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The Iranian Nuclear Threat
A Storied Land
Iran is getting a lot of press these days with their nuclear programs. The concern by the rest of the world is that Iran will gain a nuclear weapon capability and thereby militarily threaten the other nations in the region. With the Persian Gulf region being the premier oil production region for the world, that threat becomes a global issue rather than a regional one. However, the danger of a nuclear Iran extends well beyond the region of the Persian Gulf and Israel, and not just as an economic threat. I am not an expert on Iran or the Middle East, but I am constantly amazed that none of the “experts” seem to put their fingers on the real threat from Iran (and in slightly less measure, some other “governments” on the planet, North Korea being the best example). This is a brief look at the problems of a nuclear armed Iran and a suggestion of an approach to dealing with it.
Iran, (Persia) has a long and storied history as both a land and a people. The Iranian Americans I have known have all been wonderful people. The people I’ve know who lived in Iran (primarily before the fall of the Shah) had universally high praise for the country and its people. The country is blessed with both cultural and mineral wealth.Its long history is as well known as its wealth in petroleum. In addition, it is a major player in the Global Economy for a number of key minerals in addition to being a major steel producer.
The current regime in Iran has proven both adept and ruthless in gaining, maintaining, and expanding its power. It has accomplished this in the face of significant unrest at home, opposition in the region, and from world powers around it. The regime is completely unapologetic on the brutal repression of internal dissent. There has been a great deal of public saber rattling, frequent very public threats against Israel, and threats to close the Straits of Hormuz and strike the interests of both its neighbors and western powers.
Iran expansion of its power base is multifaceted and a mix of show and shadow. The most obvious is its own military power, which it displays in frequent, well-publicized military exercises that showcase its military technology prowess. It works through political and economic alliances abroad (Russia, China, India, Syria, Columbia, and others). Finally, it has extended its influence and power by developing, training, equipping and financing multiple proxies that exercise political, economic, and military power across and beyond the region.
Iran has developed its own military power well beyond that of its immediate regional neighbors. The Republican Guard and its Special Operations Arm, the Quds Force, are almost their own branch of the government. In fact, the military is a government within the government, with its own economic power, factories, companies, and trading networks. They run much of the economy and are not so much budgeted out of the national treasury as they make their own monies – a militarized Mafia.
The economic alliances are the same combination of show and shadow. Iran uses its energy riches to appeal to resource-hungry nations, notably but not exclusively China, India, and southeast Asia. There is a recent news story of Iran swapping oil and natural gas to Turkey in exchange for gold rather than currency to thwart the sanctions. In the face of what should be crushing sanctions, it provides sufficient income to fund not only survival of the government, but the means to continue its shadowy power projection while efficient repression limits visible domestic discord. Right now, the threat to the West of closing the Straits of Hormuz and ruining the world economy is balanced by the fact that those same Straits carry the economic life’s blood of Iran as well. A good bet is that as soon as the NATO leaves Afghanistan, there will be a major construction effort for highways and pipelines to carry oil, natural gas, and mineral resources from Iran directly into China. The security will come from bribes to the Afghan government, the Taliban, and any other tribal warlords required. When that is in place (10 years?) the Straits’ closure threat will be many times more credible.
The Iranian government has demonstrated an amazing talent for challenging the West indirectly through the use of multiple proxies. They all but control Assad’s Syria. In the civil war with the Syrian revolutionaries there are documented news reports of Iranian advisors from the Revolutionary Guard in Assad’s inner circle, as well as advisors down to the tactical level guiding and training Syrian Army troops, if not participating in direct combat operations. The air bridge for weapons, ammunition, and other supplies between Tehran and Damascus over Iraq is an open secret. They birthed, fed, trained, equipped, and nurtured Hezbollah and Hamas, effectively controlling Lebanon and Palestine. It gives Iran control of a broad swath of the Middle East from Arabian Sea to the Mediterranean. In the recent clash between Hamas and Israel, the rockets fired into Israel were designed, and the components and assembly training supplied, by Iran. In addition, there are indications of Iranian participation in the revolutions in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt. The first significant foreign policy change on the part of Egypt after Mubarak fell was the opening of the Suez Canal to the Iranian Navy for the first time in almost 30 years, and a rapprochement with Hamas in the West Bank. It provides the possibility of extending Iranian influence and control across North Africa with the possibility of then threatening the Suez canal and the Straits of Gibraltar, in addition to the Straits of Hormuz.
