Tuesday, April 18, 2006
Iran's Nuclear Program (Part II)
Last time I said that Iran has to pay a price for its nuclear ambitions for two main reasons:
(1) Because it is an ideological and strategic non-ally (I think the word "enemy" is too strong and misleading) of the United States
(2) Because it would set a bad precedent for neighboring countries which could lead to a nuclear arms race in the region.
Now the question before us is this: what is the price Iran is going to pay for its nuclear ambitions? There are various possibilities. Let us examine each separately:
Full-Scale Invasion: this is a very distant possibility. The United States has neither the troops nor the requisite political capital to start a new war, with Iran nontheless. Iran has 3 times the population of Iraq and is 3 times larger too. The Islamic Republic is much more entrenched and institutionalized than Saddam's regime. It has a solid, passionate social base, as well as a dedicated, voluntary Basiji militia. It is hard to imagine how the US could succesfully manage such an undertaking particularly now that it is bogged down in Iraq.
Surgical Strikes: another possibility. Again, hard to imagine for three main reasons: first, these strikes would not be "surgical" in any sense. The United States needs to bomb 50 different facilities which are spread out all over the country. Most of these facilities, in fact, are concentrated near or around large population centers. Surgical strikes in this case would amount to some kind of country-wide bombing which would kill thousands of innocent civilians. Secondly, Iran could retaliate by making Iraq even a bigger mess than it already is; by causing trouble for the US in Afghanistan; by activating the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Islamic Jihad in Palestine; or even joining forces with some Sunni terrorists for the first time ever. Thirdly, you can bomb the facilities, but you can't bomb the know-how. All experts agree that, even in the best case scenario, such bombing would only delay rather than destroy Iran's nuclear capabilities. Is the US willing to delay Iran's program at the price of further destabilization of the entire region?
Isolation: this is more practical policy option. But how does the US want to isolate Iran? China and Russia would most likely veto any meaningful sanctions at the UN Security Council. No body, not even the Americans, is willing to put up with placing sanctions on Iran's oil exports. The price of oil reached a record-breaking $70 per barrel yesterday. American consumers are already discontent with the rising gas prices, which now exceed $3 per gallon in much of the country. On the other hand, no sanctions would be meaningful if they don't include oil, as the Iranian government generates nearly 80% of its revenues from the sale of oil. Already, in the first 6 months of the current fiscal year, Iran has made some $70B from selling its oil, the most even in its history. Sanctions without oil have no meaning; sanctions with oil, well no body wants them!
Engagement: this is the most practical policy option, but its very costly for both the Bush and the Ahmadinejad administrations. The Bush Administration prides itself on its harsh dealing with terrorists and rogue regimes. It has directed all its effort towards undermining the Islamic Republic and trying to instigate regime change in Iran. Now, after all these years, to come around and talk to Iran? The situation is not much different inside Iran. Though Iran is the only country in the Middle East in which the overwhleming majority of the population is pro-American, the Islamic Republic's base of support remains staunchly anti-Israeli and anti-American. Is the Islamic Republic willing to suppress dissent within its ideological followers in order to negotiate with the United States? All indications so far say "yes." More to come on this later.