Tightening the Noose on Iran
By: Jeff Lukens
Al-Qaeda has suffered a humiliating defeat in Iraq, and the Sunnis who were once allied with them now oppose them. We may be finally witnessing an historic change in a democratic Iraq that will have profound effects throughout the region. Democracy in the region, however, is not welcome by the leaders of Iran. In recent months, Iranian-supplied militias have been responsible for 70 percent of US casualties in Iraq. It is not surprising, therefore, that the focus of US military and diplomatic efforts in the region has now shifted to Iran.
The problem with Iran is multifaceted. We need an Iran that doesnâ€™t have the potential to build nukes, that doesnâ€™t support terrorism, and that doesnâ€™t destabilize Iraq. Iranâ€™s influence extends to significant Shiite communities on the western shore of the Persian Gulf. Iranâ€™s leaders could see the military weakness of Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Qatar as an opportunity to take control of the entire Gulf. If that happened, roughly one-quarter of the worldâ€™s oil-output would be under Tehranâ€™s control.
Moreover, if Iran develops its nuke, they could blackmail the region and strike out conventionally without fear of reprisal. If that were to happen, expect Turkey and Saudi Arabia to go nuclear as well. The prospect for a nuclear exchange in the tinderbox of the Middle East becomes a real possibility.
So far, Iranian leaders have shown no willingness to engage US diplomatic overtures seriously. And they wonâ€™t do so unless they feel pressure from tougher economic sanctions and a credible military threat. For the US, it seems we must deal with this situation now, or deal with a much worse situation later.
The ideal solution for us would be regime change in Teheran. But for now, State Department officials will settle for sincere discussions by the present one. Negotiations can only work when both sides enter into them in earnest. To this point, however, more diplomacy has only bought Iran more time to kill our soldiers, destabilize Iraq, and to obtain the bomb.
It increasingly looks like the only way to deal Iran is to bomb them. But wait. While it is 90 percent certain that air strikes alone could neutralize Iranian nuclear capabilities, it is that other 10 percent that gives pause. What if Iran still has a bomb-making capability after an extensive air bombardment on their nuclear facilities? We may not definitively know the answer to that question until one is set off â€“ and then it is too late.
Iranians may not like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad much, but they may react to an air attack by uniting to his side. The likely result of air strikes could increase Iranian troublemaking in Iraq and around the Persian Gulf.
Israel will not ignore Ahmadinejad with a bomb that can annihilate their tiny country. If diplomacy fails and Israel attacks preemptively, Iran will strike back, as will Hezbollah and Hamas. The US may be dragged into a wider ground war not of our making. While US naval forces in the gulf are formidable, we will be hard pressed to muster the forces necessary to handle the inevitable trouble on the ground.
To avoid being trapped between a choice of military action and a nuclear-armed Iran, we need to get moving diplomatically. Strong economic sanctions are the best way to convince Teheran that the costs of their goals exceed the benefits. If a military clash is to be averted, more nations will need to join US efforts in the economic isolation of Iran.
Building such a coalition is currently the priority of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The latest US sanctions target 25 Iranian individuals and companies owned or controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The list includes Iranâ€™s three largest banks. A vital element of the measure is that it includes sanctions on foreign firms that do business with them.
Ultimately, we will need the European Union fully involved in this process as well. We may need to impose sanctions on all of Iran like those enforced on apartheid South Africa. State pension funds should divest from all companies doing business there. We will need to convince nations like China that it is in their interest to suspend trade with Iran as well. In a world of tight oil supplies, this will be no easy task. Increased oil output by Saudi Arabia should be made available to counter any spike in the market price. After all, they are among the ones we are trying to protect.
With the US preoccupied in the Middle East, we can probably expect Moscow to try to use the situation to regain its dominance in the former Soviet republics. An Israeli or US strike against Iran will give Moscow an opening to destabilize Georgia, the Baltic States and the Ukraine. With the US dedicating much of its military ground strength to Iraq, it is weakened to respond to a crisis elsewhere in the world. Should Russia manufacture such an event, the US could do little about it.
The Russians are happy to sell the Iranians with whatever air defense systems they need. Rising tensions would dramatically raise the price of oil on the world market and enhance Russiaâ€™s oil-based economy. It is a win-win situation for them.
A cutoff of Russian weapons would greatly diminish Iranian defenses. For that to happen, however, Moscow would want US deference toward them in the former Soviet republics. The Bush Administration may be forced to give Russian President Putin what he wants in return for Russia abandoning the Iranians to face the US alone.
Hopefully events will not go that far. In the past year, there have been reports from Iran of a deteriorating economy, gas rationing, riots and street protests. If all this is true under present conditions, we could possibly spark a widespread rebellion when the sanctions are tightened still further.
A credible case can be made for threatening Iran without actually striking it. For Ahmadinejad, being attacked first is desirable because it gathers him sympathy throughout the region. For the US to threaten but not to strike, however, would spoil those expectations and deny his need to be provoked into a response.
Air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities can always be done later. For now, sabotage and other covert operations may be a preferable course of action. Though Iran is a major oil producer, it imports 40 percent of its domestically consumed gasoline. Eventually, we may need to block those gasoline shipments, and even commercial air flights into Iran as well.
The Iranian leaders may find that they can continue their ways only at the cost of increasing their reliance on the Russians, and at the risk of military intervention by the US. If severe sanctions are applied, the Iranian people could very likely rise up to overthrow their leaders. At the very least, such measures may force Ahmadinejad to choose a conciliatory posture at the negotiation table. Time is limited, and the Bush Administration must pursue all diplomatic and economic avenues to force change in Iran if war is to be averted.
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Jeff Lukens is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, Inc. The New Media Alliance is a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets.
Jeff Lukens is a staff writer for the New Media Alliance, a non-profit (501c3) national coalition of writers, journalists and grass-roots media outlets. He can be contacted at www.jefflukens.com