Iran, the Bomb, and America's Options

Home | Personal | Outdoors | Travels | Blog | Work | Weather | Site Map


Iran, the Bomb, and America's Options

Home | Personal | Outdoors | Travels | Blog | Work | Weather | Site Map



Iran, the Bomb, and America's Options      (posted June 8, 2006 by Jonathan Vigh, updated January 14, 2007, changed June 10, 2007 to correct the approximate figure of the world's oil which passes through the Straits of Hormuz - it's about a quarter)

I've found the current situation with Iran to be most fascinating. Here is a brief blurb of my current thoughts about the U.S., Iran, and the potential options for dealing with the problem of Iran's nuclear ambitions.

From my perspective, the U.S. has three main objectives in it's current geopolitical strategy in the Middle East:

1. Energy security - by this I mean that the U.S. has the goal of ensuring that the world energy supply is safe from disruption. Note that this is completely different from physical possession of the energy supply - many argued that the 2003 Iraq war was conducted to gain control of Iraq's oil supply. I disagree with that viewpoint - the U.S. is perfectly happy to pay fair market prices for Middle East oil - what they wish to avoid is a situation where any country has the ability to shut in and disrupt a large part of the Middle East oil supply, either through an overt attack on a neighboring country's oil infrastructure or through attacks (or even the threat of attack) on shipping or pipelines which transport the oil to market.

    Why does the U.S. care so much about energy security? Because developed economies are so energy intensive. A drastic and prolonged price shock can easily spark a global recession or worse (take for example the 1973 Arab oil embargo). Saddam's illegal invasion of Kuwait provides another example of how even a single nation can wreak havoc on world energy security. Many feared that if left unchecked, Saddam would continue on and invade Saudi Arabia next, leaving much of the world's energy supply in the hands of an irrational madman (in retrospect, it seems that perhaps Saddam's motives were perhaps rational, but poorly calculated). The world responded with the 1990 Persian Gulf War, and in retreat Saddam ordered the torching of Kuwaiti oil fields. Besides rogue nations, I should point out that on smaller scales, natural threats can also have significant impacts on regional energy security. Hurricanes Ivan (2004) and Katrina (2005) in the Gulf of Mexico are prime examples.  

    With Saddam now gone, Iraq currently occupied (although in some degree of chaos), and the other major oil producing states in the region fairly stable, there are three main threats to energy security: Russia, terrorist elements, and Iran. As Europe and the former Soviet satellites of Belarus and Georgia have learned in the past few years, Russia is willing to use their role as dominant energy supplier to Europe for political leverage. But Russia is a rational player - they are making calculated decisions to expand their profits or to influence states who are beholden to their energy supply. Terrorists certainly pose a threat to energy security, especially since a large portion of Saudi oil passes through one single offshore loading facility. But the terrorist threat can be managed because such security chokepoints are limited in number and can (hopefully) be defended through tight security. So in my analysis, it is only Iran who has the capability (and possible motive) to cause a destructive disruption to world energy markets. This is because something like 25% of the world's oil supply passes through the Straits of Hormuz - in the event of a conflict, Iran could temporarily close this important shipping avenue through naval blockade or even the mere threat of attack on oil supertankers (Iran possesses potent anti-ship missile technology).

2. A Middle East free of radicalism/totalitarianism - clearly, a Middle East comprised of states committed to peace would profoundly increase energy security (the first goal) and likely lead to a host of economic and social reforms. With Iraq wracked by sectarian strife, the U.S. attempts at sparking a democratic revolution in the Middle East have hit a massive speed bump.

3. Iran cannot be allowed to obtain nuclear weapons. To consider why this U.S. goal is so important, first consider what Iran has to gain from building nuclear weapons. Such weapons would put them in a better position to fulfill (or at least attempt to fulfill) their threat to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. Even if Iran never uses their nukes, their increased status as a nuclear power would increase their political influence in the region and satisfy their geopolitical goal of leading a Pan-Islam state to counter the West. And finally, as the differing outcomes of recent conflicts shows (U.S. invasion of a non-nuclear Iraq vs. continued stalemate with a nuclear North Korea), Iran likely sees the possession of nuclear weapons as the ultimate deterrent against any potential aggression from the U.S. or Israel, whether the response come overtly (Iran also has sophisticated missile technology) or through nuclear terrorism.

    Next consider what the unintended consequences of a nuclear Iran would be. While it is possible that a Middle East armed to the teeth with nukes could have an odd stabilizing effect (as happened between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. in the Cold War), this is only possible if the parties involved are all rational actors. I think it is more likely that the current sectarian bloodbath in Iraq might be a microcosm for what could happen in a nuclear Middle East. A nuclear Iran (Shia) would almost certainly spark a new nuclear arms race among the predominantly Sunni nations in the region, especially Egypt and Saudi Arabia. 

But is Iran really seeking to build nukes?

