Can We Stop Iran?
By: Greg C. Reeson
Russia’s recent shipment of uranium fuel rods to Iran has moved the Islamic Republic one step closer to having an operational nuclear power facility in the southern city of Bushehr, and one step closer to shifting the long-standing balance of power in the Middle East. Iran’s continuing nuclear development efforts represent just one part of a three-pronged strategy designed to achieve Iran’s ultimate goal: to be the dominant power in the Middle East.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, Iran seized the opportunity to increase its power and influence in a region largely governed by Sunni regimes. The removal of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship allowed the Iraqi Shiite majority to take governmental control of their country, and Iran immediately began meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs by arming and training Shiite militias, funneling deadly explosives to insurgent groups, and using as much influence as it could muster with the new Shiite leadership. Fomenting unrest in Iraq allowed Iran to tie down U.S. forces while the Iranians worked to ensure a Shiite-friendly government in Baghdad that would not continue Iraq’s traditional role as a threat to Tehran.
At the same time, Iran began pushing the terrorist group Hezbollah, which Tehran has long armed and financed, to increase attacks on Israel and to strengthen its position in Lebanese society and within the Lebanese government. In the summer of 2006, when the United States seemed hopelessly bogged down in Iraq, Iran prompted Hezbollah to instigate a brutal war with Israel that decimated Lebanese infrastructure and seriously weakened the Israeli government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Throughout this period, Iran stepped up its nuclear development efforts and continually defied the wishes of the international community as expressed in several United Nations Security Council resolutions. The long-standing demand of the UN, led by the United States and an increasingly assertive Europe, has been that Iran put a halt to its uranium enrichment program. Given the shipment of Russian fuel rods to Bushehr, this should, in theory, be an easy demand to satisfy. After all, if Russia is supplying Iran with nuclear fuel, then there is no need for Iran to enrich uranium on its own. But officials in Tehran quickly and predictably dismissed the idea, asserting that Iran would never give up its right to develop nuclear technology.
The reason for continued Iranian defiance is simple to understand when Iranian actions are viewed from a strategic perspective. The Iranian nuclear program is not a grand strategy designed to produce a nuclear weapons capability, although the procurement of a nuclear arsenal could easily be a by-product of Iran’s nuclear development efforts. The Iranian nuclear program is instead part of the overall strategic vision for the Middle East that Tehran is feverishly attempting to turn into reality. That vision involves a Middle East in which Iran is the major national power, leading a Shiite movement that spreads from Beirut to Tehran. It is a vision that makes Sunni governments throughout the region nervous, and for good reason.
Iran has been a reckless, yet calculating, player in the Middle East for years. Having lost their Sunni buffer in Iraq, the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt, each wary of strong Shiite minorities within their borders, are increasingly concerned about rising Iranian power and influence in the region. Bahrain must be concerned as well, with a minority Sunni government running a country that is seventy percent Shiite. The very real concerns of these states have been well publicized in the news media, with reports about possible Saudi intervention in Iraq on behalf of the Sunni population, and with hints about a potential Middle East nuclear arms race if Sunni governments embark on their own atomic energy quests as a counter to Iran’s nuclear program.
An increasingly powerful and influential Iran is a concern for all nations, including Russia, although the actions taken by the UN Security Council would never support that notion. Moscow isn’t really thrilled about a nuclear armed Iran, and has been dangling the prospect of an operational Bushehr facility in front of the Iranians for some time now. The recent shipment of nuclear fuel to Iran is based on agreements that provide for IAEA control of the fuel rods and for the return of spent fuel rods to Russia, agreements that make it more difficult for Iran to produce nuclear weapons on its own. It is a move designed to encourage Iran to abandon efforts to enrich uranium, and even though Iran has dismissed that possibility thus far, it is possible that some aspects of Iran’s nuclear program could be bargained away in exchange for concessions on Iraq and a strengthened Iranian position in the region. It is possible because the nuclear program cannot be separated from Iran’s long-term goal of regional dominance.
As long as Iran is enriching uranium, and as long as Iran is meddling in Lebanon through Hezbollah, and as long as Iran is stoking sectarian violence in Iraq, Iran is a danger to the region and to the national security interests of the United States and its allies, both in Europe and in the Middle East. So what can we do to stop Iran from becoming the dominant nation in the region and forcing a fundamental shift in the long-standing balance of power?
Previous negotiations yielded nothing, with Iran rejecting several incentives packages from the west, and the sanctions approved thus far by the UN Security Council have been marginally effective at best. A military strike is likely off the table, given the difficulties inherent in such an operation and the findings of the recently released U.S. National Intelligence Estimate.
The truth is that there are really no good options available. New negotiations are not likely to produce anything of substance because Iran is negotiating from a position of strength, able to stir up trouble in Lebanon, able to use Hezbollah to attack Israel, able to continue its defiance of the international community based on the NIE, and able to turn the stunning success of the U.S. surge strategy in Iraq into a bloody nightmare of murder and mayhem by increasing support to Shiite militias and groups sympathetic to Iran. Additional sanctions from the UN are not likely to be passed given the significant financial interests of key member states doing business with Iran, and unilateral sanctions imposed by the United States or the European Union will be limited in their effectiveness due to a lack of enforcement by other nations.
The United States and Europe are quickly coming to the realization that little can be done to stop Iran. International weakness in confronting Iran over its support of Hezbollah and its interference in Iraq’s internal affairs, along with a failure to force Iran’s hand on the nuclear issue, has guaranteed that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have the luxury of extracting concessions from the west that will allow the realization of Iranian regional dominance. With or without nuclear weapons, Iran will probably be able to force a shift in power in the Middle East that the United States and its allies will have to deal with for decades to come.