The Gravest Threat

featured in:

share the article

A Washington conference reflects profound US and Russian concern over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, but strong reticence about using force to stop it.

In late September, with an îstimated 3,800 centrifuges spinning round the clock at the uranium enrichment facility in Natanz, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad again denied that Iran had any intention of developing nuclear weapons. Already the Iranians have stockpiled around 2,800 kilograms of low-enriched uranium (LEU), which if further enriched to weapons’ grade, would be enough for two nuclear bombs.

In New York for the annual opening of the UN General Assembly, the Iranian president produced a torrent of sometimes preposterous mixed messages. He accused the US of staging the 9/11 attack on America to save the “Zionist regime,” and, smiling his supercilious trademark smile, denied that US-led international sanctions were having any effect. But at the same time, he told reporters that Iran might very soon be ready to discuss limiting its uranium enrichment to just 3.5 percent (far less than the 90 percent needed for a bomb), in return for a supply of nuclear fuel for peaceful purposes.

As Ahmadinejad was being feted in the UN and by the media in New York, American, Russian and other experts in nearby Washington were debating how to save the world from nuclear disaster. The International Luxembourg Forum on Preventing Nuclear Catastrophe (which takes its name from the founding conference in Luxembourg in May 2007) is the brainchild of Russian-Jewish businessman Viatcheslav (Moshe) Kantor, who is also president of the European Jewish Congress.

Although it is made up of about 50 leading experts from 14 countries, the Luxembourg Forum is largely a platform for unofficial exchanges at the highest level between the Americans and the Russians and a model for future cooperation between the two powers on nuclear affairs. The underlying assumption is that the proliferation of nuclear weapons constitutes the gravest threat to global security in the 21st century and that the only way it can be contained is through close cooperation between the two major nuclear nations. They need ю put their cold war hang-ups aside in reducing their own nuclear stockpiles and in pooling resources to prevent more countries or terrorists getting their hands on nuclear devices.

“We are in a race between cooperation and catastrophe,” warns former Georgia Senator Sam Nunn, a prominent member of the forum’s supervisory council and the co-chairman and Chief Executive Officer of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a charitable organization working to reduce the global threats from nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

A news conference on the opening day of the Washington conference reveals the extent and the limits of current US-Russian cooperation. Kantor expresses confidence that the START III Treaty, further reducing American and Russian strategic nuclear stockpiles, will be ratified within the next few months. But he also urges the two governments not to rest on their laurels and to go on talking after START III about tactical nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missile defense systems (ABMs) used jointly by the US, EU and Russia

Vladimir Dvorkin, a basso-voiced former Russian general who headed the Russian Ministry of Defense’s research division until 2001. complains about a lingering cold-war mentality that has prevented the US and Russia from behaving like true allies. Had they done so, combining intelligence and combat assets, they could have done a better job of containing Iran and North Korea, he asserts. And he. too, calls for closer cooperation on the ABM front. “We have had joint exercises with the US and the EU using [Russian] S-300s and [American] Patriots. Now we could have joint exercises with the next generation of ABMs,” he declares.

As for rogue countries like Iran and North Korea today, Kantor has a far-reaching proposal: That the international community define the limits of nuclear tolerance and that the US and Russia set up a joint rapid-response team to deal with violators. Few of the other heavyweight conference attendees, however, believe that anything as dramatic as that is about to happen. ‘This is a preliminary, personal idea of Kantor’s,” former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov tells The Report.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the outcome of the campaign to keep Ahmadinejad’s Iran from going nuclear will depend to a large extent on the degree of US-Russian cooperation and that this, in rum, will be a function of newly evolving US and Russian nuclear polices. At bottom, the key is in the hands of US President Barack Obama. Will he have the political smarts to unite Russia and the rest of the international community around America’s lead? And if he fails, what will Israel, which would be directly threatened by an Iranian bomb, choose to do?

