Faced with the growing economic pain caused by ever-tightening sanctions, continuing domestic political unrest, efforts by Sunni Muslim countries to undermine Shia regimes and their allies in the region and the attenuated allure of Middle East oil, it is a wonder that the regime in Teheran hasn’t broken through the various so-called red lines and tested a nuclear device. According to multiple sources, Iran has enough basic stocks of material that could be rapidly transformed into bomb-grade uranium. One recent report warned that Iran was about to double its inventory of centrifuges. Yet another new report from U.S. and European sources indicated that Iran could even begin to produce weapons-grade plutonium by next summer.
So what is stopping the Iranian government from taking the decisive next steps on the road to a nuclear weapons capability? The conventional wisdom is that it is the threat of an attack by Israel or even by the United States. A more interesting possibility is that the Iranian regime sees itself as benefitting from a slower paced program, one that is in synch with the projected decline in U.S. and Western military capabilities. The public clamor in the U.S. and the hand wringing by senior Pentagon civilians and military leaders over the catastrophic implications of sequestration for readiness and warfighting capabilities cannot be lost on potential adversaries. The Iranian leadership may be saying to itself “just wait a few years and the U.S. military will be so weakened that it won’t have the ability to use military force either to set back our nuclear program or even to prevent us from closing the Strait of Hormuz.”
In the last week alone, defense officials have let it be known that they are considering options that would reduce the size of the U.S. Army down to as few as 380,000 active duty soldiers, the Marine Corps to some 150,000, eliminate three aircraft carriers and retire a significant portion of the strategic bomber force. It was reported that the Strategic Capabilities and Management Review had even examined a proposal to kill the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program entirely. Coming on top of detailed descriptions of the impact of sequestration-required budget cuts on military readiness, these announcements must seem like a sign from on high. Sequestration will cut the Great Satan down to size.
Even as sequestration threatens to gut the U.S. military, prospective adversaries are acquiring advanced weapons systems including ballistic and cruise missiles and high performance air defenses that will make it virtually impossible for legacy U.S. forces to conduct the kind of precision strike campaigns that have become the hallmark of U.S. military operations since Desert Storm. The reason Syria poses such a formidable military challenge to any U.S. effort to create a no fly zone over even part of that country is the intensive investment it has made in advanced Russian surface to air missile systems. Russia is offering to sell even more advanced systems to China and Iran.
So expect the Iranians to move ahead slowly, offering to negotiate but without ever seeking to reach a resolution. In the meantime, they will grow stronger militarily and the United States will become weaker.
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