The International Atomic Energy Agency reported on Tuesday that it had received “credible” information indicating that Iran is developing nuclear weapons despite the regime’s insistence that it merely seeks a nuclear capacity to produce energy.
Israel is already up in arms about the allegation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly lobbying his cabinet to approve a preemptive strike. Conservative lawmakers in the United States are similarly dismayed and disappointed in President Barack Obama’s inability to “get tough” on Iran.
The administration is understandably hesitant. Striking Iran carries great tactical and strategic risks.
Iran’s nuclear facilities are scattered and concealed. It would be nearly impossible for an attacker, whether it’s Israel, the United States or both, to take out all of Iran’s nuclear sites in a single strike even if their bunker busting bombs are capable of obliterating the ayatollahs’ fortified positions.
There will be Iranian retaliation in any event. At least right now, it won’t be nuclear which is why Israel is pushing for an attack fast.
Tehran could order its navy to mine the Strait of Hormuz through which 40 percent of the world’s seaborn oil transports passes through every day or harass oil tankers with diesel submarines and shore batteries. This would put 20 percent of the world’s oil supply at risk. Even if the United States Navy should be able to break an Iranian blockade of the Gulf, oil prices and insurance rates will temporarily skyrocket and immediately impact the fragile economies of the West.
Beyond the Persian Gulf, Iran could seek to incite Shia violence in Bahrain and eastern Saudi Arabia as it has before, according to these monarchies, and in Iraq where the Americans are preparing for a withdrawal. It also has retaliatory options at its disposal in the Levant where it may incur a renewed Hezbollah missile barrage against Israel.
All of these options could be deployed even if Israel attacks unilaterally for Iran is likely to perceive an Israeli attack as part of a Western scheme, whatever the reality. The United States will thus be forced to intervene to keep the oil flowing from the Arab states of the Gulf and possibly to destroy the remaining suspected Iranian nuclear sites lest it seek to retaliate with a “dirty” bomb which is composed of fissile materials but lacks the destructive impact of an atomic weapon.
On a strategic plane, an attack is likely to lock in an anti-American regime in Iran for another generation to come, one that is all the more motivated to become a nuclear and regional power. Once Iran possesses nuclear weapons, after all, it will be able to deter an American-Israeli offensive.
An Iranian bomb is likely to kick off a regional bout of rapid proliferation with especially Saudi Arabia and Turkey and, in the longer term, Egypt and Iraq seeking a similar capacity. The United States could extend their defense umbrella to cover friendly regimes in the region and discourage them from trying to build an atomic weapon of their own. But the Saudis are anxious. Their proxy government in Lebanon was torn asunder by Iranian intrigue and March’s uprising in Bahrain prompted a Saudi intervention because the kingdom feared Iranian involvement there.
With Egypt and Iraq in turmoil, Saudi Arabia is the only Sunni power in the Middle East that is able to keep the Iranians at bay. An Iranian-Israeli-Saudi nuclear triangle, balanced by American power, may be the best thing to keep the region safe.
If Washington isn’t willing to outright give the Saudis nuclear weapons, it could do worse than strike an agreement similar to the one it has with Turkey where forty American nuclear weapons are stationed and slated to pass unto Turkish control if it is ever threatened with nuclear attack by a non-NATO power. Extending the same privilege to Riyadh would ensure a nuclear balance across the Gulf with minimal American effort.