When Words Could Mean War

November 22, 2011 12:00 am0 comments
Nathaniel Rosen

One day soon, the question of whether the world can tolerate a nuclear Iran will no longer be a hypothetical one. And what ends up being done about it ultimately depends on whether countries like Israel and the United States take Iranian threats at face value.

Earlier this month, the International Atomic Energy Agency released a report that made clear the obvious: Iran is carrying out activities “relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device.” And while the report failed to suggest how long it might take the Iranian regime to acquire nuclear capabilities, expert estimates put Iran anywhere from a few months to a few years away from developing nuclear weapons.

These estimates are, of course, pending any disruptions — disruptions like the untimely deaths of Iranian nuclear scientists; the Stuxnet computer virus, which wrought havoc on Iran’s nuclear facilities last year; mysterious explosions at missile depots in which leading members of the Iranian military were killed; and another recently discovered computer virus called Duqu, whose purported aim is to gather intelligence and data for use in a possible future attack against Iran.

What is clear from these “disruptions” is that someone — most likely the United States and/or Israel — is carrying out a covert war aimed at slowing down, if not derailing, the Iranian nuclear project. And with harsh sanctions rendered unlikely by Chinese and Russian intransigence, this covert war will undoubtedly continue into the foreseeable future. But at some point, those behind the offensive will have to face the real possibility that no amount of “disruptions” may be able to deter Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The world community will then find itself facing a limited number of options, none of which are particularly desirable.

The first requires continued pressure on Iran through sanctions and diplomacy with the hope that these efforts will prevent Iran from going nuclear. The covert war will continue, but when push comes to shove, there will be no large-scale military action taken to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear capabilities. In such a scenario, barring any real cooperation from Russia or China, Iran will likely realize its nuclear ambitions, forcing Western powers to attempt to contain and deter the nuclear-armed Iranian regime, perhaps much in the same way the West used containment and deterrence when dealing with the Soviet Union. Implicit in this approach is that Iran isn’t a suicidal regime — that it will not make good on its promises to wipe Israel “off the map” or go after “Great Satan” because of concerns for its own survival — and it can therefore be contained.

Skeptics, however, fear that there are no guarantees when it comes to containment and deterrence, and that even if the United States can contain a nuclear-armed Iran, the efforts of countries like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to acquire nuclear weapons in response would add even more volatility to the powder keg that is the Middle East. Moreover, allowing Iran, one of the world’s leading sponsors of terrorism, to acquire nuclear weapons would constitute a grievous failure of the international system. Iran would be emboldened under its new-found nuclear umbrella, and at the end of the day, some believe that as much as it would be against Iran’s interests to launch a nuclear attack or provide the technology to terrorists, there’s no guarantee that it will not do so at some point in the future.

And so it may come to pass that one day world leaders will consider attacking Iran as a last resort to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons. Even those who support such an attack frame it as a highly problematic, though necessary, option. Whether an Israeli or American strike would be able to hit key strategic locations remains unclear. And even if an attack were successful, many believe the regime’s program would simply be set back a few years rather than debilitated. A strike could also have the unintended consequence of uniting the Iranian people behind their government, and would almost certainly result in a war in the Middle East, most likely in the form of an assault on Israel by Iran’s proxies Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Israel could very well face barrages of missiles raining down on Tel Aviv, and Iran’s recent alleged assassination attempt on a foreign national on American soil should serve as a reminder of Iran’s ability and willingness to perpetrate terror around the world.

And that’s to say nothing of the implications on the global economy or oil prices should a war with Iran erupt.

President Barack Obama has repeatedly stated that every option remains “on the table” vis-à-vis Iran, and the recent frenzy in the Israeli media over purported plans to attack Iran certainly speaks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s seriousness about the military option. At the end of the day, though, both leaders surely realize that there are no good options when it comes to Iran. And so their decisions will likely hinge, in large part, on whether they take Iran’s threats at face value: If Prime Minster Netanyahu truly believes that Iran aims to wipe Israel “off the map,” there can be little doubt as to whether he will take every step necessary — including a military strike — to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.

In an interview shortly before he was sworn into office as Israel’s Prime Minister, Netanyahu remarked: “Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that [Iran] will behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?”

I guess that’s the million-dollar question.  Everything else is just background noise.

Nathaniel Rosen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at nrosen@cornellsun.com. Bringing it Home appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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