   After the terrible fiasco in Iraq over phantom "Weapons of Mass Destruction", one should of course ask whether the Iranians are really working towards nuclear weapons. They claim that they only want to develop the ability to use nuclear power for electrical generation. Such a project of course necessitates a source of nuclear fuel, which involves the enrichment of uranium. A 5% enrichment is adequate to run a nuclear power plant, while an enrichment of 90+% is required to build nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear power for electrical generation is of course fully within a nation's rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). As a signatory to the NPT (which went into effect in 1970), it is within Iran's right to enrich uranium to 5% and thus have a viable fuel cycle for their nuclear power plants (article IV). But this "unalienable right" is contingent on not building nuclear weapons (articles I and II). The problem is that the process for enriching uranium is basically the same whether one wants to go to 5% or 90%. So once they have the infrastructure for commercial scale enrichment in place, all they have to do is pull out of the NPT and presto - Iran is a nuclear state. Iran has already conducted substantial research into the enrichment process and has demonstrated their enrichment capabilities on a small scale research cascade (164 centrifuges). With their technology and that size of a cascade, it would take 30-40 years to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. Now they are setting up a facility that will contain 3000 centrifuges for enrichment on a larger scale, which changes the time scale to just a couple of years. Thus, Iran has nearly finished assembled all the technology and infrastructure necessary a nuclear weapons program. It will be very difficult, if not impossible, to ensure that the enrichment isn't carried to 90% instead of 5%.

   In an effort to avert the growing standoff between the U.S., Europe, and Iran, the Russians offered to enrich uranium in controlled facilities near, but outside the border of Iran. This would allow the Iranians to achieve their aims of peaceful nuclear energy while satisfying the security concerns of the West. Interestingly, Iran rebuffed the Russian compromise, asserting that it was their sovereign right to make their own nuclear fuel. The rejection of such a rational compromise shows that the Iranians are either incredibly naive about the security concerns of the West - or they really do aim to build nuclear weapons. I would argue that the latter is almost certainly the case. The leaders of Iran probably feel that it is their duty to deceive the West as much as possible concerning their true aims, and I wouldn't be surprised if they pull out of the NPT once they are far enough along in their goals. Thus, in all likelihood, the Iran situation IS fundamentally different than Iraq, but of course only hindsight is 20/20. It appears that Iran is fundamentally committed to their nuclear ambitions. 

What should the U.S. do to counter Iranian nuclear ambitions?

    In light of the U.S. goal of energy security, any war with Iran is not a preferred path to energy security, at least in the short term. If most of the Middle East oil was shut in by conflict for several months, world oil prices would likely skyrocket to $150-200 per barrel. This would have devastating effects on the world economy. In the long term, it may be a different matter, however. If Iran successfully builds nuclear weapons, their ability to threaten energy security would be much greater than it currently is.

    Regarding the goal of a Middle East free of radical and totalitarian regimes, a regime change in Iran would certainly be welcome, assuming it was replaced by something better and in a peaceful manner. Currently, many Iranians are dissatisfied with their restrictive religious regime and would welcome a more open and free system of government. While the population's actual support for the U.S. is likely quite limited, there probably is some base of support for a regime change. Yet, if the U.S. conducts a military strike on Iran, this may alienate even that group and further inflame religious radicals, possibly spreading the conflict beyond Iran. Clearly, a direct military strike is not a preferable option.

    The sign that the Bush administration has offered direct talks and incentives is very encouraging. I feel the ball is now in Iran's court. They say that their right to enrich uranium is nonnegotiable, however the only reason this can nonnegotiable is if they actually plan to build nuclear weapons. And if that is their plan, then ultimately the U.S. can either wait until they get them and then deal with the resulting consequences, or the U.S. must investigate other options of coercive diplomacy and/or military strikes to prevent that from happening. That doesn't mean that a potential conflict will be like the 2003 Iraq War. A U.S./European/Iran conflict has the potential of being much worse than Iraq ever was. On the other hand, the populace and demographics are much different than Iran. It is possible regime change may be accomplished simply through economic sanctions and pressure.

    Many Americans would say that the U.S. has done enough meddling and that we should stay out of the Iranian situation. I wholeheartedly disagree. If we choose to do nothing and allow Iran to continue working towards nukes, I feel that there is a very high likelihood that Israel WILL choose to do something about it, with a high potential of sparking a regional or global war that will further the fracture between Islam and the West. At the very least, a small scale conflict could still shatter energy security - Americans would be paying $10 for a gallon of gas, probably sparking a global recession. So the E.U., the U.S., Russia, and China all have something to gain in settling this situation peaceably. Iran has also much to gain, and the most to lose. Hopefully, Iran and the U.S. have both learned from Iraq that openness and negotiation are preferable to a hot war. In summary, Iran remains one of the greatest instabilities to world peace. The U.S. cannot afford not to engage Iran on this issue.


Home | About this Site | Disclaimer || Site Map | Subscribe to be notified when new content is posted to this site


Home | About this Site | Disclaimer || Site Map | Subscribe to be notified when new content is posted to this site