. Those sanctions, aimed at cutting off Iran's ability to develop its own oil refining sector and drying up its banking credit, have not exactly brought the Iranian economy to a stop – its stock market is currently experiencing a boom – but they have imposed real pressures, which will only mount with time. Last month, Iran was able to import only one-half the refined petroleum of the previous month causing massive waits and flaring tempers at gas pumps.
Michael Ledeen reports that the merchant class, the bazaaris, are up in arms over huge tax hikes proposed by the government, and their stores remained shuttered even after the government largely backed down. This class, according to Ledeen, is often viewed as a bellweather in Iranian power struggles. Their withdrawal of support from the Shah was a major factor in his fall and the subsequent takeover of the Ayatollah Khomeini. And their failure to actively support the Green Revolution, after the last stolen elections, provided a major clue that the protests would have negligible impact, at least in the short-term.
Still few believe that sanctions alone will deter the current leadership from pursuing its nuclear ambitions. From the outset of the Islamic Revolution, the regime's declared raison d'etre has been the spread of its aggressive Islamic ideology. A nuclear capability is viewed by the regime as the key to the promotion of that expansionist policy.
The Sunni Arab states of the Persian Gulf have long recognized the threat that a nuclear Iran would pose to them, and have expressed those concerns repeatedly to American policymakers. Even reports in the Times of London that Saudi Arabia has given permission to Israel to fly over the kingdom for an attack on Teheran, have not been dismissed out of hand.
The most public and explicit statement of Gulf State concerns came from the United Arab Emirates' ambassador to the United Stated, Yousef al-Otaibai, in Aspen in early July. While noting that his country does $12 billion dollars of annual trade with Iran, and that an U.S. attack on Iran would enrage significant segments of the Moslem street, Otaibai nevertheless concluded,
"Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran, my answer is still the same: We cannot live with a nuclear Iran"
He went on to say that if the United States did not confront Iran militarily, the countries of the region would all start running to Iran to cut deals. "Small, rich, vulnerable countries do not stick their finger in the big boy's eye if they do not have the backing of the United States," Otaibai said. The smaller Gulf States would all eventually ditch their American alliances for ones with Iran, he predicted, in the event that the United States decided upon a policy of containment, rather than confrontation, with Iran. "Talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous," said the UAE ambassador.
PARTLY BECAUSE OF THE TYPE OF concerns expressed by Otaibai, talk of the possibility of an American military strike is being heard for the first time since President Obama took office. Former National Security Advisor and CIA director under President George W. Bush, Admiral Michael Hayden, recently expressed the view that the United States is moving inexorably towards a military confrontation with Iran, as Iran thumbs its nose at every other form of pressure.
Joe Klein, a member in good-standing of the left-wing Journolist, began a July 15 article by describing a 2006 meeting between President Bush and the assembled Joint Chiefs of Staff, at which the latter told Bush that there was no military option versus Iran, and that Iran's ability to retaliate was too great.
Nevertheless, wrote Klein, there is growing recognition that sanctions will not do the trick. CIA Director Leon Panetta said so explicitly to ABC News on June 27, and added, "So the military option is very much back on the table." Klein also reported that the U.S. Army's Central Command had made substantial progress in targeting Iranian nuclear installations, due, in large part, to improved human intelligence.
For the moment, Klein wrote, the White House is still not convinced of the viability of a military attack. And the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Admiral Michael Mullen, while emphasizing that a military plan exists, continues to insist that a military attack would be a disaster.
Steven Simon, a former National Security Council member under President Clinton, and Ray Takeyh, a former Obama advisor on Iran, lay out in the August 1 Washington Post a number of the factors militating against a military attack on Iran. The first is the Obama administration's ideological commitment to U.N. Security Council approval to legitimize any use of force. Despite the recent fraying of Russian-Iranian relations, due in large part Russia's refusal to deliver on 40-60 S-200 anti-aircraft batteries, that approval will never be forthcoming. The Chinese would surely veto any resolution to use force.
Takeyh and Simon argue further that the Obami would likely be deterred by the fear of matters spinning out of control, after an American attack, and will choose in the end the path of deterrence and containment.
One factor, which no one is talking about, could make an attack more likely: American politics. Over the past year, even as President Obama's policies became increasingly unpopular with the American public, his personal popularity remained slightly positive, according to Real Clear Politics. Over the past six weeks, however, his personal popularity has plummeted to minus 5% in the combined RCP polls, and into the double digits in one.
One of the few actions that Obama could possibly undertake to restore some of his luster, and to refute the charge that he has presided over the most rapid diminution in American power and position of world leadership in history, would be to launch an attack on Iran.
Even though only 23% of Americans believe that the time is yet ripe for military action, according to a February Gallup poll, 90% of Americans perceive Iran as a serious threat to vital American interests, and 61% as a critical threat. Nearly two-thirds, in another poll, would support military action to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The more defiant the Iranian regime the higher that latter figure will go.
At the very least, writes Jonathan Spyer of the Gloria Center, the imposition by Europe and the United States of unilateral sanctions, over and above those of the U.N. Security Council, and the public statement by a leading Arab diplomat that the Sunni states cannot live with a nuclear Iran, all point to a growing understanding that a nuclear Iran threatens the whole world, not just Israel. That recognition may eventually lead to the world doing what it takes to make sure that threat never comes to fruition.