Covers | January 10, 2013 at 4:09 pm

Apocalypse Now? The State of the Iranian Nuclear Program

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iran-nuclear-programFreshly reelected President Barack Obama would certainly like to use his political leverage to resolve the looming confrontation over the Iranian nuclear program. For most of the past decade, Iran has invested significant resources in a nuclear enrichment program that it maintains is peaceful. A more skeptical international community, fearful of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran, has imposed several rounds of economic sanctions as a means of peaceful deterrence.

The United States and Israel, eschewing pure diplomacy, seem to have begun a concerted, covert effort in the form of classical espionage, defections, and assassinations while pursuing unorthodox innovations like cyber warfare—all of which have been thoroughly disavowed. Fundamentally, the problematic nuclear aspirations of Iran are not unqualifiedly condemnable: American policy towards Iran has acquired many degrees of ambiguity through a compelling Israeli interest in a non-nuclear Iranian state. America’s castigation of Iran’s nuclear program seems at times selective and hypocritical in comparison with its tolerance of a robust Pakistani atomic arsenal, its potential role in the rumored nuclear armament of Israel, and its pursuit of covert operations against Iranian nuclear facilities even while denouncing Iranian covert action.

Economic Sanctions

Under the effect of six United Nations Security Council resolutions since 2006, the Iranian economy, though not asphyxiated, has suffered severely. The resolutions mandated the suspension of enrichment activities and imposed sanctions banning nuclear technology, freezing Iranian assets, and targeting Iranian financial institutions. “Sanctions are having a terrible effect on the Iranian economy,” Alireza Nader, a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, told the HPR.

Perhaps the most severe impact of the economic sanctions has been the dwindling morale and frustration of the Iranian residents. “The Iranian population is upset and dissatisfied with the cost of the Iranian nuclear program. It’s affecting their standard of living,” Nader noted.

The Security Council resolutions paved the way for far more draconian sanctions from individual nations. “The resolutions are not that effective other than providing the legal basis for the U.S. and the E.U. to implement far more severe sanctions against the Central Bank of Iran, other financial institutions, and most importantly the hydrocarbon sector, said James Jeffrey, the current U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Iran exports oil to China, Japan, and India with growing revenues despite the long regime of U.S. sanctions. Iran’s decentralized economy and regional partners have allowed the country to escape the blistering sanctions from the west. But the rote challenges of the Iranian economy, from high youth unemployment and inflation to a severe devaluation in currency, have certainly been exacerbated by the sanctions.

Despite the effect of the sanctions, tightly controlled polling data of the Iranian people, however sparse, still finds a majority of the country in favor of the nuclear program, and a sizable proportion of the populace in favor of a nuclear weapons capability. Yet, the Iranian quest for nuclear technology might be quixotic in light of the strong stances taken by the U.S. and Israel against it.

Israeli Interests

Israel, America’s major ally in the Middle East, sees an existential threat in a nuclear-capable Iran, poignantly illustrated in President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be wiped off the map. “Iran combines the quest for nuclear weapons, and we are absolutely sure it’s trying to get a nuclear weapons capability, with expansionist policy,” said Ambassador Jeffrey.

Israel is widely believed, though its government has never confirmed, to be a nuclear power. Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapon “could greatly increase instability in the Middle East,” said Nader. “These two states would be facing each other… without any means of communicating… in a state of hostility that could lead to inadvertent nuclear escalation.”

The tremendous psychological and military advantages of a nuclear-armed Iran would provide a severe check against U.S. dominance and interests in the region. “The Islamic Republic would act more assertively in the Middle East and expand its support for various insurgent and terrorist groups in the region,” said Nader.

Iran already exerts incredible influence in the region through its funding of the Syrian state and the militant group Hezbollah that operates from Lebanon. Nader also worries that “Iran’s development of a nuclear weapons capability could lead to proliferation in the region.” Analysts worry that Iran would propagate nuclear technology throughout the unstable region in a manner similar to Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan.

Based on existing supplies of nuclear materials and facilities, Iran could produce weapon-grade uranium within two to four months according to analysis from the Institute for Science and International Security. Israel is openly tense and deliberating military action against the looming threat of Iranian nuclear capabilities. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly this September, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for the body to draw “a clear red line,” as he literally did on a cartoon printout of a bomb while speaking, “before Iran completes the second stage of nuclear enrichment to make the bomb.”

Israeli military leaders have openly debated a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities hidden deep underground. “Israel has not achieved a consensus internally about whether to strike alone,” said Ambassador Jeffrey. Since Israel lacks the sophisticated weaponry needed to complete the operation, it would need American assistance. Although the U.S. does not currently support such a strike, further progress towards nuclear weaponization could force its hand.

“It all depends on what the consequences were… worst case: you only slow down the program temporarily, and you generate a regional conflict,” said Ambassador Jeffrey. There could also be “a quite strong street reaction… not because Iran is popular but because America is unpopular and the bombing of Muslims is simply something that would be exploited on the street.”

Covert Action and Cyber Warfare

The risk of inciting violence in a tumultuous region in the grips of the Arab Spring has led the United States and Israel to pursue unconventional means of deterrence. Iranian nuclear facilities have come under a number of computer attacks, including the infamous Stuxnet and Flame viruses that have linked, but not confirmed, as sophisticated cyber warfare attacks from the United States and Israel. There have also been several instances of Iranian nuclear scientist assassinations and two unexplained explosions at Iranian missile and steel plants. Iran allegedly attempted to assassinate a Saudi diplomat on American soil and was complicit in the bombing of thirteen Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Both Ambassador Jeffrey and Mr. Nader declined to comment on possible U.S. involvement in cyber warfare or other covert sabotage.

American officials were quick to chastise Iranian covert action abroad while refusing to acknowledge its own suspected programs, even when it was reported that President Obama had secretly ordered the increasingly sophisticated computer attacks. The current regimes of both countries seem to have settled on tacit conflict of covert sabotage and subsequent retaliation.

Spying serves as a pragmatic intermediate between all-out war in a volatile region that would not welcome another Western intervention and a comprehensive peaceful agreement that the current regiment of 5+1 talks have not yielded. With President Obama’s next term now ensured, newly won political leverage and goodwill could bring both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Ahmadinejad to accept a provisional nuclear treaty that would allow Iran to enrich uranium in Russia for the nuclear power and medical isotopes it ostentatiously desires.

Relationship with Pakistan

But how is it that the United States trusts the current nuclear power Pakistan, a country plagued by an overbearing military, unstable government, and corrupt leaders, over Iran, a nation of comparatively greater governmental stability?

“The problem is that although Iran is stable internally, much less likely to lose control of nuclear weapons, it is not a status quo country. It is an expansionary power. Pakistan, for all of its sins, is not an expansionary power,” said Ambassador Jeffrey.

Iran’s expansionary ambitions are not as much territorial as they are psychological. Iran seeks to be the premier security power of the Gulf region. As a paramount regional power, a niche all but solidified with nuclear arms, Iran could upset U.S. military superiority in the Persian Gulf, coerce the surrounding Gulf Cooperation Council countries, and boost support for state-sponsored terrorist organizations that pose a conventional threat to Israel.

The recent prospect of a diplomatic breakthrough between the United States and Iran through one-on-one negotiations over its contentious nuclear program has provided new hope for a solution to the decade-long fight between Tehran and many of the world’s major powers. Iran’s nuclear ambitions have steered the country down a road marred with frequent stalls, startups, and sanctions that, until recently, seemed to only deepen the Islamic Republic’s resolve. One only wonders whether Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are driving Iran on the path to prosperity or over a cliff.

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