Thursday, February 23, 2012
Gilboa - Stopping Iran: Still Too Much Noise and Too Little Action
BESA Center Perspectives..
Paper No. 166..
February 21, 2012..
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: There seems to be a lot of psychological warfare at play in the approach of international leaders to the Iranian nuclear conundrum. Public statements of various tones and intensity have of late been made by Israeli, American, European, and even Iranian policymakers. Yet, mixed messages are continuously being broadcast and international powers remain disunited on how to halt Iran’s nuclear program. It is unsurprising then that all of this “talk” has led to no action.
Senior policymakers in the US, Israel, Iran and Europe are frequently making public statements on the struggle to stop Iran’s nuclear program. But few of the leaders actually mean or believe their own declarations and each pronouncement is contradicted by the next, resulting in increased confusion and inconsistency. The only party not confused by all of this, apparently, is Iran. It doesn't believe that anybody is serious about really stopping its nuclear program.
Consider these contradictory assertions: US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently estimated that Israel will attack Iran sometime between April and June this year. But US President Barack Obama said almost immediately afterwards that Israel has not yet made the decision to strike. US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey, who visited Israel recently, insinuated that there are no understandings or coordination between Israel and the US and that he doesn't know if Israel would inform the US ahead of a possible attack on the Iranian nuclear infrastructure. Obama, however, says that coordination between Israel and the US has never been better.
It looks like a tug of war is occurring. When one policymaker pulls too hard, like Panetta and Dempsey, another one tugs back from the other end, as did Obama when he tried to moderate the statements.
Obama says that no option may be ruled out, including military action, but that this measure should only be used as a last resort. His administration believes that diplomacy and severe sanctions against Iran’s oil exports should be given a chance. Obama fears that an Israeli strike this summer would be premature and disruptive to sanctions, and would entangle the US in a new war too close to the upcoming presidential elections.
On the other hand, the threat of military action is needed to convince reluctant powers, such as Russia and China, that heavier sanctions are the only way to prevent a strike against Iran – a strike they agree would be a terrible disaster.
In Israel, there is disagreement regarding a possible strike on Iran and its timing. It is unclear whether the recent, more militant statements by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe "Bogie" Ya'alon are intended to increase pressure on the international community to undertake more extreme measures against Iran, or if they reflect a determination to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power by all means.
Israel is much more skeptical than the US and the EU about the ability of sanctions – even the heaviest sanctions – to stop the Iranian nuclear race. It believes that covert operations targeting scientists and facilities may delay Iran’s aspirations. However, recent leaks by US officials that point to Israel as the perpetrator of various assassinations and explosions reveal little coordination between the two allies. Seemingly, the US is concerned with possible Iranian terrorist retaliations against American targets, and is saying: "It isn't us, it is them."
In response to planned harsher sanctions, Iran declared it would seal off the Strait of Hormuz, though it backed down after the US said that it would reopen the strait by force. A senior Iranian official said that in light of Israel’s planned attack Iran should undertake a preemptive counterstrike and run terrorist attacks throughout the world. Yet, another Iranian official said that Iran was willing to return to the negotiating table with the US and Europe. If harsher sanctions were imposed and Iran closed the strait, the US would most likely use force not only to reopen the strait but also to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. If the Iranian leadership is rational, it is bluffing on this issue and wouldn't close the Strait of Hormuz.
Most states agree that Iran shouldn't be permitted to acquire nuclear weapons. They disagree, however, on how to achieve this outcome. Russia and China have ruled out completely any military strike, claiming that its consequences would be far worse than any possible outcome of a nuclear Iran. Russia and China have also opposed severe sanctions and called only for negotiations. European leaders have also opposed a military strike, but declared that only severe sanctions may prevent it. At the same time they have decided to apply these new, harsher sanctions only in July. If Iran is really close to the production of a nuclear weapon, such sanctions will be futile. Furthermore, severe sanctions can be effective only if all the major
powers, including Russia and China, impose them.
The US and EU have offered to negotiate with Iran but, in return, demanded the freezing of uranium enrichment. Iran has rejected this condition, which means they are only interested in negotiations that would give them more time to complete the building of nuclear bombs.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Dennis Ross, the former Obama staffer who continues to consult with the administration, indeed argued that the time is ripe to resume talks with Iran. Iran likely will interpret this as a sign of American weakness and use this opening to avoid more sanctions while edging closer to obtaining a nuclear weapon.
Ross and other senior American and European officials have argued that the existing sanctions are already working by imposing hardships on the Iranian government and people, thus opening a path for diplomacy. However, their mistake is this: To be really effective it is not enough just to create hardships. To be effective, the government of Iran must conclude that the cost inflicted by the sanctions threatens its survival and is greater than the benefits of becoming a nuclear power. This hasn't yet happened.
The only thing that might influence the Ayatollahs to alter their nuclear plans is a combination of credible military threats and severe sanctions. But, when the military threat is made to appear very vague – due to mixed and contradictory statements by world leaders – and when the decision to impose tough sanctions on Iran is delayed by months and doesn't include some of the superpowers, Iran can be expected to continue to develop its nuclear weaponry without too much worry or disruption.
Unfortunately, the West is not yet truly determined to halt the Iranian nuclear weapons program.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa is Director of the School of Communication and a senior research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.
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