Tuesday, September 28, 2004

The Closing Door

Caroline Glick argues in the Sept 23 edition of the "Jerusalem Post" that the sole remaining hope of preventing the Islamic Republic of Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is to put the ball in the air and hope for a miracle basket, an act of desperation that would rank with Jerry West's 60-foot buzzer beater in the 1970 NBA playoffs.

Iran this week summarily rejected the latest call by the International Atomic Energy Agency to cease all its uranium enrichment programs. Speaking at a military parade on Tuesday, where Iran's surface-to-surface Shihab-3 ballistic missiles earmarked "Jerusalem" were on prominent display, Iranian President Muhammad Khatami defied the IAEA, saying: "We will continue along our path [of uranium enrichment] even if it leads to an end to international supervision."

US and European sources involved in tracking the Iranian nuclear program have made clear in recent weeks that Iran is between four and six months away from nuclear "break-out" capacity. This means that in the next four to six months Iran will have the nuclear fuel cycle complete, and will be able to independently construct nuclear bombs whenever it wishes. More conservative estimates have spoken of 12-24 months.

Glick did not believe that any new diplomatic initiative would materially delay the breakout. In order to illustrate the futility of further diplomacy, she focuses upon the proposals of veteran arms control negotiator Henry Solkoski who argued that diplomacy was the only option left because the United States was too preoccupied in Iraq to take on Iran and because the Islamic Republic's 15 uranium enrichment facilities were too hardened and dispersed to be successfully attacked. With force ruled out diplomacy remained by exclusion. But the cards left in the hand are not necessarily winning ones, as Michael Ledeen points out. Diplomacy had repeatedly failed to stop or even slow Iran's nuclear program. There was no reason for it to succeed with Iraq so close to its ultimate goal.

"This is more of the same, however you want to define it. We're not making any progress. The UN and the Europeans keep saying the same thing every three months. You wait every three months and eventually Iran has an atomic bomb. Then you don't need to worry about this failed policy."

Ledeen also believes that even if the Iranian program were to be referred to the Security Council, it is unlikely that sanctions on oil or natural gas – the only ones that might have an impact on the regime in Teheran – would be imposed. And even if they were, he says, "oil is fungible. Saddam proved oil sanctions don't really work. So who are we kidding?"

By applying the same exclusionary logic as Solkoski Glick arrives at the diametrically opposite conclusion. She counsels: don't dribble out the clock three points down with five seconds to go. Go for the 60-foot jumpshot. From the "Jerusalem Post" archives:

Sokolski states at the outset that the option of a military strike against Iran must be dismissed because Iran's program is too far flung and its sites are too hardened. That is, since it may well be impossible to hit every nuclear target, it is not worth hitting any of them. As well, Iranian leaders daily threaten that any military action taken against Iran will be responded to in a devastating manner.

Yet, were an air strike on Iran to take out say, only 10 of 15 sites, it would still severely retard the Iranian nuclear effort, buying the West time to formulate and enact either a policy of engagement from a position of strength, or a policy of regime change with the requisite credibility among regime opponents that such a strike would inspire.

Heady stuff. But what Glick does not say -- though it would perforce follow -- is that any strike would make it logically necessary to subsequently topple the Teheran regime by any means necessary. A second Osirak would prove to the Mullahs that they would have to use any nuclear weapons that came to hand before they lost it, a danger avertable only by eliminating the Mullahs. Bombing sites in the hope of delay would be like swimming into an underwater tunnel on a lungful of air hoping for an exit on the far side. But the only man who could turn the card was maddeningly ambiguous. President Bush, in an interview on Fox News on Sept 27, reiterated his determination to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons in the most uninformative manner possible.

"My hope is that we can solve this diplomatically," Bush tells Fox News' "The O'Reilly Factor" in the first part of a three-part interview to begin airing tonight. "All options are on the table, of course, in any situation," Bush said. "But diplomacy is the first option."

What President Bush will do with the clock running out is anyone's guess. But it's three points down and five seconds to go.