An insight into the president’s latest thinking on Iran came in early August when the White House invited a small group of journalists to a briefing by a “senior official,” who turned out to be Obama himself. Some, pointing to the president’s claim that his initial engagement policy had merely been a tactic to pave the way for strong internationally approved sanctions, came away with the sense that Obama, under no illusions about Iranian duplicity, was toughening his stance and ready to ratchet up the pressure.

But the president also reportedly said: “It is very important to put before the Iranians a clear set of steps that we would consider sufficient to show that they are not pursuing nuclear weapons… They should know what they can say ‘yes’ to.” Others in the briefing interpreted this as pointing to a softening of the American stance and a readiness for new negotiations.

The apparent contradiction in the journalists’ assessments stems from the fact that there are indeed two sides to the new Obama approach. White House officials have since defined it as a “two-track policy” – increasing die pressure on Iran, while at the same time offering an honorable way out. In other words, the pressure on the Iranians will continue to intensify until they agree to cut a deal that guar¬antees their civilian nuclear programs, while ensuring that they have no possible military applications.

The same kind of carrot-and-stick approach was evident in the administration’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) issued in early April. In it, the US made a commitment not to launch nuclear attacks against non-nuclear states, clearly providing an incentive for countries thinking about going nuclear to refrain from doing so. But US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made it plain that, at least for now, this does not apply to North Korea or Iran. “Because North Korea and Iran are not in compliance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, for them all bets are off. All options are on the table,” he declared.

The dilemmas facing the decision-makers on Iran come to the fore during a lively, wide-ranging expert debate at the Luxembourg Forum’s Washington conference. In outlining his own thinking, Joseph Cirincione, a man who speaks to the US president’s team on Iran, provides a profound insight into the way the Administration’s policy has evolved.

According to Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, a public grant-making foundation that supports initiatives to prevent the spread and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), the Administration has just five theoretical options for dealing with Iran, only one of which makes sense: It could “muddle along” as the US did for much of the last decade, a policy which enabled Iran’s nuclear program to take off in 2004 and which is clearly no longer viable; it could promote peaceful regime change, a gambit that risks getting the reformists discredited as tools of US policy and setting back any hope of reform; it could launch a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, a ploy which might have only limited success and which, therefore, risks legitimizing and accelerating the Iranian nuclear weapons’ program as well as sparking wide-scale Iranian retaliation that could draw the US into an unwanted third Middle Eastern war; it could go for a “grand bargain” in which the US, Iran and other nations resolve a cluster of issues including Israel-Palestine and the Iranian nuclear threat, a tack, which although eminendy desirable, is hopelessly unrealistic.

Ruling out the above four as stand-alone options brings Cirincione to what he sees as the one viable strategy, which he calls “Contain and Engage” and which he claims is exacdy what Obama is doing today. The goal, he says, is “to put pressure on Iran, to back the Iranian regime into a comer and then open the door and help them find a way out.”

Cirincione is upbeat about the policy’s chances of success. He says the sanctions regime imposed by the UN and to which the EU, Japan, South Korea, Australia and the US itself have added sanctions of their own is hurting and things will only get worse for Iran as more and more businesses pull out. There are also signs that the Iranian nuclear program is slowing down because of technical hitches, with significantly fewer centrifuges running than last year. In addition, the regime is under domestic pressure from the reformist Green Movement. Cirincione speaks of two clocks now in Iran: a nuclear clock, which is slowing down, and a countdown for the regime clock, which is speeding up. “So the pressures are growing on Ahmadinejad to make some sort of a deal,” he concludes.

What kind of deal does Cirincione envisage? “What we are looking at now is some sort of deal which allows Iran, at least in the short run, to continue a limited operation of centrifuges under an expanded and much more intrusive international inspection regime,” he explains.

But what about military action to stop Iran going nuclear, if “contain and engage” fails? This is the huge dilemma decision-makers around the world are likely to face in the not too distant future. In Cirincione’s view, if it emerges that Iran has no intention of making a deal and is simply playing for time, the US should in certain circumstances be ready to take limited military action. Cirincione is extremely ambivalent about this, unsure about how effective it might be and even ready to entertain the notion that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard may actually want to see an American strike, which would enable that elite military force to unify the country around the regime. He also maintains that the US could contain a nuclear-armed Iran, although the spread of nuclear weapons it would almost certainly trigger would be a major problem.

