The debate hasn’t changed much in the nine years since September 11:
The U.S. cannot allow nuclear weapons to fall into the hands of terrorists, and the prospect of Iran, a country that the U.S. hasn’t recognized diplomatically in three decades, becoming a nuclear power is totally unacceptable.
The options haven’t changed much either:
Sanctions may be able to force the Iranians into a corner, but without the participation of China and Russia, economic sanctions would lack any real bite. That leaves only one option, best elaborated on in John McCain’s hit single “Bomb, bomb Iran.” At best that option would merely set back the Iranian program a few years and would probably come at a “tremendous, unpredictable cost” according to a recent war game that played out the scenario.
In that war game, conducted this winter by experts and former policymakers representing Israel, the U.S. and Iran, they gave the Israelis the best case scenario — about 100 Israeli jets strike and take out the entirety of Iran’s nuclear facilities with one fell swoop.
The problem is that then eliminates any reason for the Iranians to issue restraint with their response — the crown jewels already being gone, and the people rallying to support the government to retaliate. By the end of the one-week war game Iran had crashed Israel’s economy with a constant rain of its own missiles and those fired by its proxies forcing millions of Israelis to flee or dig in. Israel in turn prepared to invade Southern Lebanon and Gaza once again to take out missile sites. And, after Iran mined the Straits of Hormuz to economically punish the Saudis and Americans for backing Israel, American warships gathered in the Indian Ocean set to engage the Iranian navy in the largest naval battle since World War II.
And that’s as far as they got in gaming the “clean” military option. The alternative is a full invasion and occupation of Iran, which would play out similar to the war in Iraq — that is to say bad — only it would be worse given that Iran is larger, more populated and more anti-American.
So why don’t the damn Russians and Chinese get on board with the sanctions?!
From the Russian perspective there are at least two good reasons not to blockade Iran. First, the baseline of Russia’s relations with Iran is far different than that of the U.S.. While their agendas do not always align, Russia has gotten along fairly well with Iran since the fall of the Soviet Union. Russian businesses have also thrived in Iran therefore trashing the relationship asks a lot more of them that it does of anyone in the West.
And second, because Iran is also an influential member of Russia’s turbulent neighborhood. As this week’s tragic event in Moscow made clear, Russia still faces a serious problem with terrorism from insurgents and Islamic extremists in its restive south. Americans automatically make the connection between Iran and terrorism through its allied movements Hezbollah and Hamas, which is all the more reason for the Russians to seek to not piss off the Iranians too, as Iran could easily exert the wrong kind of influence in the already troubled regions of Russia’s North Caucasus.
Additionally, according to Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, speaking on NPR’s On Point, Russia has more or less come to the conclusion that Iran is likely to go nuclear no matter what anyone else does. It’s not clear that sanctioning Iran would dissuade the Iranian regime from continuing to seek out a bomb, what is clear for the Russian’s though, is that helping the West isolate the Islamic Republic would instantly make Iran an additional Russian enemy — and possibly a nuclear one.
State Department officials continue to claim they are gradually convincing Russia to get on board with the idea of sanctions, but I find that hard to believe despite recent progress on issues like nuclear non-proliferation. At best I think the West can expect to Russia not to veto a sanctions resolution in the U.N. Security Council.
Furthermore, I’m no longer seemingly the only person to make the case that a nuclear Iran won’t necessarily mean apocalypse. Newsweek International Editor Fareed Zakaria wrote in February:
Iran, we’re told, is different [from North Korea, the Soviet Union, China, etc.]. The country cannot be deterred by America’s vast arsenal of nukes because it is run by a bunch of mystic mullahs who aren’t rational, embrace death and have millenarian fantasies. But this isn’t and never was an accurate description of Iran’s canny (and ruthlessly pragmatic) clerical elite.
The most significant recent development in Iran has been the displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a military organization that is now the center of power [...] [W]e know this: Military regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a containment strategy work.
All of the scary things we are told that make it a global death wish to allow Iran to go nuclear continue to be true about Pakistan. Iran maintains ties to terrorist organizations (Hezbollah, Hamas), so does Pakistan (the Taliban, Lashkar e-Taiba — responsible for the 2008 attacks in Mumbai). Iran is at the brink of war with another nuclear-armed American ally (Israel) – so is Pakistan (India).
All things considered, Moscow may be hedging its bets in a constructive way for the long term. Fred Kaplan from Slate made the point that Iran can’t handle nukes because they lack the control mechanisms limiting authority over the weapons and preventing accidental launches that were in place other nuclear countries including Pakistan.
But Pakistan only learned a good system of control devices (wherein a rogue general can’t decided to nuke Finland at any moment) with the help of an experienced nuclear power – the U.S.. Russia has already proposed various ways in which they could participate in compromises involving Iran’s use of nuclear technology – including a deal in which Russia would enrich all the nuclear fuel itself and also take the left over waste. Therefore there’s no reason to believe that if Russia maintains at least a neutral relationship towards Iran, that they couldn’t help make Iran’s nukes more secure as well.