An International Atomic Energy Agency report last week escalated the debate concerning whether the United States or its ally, Israel, will soon launch a military strike against Iran. Experts determined from the report, which was sent to the United Nations, that the Islamic Republic now has enough enriched uranium for at least one nuclear weapon. Just as disturbing, the report states the Iranians intend to install “thousands more” of the machines that enrich uranium gas.
“They clearly have enough material for a bomb,” said Richard L. Garwin, a respected nuclear physicist and government advisor, in the New York Times. “They know how to do the enrichment. Whether they know how to design a bomb, well, that’s another matter.”
Washington and Tel Aviv have long regarded Iran’s nuclear program with great concern. Until now, the bottom line of both countries’ foreign policies is that Iran will not be allowed to possess atomic weapons. Some believe the major reason, if not the principal one, for the 2003 Iraq invasion was to position American forces for an attack against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities; but the post-invasion insurgency thwarted that plan.
Israel’s and America’s tough stance in regard to Iran’s nuclear program is hardly surprising. The mullah regime has openly stated its intention to annihilate Israel, while several government members have denied the Holocaust ever occurred. In this vein, Tehran once even held a Holocaust denial conference.
While Israel has hoped to end Iran’s nuclear program by diplomatic means, it has always refused to rule out a military option. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) staged a special training exercise last summer over the Mediterranean that appeared to be a practise run for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. Involving more than 100 jet fighters, helicopters and refueling aircraft, the exercise stretched 1,000 miles over the ocean, the approximate distance from Israel to Iran’s Nantanz uranium-enrichment plant.
But some are questioning whether a military option is now even necessary given the terrible condition of the Iranian economy, which is worsening due to rapidly falling oil prices. Hosein Askari, a professor of international business and international affairs at Georgetown University, wrote recently that while international sanctions have had an impact on the Iranian economy, especially in regards to deterring foreign investment, he stated it was Iran’s own economic policies that have been the “most detrimental.”
Among the more damaging economic actions undertaken by the government, Askari lists nationalization of industries, economic privileges bestowed on the Revolutionary Guards, an unemployment rate of 15-25 percent the past ten years, “widespread and regressive subsidies” and an inflation rate 20-30 percent. Iran also has no access to international finance markets and, to make matters worse, banks in the United Arab Emirates are now refusing to do business with the many Iranian trading firms based there, while the US has cut off Iran’s access to its banking system.
Due to its poor economic performance, the Tehran government has become dependent on oil revenues. But Iran’s oil production, Haskari notes, is down almost a third since 1979 and there was no increase in Iran’s financial reserves when oil prices were high.
“If oil prices continue their decline, then the regime in Tehran is in for the fight of its life,” Haskari states.
While the ruling elite and its supporters still enjoy the good life in Iran, with some becoming extremely wealthy, the majority of the population is impoverished. In addition, according to Haskari, there will only be jobs for half of the 800,000 young people expected to enter the workforce over the next four to five years.
Facing such economic failure, some argue that the West should just wait for Iran to implode economically, like the Soviet Union did, and then make cancellation of its nuclear weapons program a condition for financial assistance. Economic dissatisfaction may even cause a regime change in next year’s election in Iran, making any attack unnecessary.
An expression of this dissatisfaction occurred recently when sixty Iranian economists signed an open letter, criticizing President Ahmadinejad’s nuclear weapons program and his economic and foreign policies. But the Iranian mullahs believe they are on an Allah-inspired mission. Like North Korea, they may not care how much the ordinary people have to suffer in their quest to acquire nuclear weapons.
If an attack is to take place with American involvement or assistance, it would probably have to occur before January 20, since president-elect Barack Obama intends to hold talks with Iranian leaders and would therefore not authorize any strike, at least in the foreseeable future. Besides, given the current domestic economic situation in the United States, Obama would be against any military action that would cause oil prices to go back up to $150 per barrel. Moreover, Obama wants to withdraw American troops from Iraq, and an attack against Iran would probably force him to leave American forces there, as the Iranians would have their anti-American Iraqi proxy, Muqtada al-Sadr, reignite the Shiite insurgency.
If Israel goes it alone, the response will be much different than when it destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and a suspected reactor in Syria this year. After an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, it is expected that Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in southern Lebanon, would immediately fire hundreds of rockets into northern Israel, leading to another war in that area. Israel would also be subjected to rocket attacks from Iran itself. The Islamic Republic possesses 50-100 Shahab 3 missiles, an old North Korean design, that has a range of 1,700 miles and lands within 100 meters of the target. One military publication calls it an “effective weapon.”
With no regime change in Iran, it is inevitable the religious fanatics in Tehran will possess a nuclear weapon in the next few years. Looking through Israeli eyes, such a horrible eventuality does not bear thinking. So if Israel and the United States intend to end this nightmare scenario by military action, expect it to happen soon.