It is no secret the US was fighting Iranian trained, equipped, and paid militias in Iraq as much as it was fighting Al Qaida. The Iranians equip, train, and pay many of the Taliban and other opposition groups in Afghanistan. In the Gulf, the ongoing revolutionary strife in Bahrain, and the less well reported or observed strife in Oman, Saudi, and (to a lesser extent) Kuwait, is rooted in the enmity between Sunnis and their very poor treatment of the Shias in their lands (mirrored in the similar treatment of Sunnis in majority Shia areas in Iran and now in Iraq). While the Shia populations have very valid complaints about treatment at the hands of their Sunni rulers, those same Sunni rulers know the Shia movement is shot through with Iranian agents who are funding, training, and instigating more than just unrest. A successful revolt by Shias in any of those counties would result in a take over by Iran in very short order.
Finally, in spite of the frequent display of prowess in the field of missile technology, the real danger in the Iranian nuclear program is not aerial bombers or nuclear tipped missiles threatening its neighbors and foes. The Iranians frequently display missile technology, and play it up to the press and the diplomatic world with claims of being able to range Israel and Europe as well as US assets in the Middle East. However, the preferred delivery vehicle for the Iranians is not a missile launched from Iranian soil with a range of 1500 km. The preferred delivery vehicle is a 20-foot standard shipping container whose launcher will be one of its many known proxy groups like Hezbollah, or (more likely) some smaller unknown splinter group. Unlike a ballistic missile, whose range and payload can be calculated, the launch detected, tracked, and possibly intercepted, the 20-foot shipping container will be just one of the tens of thousands of containers shipped every day, traceable only after the fact, and whose range is absolutely unlimited. Iran will not have to miniaturize a warhead, make it stable enough to stand the stress of launch and flight, develop proper fuse function, or worry about targeting. Nor do they have to worry about immediate retaliation. Rather, they can take any crude device, pass it through multiple concealing go-betweens to some little known jihadist group, and provide easily concealed funding and intelligence. The device can be delivered literally to the target’s doorstep by air, sea, rail, or truck, or any combination thereof. It is simple, relatively inexpensive, and deniable. They can afford to tolerate failures in the process. They simply sit back and wait for success. When the weapon goes off, they deny any involvement to the world at large, celebrate in private, and whisper this most effective advertising possible in the ear of future shadowy recruits.
A not so Great Solution
This Iranian government has demonstrated the capacity to brutalize and kill its own people publicly to maintain power, and both the ability and willingness to export that philosophy to other nations’ groups in the region to further its own ends. It has provided weapons, training, and financing to the most brutal terrorist organizations with little regard for affiliations. It has demonstrated global capability and intent. In addition, Iran has an oft stated and unambiguous goal to destroy the nation of Israel and those allied to Israel. The Russians and Chinese foolishly protect the Iranian Government because of economic considerations, ignoring the fact they too are in the target radius and are in competition with the religious and political philosophy of that government. While the world has more than its share of dangerous political and cultural groups, it appears none is more dangerous to the world in general than the current Iranian regime. Add nuclear weapons capability and the threat is truly terrible.
There appear to be few reasonable means to address the problem. Iran insists it has the right to become a nuclear power and asserts it is ‘only for peaceful energy’ intentions while using every tool and technique to conceal its efforts. The West, led by the US, has applied increasingly painful and stringent sanctions in an effort to gain a measure of transparency and perhaps halt the progress of nuclear ambitions. The Iranian regime is using every measure possible to circumvent those sanctions with some measure of success.
The Iranian regime will almost certainly achieve its nuclear ambitions. A military strike is unlikely to completely stop it without an incredibly costly ground invasion and will probably result in as much or more damage to the world economy than a single terrorist nuclear strike. Perhaps the only credible and effective measure might be a modified version of the Cold War MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). Sanctions associated with the nuclear program are removed, and the Iranian regime does what it wants with one remaining provision: a nuclear detonation anywhere in the world, not immediately traceable (ballistic missile launch, bomber track, etc) to an identifiable belligerent, will result in the complete nuclear destruction of Iran within 12 hours, no questions asked. The cultural loss of that ancient land and people would be tragic beyond words. The downwind neighbors (most likely Afghanistan and Pakistan) would be threatened and perhaps untenable. The economic impact, particularly of taking Iranian oil and natural gas off the market, would be significant, although it could be regarded as putting it in reserve until radiation levels declined to the point that it could be resumed with protection, or other methodologies make it accessible. It is precipitate and unfair perhaps, given the proliferation of out of control terrorist organizations that hate somebody/everybody and regard the nuclear equivalent of a car bomb as both useful and entertaining. But it may then put Iran in the position of not only controlling its own irrational impulses, but also putting its shadowy underground resources to work seeking to eliminate those same terrorist organizations to prevent Iran becoming the secondary victim of some jihadist’s bad idea. It is not a good solution, but it may be what will work.