Casler: Alarmism in the Middle East
By Don Casler, Staff Columnist
Published on Friday, September 14, 2012
On Tuesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly denounced President Barack Obama for failing to draw clear “red lines” around Iran’s nuclear program and rebuked the United States’ “moral right” to hold Israel back from independent military action. This statement blatantly ignores the strategic implications of creating such thresholds and appears timed to back the president into a foreign policy corner leading up to Election Day. Netanyahu’s searing criticism of Obama is unreasonable at best and shameless politicking at worst.
From a strategic standpoint, it makes very little sense for the United States to bind itself to military action based on the levels of uranium enrichment achieved by Iran’s nuclear endeavors. Quite simply, creating an enrichment boundary beyond which a military strike is guaranteed would commit American forces to an assault whose probability of long-term effectiveness is dubious at best. It would predicate American foreign policy in the Middle East on responding to Iranian behavior and diminish our ability to react to broader geopolitical trends with diplomacy or conventional weaponry. Furthermore, any preemptive or unprovoked strike on Iran would create multiple messes, from casualties on the ground to immediate regional backlash — unbridled rage in the Arab street against America and Israel, further fuel for organizations like Al Qaeda and renewed determination from the Iranian government to go fully nuclear. Indeed, the murders of four American officials at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi on Tuesday are a terribly sobering example of the latent anti-American sentiment that can bubble over in the Middle East without warning.
In addition, many in the international community believe that Iran already has the capability to perform an underground nuclear experiment. Though a report last month from the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Iran has enough partially enriched fuel to make five or six bombs, nuclear experts like Israeli physical chemistry professor Uzi Even suspect that Iran has succeeded in covertly producing enough bomb-quality fuel to perform a test explosion in secret. If Iran is already nuclear, which Tehran has predictably denied, then the designation of an unacceptable level of uranium enrichment is essentially irrelevant.
At the same time, the risks of allowing Iran to obtain a weapon should not be discounted. Such a development would almost certainly embolden Iran in its support of Syria, Hezbollah and other undesirables in the Middle East while dramatically increasing the chances for war, either conventional or nuclear, in the region and perhaps enabling greater nuclear proliferation, which would all be spectacular foreign policy failures for the United States.
However, there lies a silver lining in the distinct unlikelihood of an Iranian nuclear strike. From both practical and logistical perspectives, Iran has little reason and almost certainly lacks the technical skill to launch an effective warhead. Tehran realizes that American and Israel second-strike capabilities, particularly when combined, could wipe Iran off the map within minutes of an initial Iranian attack. Additionally, Iran’s decision to pursue uranium rather than plutonium-based enrichment ensures that any bomb it could produce in the near future would be far too heavy to be borne any appreciable distance by its existing ballistic missiles.
All told, Obama has been correct in remarking that the United States and Israel have “time and space” to reach a negotiated solution with Iran on its nuclear aspirations — the Iranians are still months and years away from being a credible nuclear threat. Cold War-style containment may become a necessary option down the road, but today, continued sanctions and pressure represent the most sustainable and least confrontational plan.
Then why the pointed indictment of Obama’s policies from Netanyahu? There are evident political motivations in his attempt to elicit concessions from an American leader up for reelection in less than two months who cannot afford to be called soft on Iran or unsupportive of Israel. Brinkmanship on Iran may have worked when the president’s campaign was struggling and both Netanyahu and Republicans could take Mr. Obama to task for failing to lead on this issue. But this sort of hardball is no longer effective — Obama has opened up a six-point lead on opponent Mitt Romney and is now the American people’s preferred handler of foreign policy, according to two ABC News polls. Netanyahu would do well to tread more carefully around his country’s most important security ally rather than treating the United States as a political tool.