So in what circumstances should the US consider military action in his view? If the Iranians make blatant moves to go nuclear that the US could use force to subvert. “If, say, Iran were right now to kick out the inspectors from Natanz and move to highly enrich uranium, I would argue that the military option to take out the Natanz facility starts to look very attractive,” Cirincione declares.

The russian experts’ analysis is far more down to earth. Russian interlocutors in the debate argue that there are only two ways of preventing Iran from going nuclear: imposing much tougher sanctions, including the possibility of a blockade, or launching a full-scale strike against Iran and its military infrastructure, taking out the Revolutionary Guard and preventing significant retaliation. A strike restricted to Iran’s nuclear facilities would be self-defeating primarily because of the terror Iran would be able to unleash in response.

Therefore, the only serious military scenario is a broad, sustained attack on the entire Iranian military, along the lines of the 1999 NATO campaign in former Yugoslavia. In the Russian experts’ view, a long, unrelenting campaign could topple the regime and destroy the Iranian nuclear program, but it would create chaos in the region, with huge humanitarian and refugee problems. Iran would not get nuclear weapons and would not even think of trying again for decades. But the cost in humanitarian terms would be intolerable. On the other hand, the Russians hold that if Iran were to get nuclear weapons they could be transferred to Hizballah cells and used in terror attacks anywhere in the world. All of which creates a huge dilemma over the use of force against Iran. “On Tuesday’s, Thursdays and Saturdays, experts say we should strike. And on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, the same experts say we shouldn’t. And on Sundays they pray to God to tell them what to do,” one of the leading Russian participants comments wryly.

The prevailing Russian view, though, seems to be that the unintended consequences of an attack would be worse than coming to terms with a nuclear-armed Iran, which could be contained through nuclear deterrence. The Russian approach, as reflected at the conference, seems to be to have much stronger sanctions imposed uniformly by a united international community to force Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions or face political isolation and economic collapse.

But for the Russians this is the last resort; should it fail, there would be no recourse to military force.

In an interview with The Report and other Israeli journalists, Ivanov, the former foreign minister, spells out this strand of Russian thinking: “If peaceful methods fail, there is only one option [to stop Iran going nuclear], and that option [military force] could be a disaster for international and regional stability,” he maintains. Throughout the conference, Ivanov repeatedly complains of insufficient unity in the international community to put real pressure on Iran. He points to the recent separate initiatives by Brazil and Turkey, which he says “eat away” at international unity, and he adds that there is also insufficient unity of purpose in the P5 plus 1 group (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany), which represents the international community in talks with Iran.

Asked how, if the international community is not united and there is no military option on the table, can Iran be prevented from getting a bomb, he points to the collapse of white-ruled apartheid South Africa. “With international solidarity we achieved results. So with greater unity we could achieve results with Iran too,” he insists. He says this means not only stronger sanctions, but strong political commitment on the Iranian issue, with all countries sending Iran the same messages, and not allowing the Iranians to play a game of divide and rule. But, again, if there is no real military threat behind the messages, why should the Iranians take them seriously? “Because in today’s global vil¬lage no country can live in isolation. They all need political contacts and development of economic relations,” Ivanov avers.

The Luxembourg Forum’s Washington conference reflects profound US and Russian concern over the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran, but strong reticence about using force to stop it. Ahmadinejad’s offer to discuss limiting uranium enrichment notwithstanding, the Iranian president is seen by the experts as continuing to play a dangerous, duplicitous game. The question is will increasingly tougher sanctions, not backed by force, prove effective as in the South Africa case?

If not, as the US and Russian dilemmas show, Israel could be faced with some very hard choices. And it is partly with this in mind that senior Israeli officials have recently taken to referring to 2011 as “the year of decision”.