The United States has a long history of being caught by surprise when other countries demonstrate their mastery of advanced military technologies, particularly nuclear weapons. The list of strategic surprises is remarkably long: the Soviet Union’s atomic bomb test in 1949, its launch of Sputnik in 1957, China’s first nuclear test in 1964, Pakistan and India going nuclear in 1998, North Korea’s first long-range missile test in 1998, its second in 2002 and its first nuclear test in 2006. In each case, the U.S. had to scramble to respond, recasting security strategies and foreign policies, investing in new military capabilities and providing reassurance to allies.
Like its predecessors, the Obama Administration is about to be strategically surprised, this time by Iran. But this surprise will occur despite the benefit of advanced warning. This week CIA director Leon Panetta announced that Iran has enough fissile material for two atomic bombs, and that it could develop nuclear weapons in two years. So much for the CIA’s 2003 National Intelligence Estimate that made the bold assertion that Iran was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff echoed this assessment and went on to say that there is “no reason to trust” Iran’s assurances that it is only pursuing a peaceful nuclear program. Mullen does not believe that Iran will adhere to international norms in light of its past behavior.
Having advanced warning does not always prevent an administration from being surprised. The CIA warned the Clinton Administration that India and Pakistan were making preparations to test nuclear weapons. The White House chose to ignore those warnings because they did not want to believe that those two countries would act counter to U.S. demands that they not proliferate. The problem for the Obama Administration is not poor intelligence. The White House is so committed to its vision of a nuclear-free world and to a foreign policy that emphasizes collective decisionmaking and the use of non-military means to resolve security issues that it must continue to act as if Iran can be dissuaded by peaceful means from its obvious and rock solid commitment to acquiring nuclear weapons.
So far, the costs to Iran of its decision to acquire nuclear weapons have been political and, increasingly, economic. The United States and most of its allies — Israel excepted — have not taken the additional step of making it clear to Teheran that its national security and that of the ruling elite will be in jeopardy if it continues down this path. The administration needs to make it clear that Iran risks military action and not just by Israel. In the words of retired Air Force General Chuck Wald, “Only the credible threat of a U.S. military strike can make a peaceful solution possible. Ultimately, a U.S. led military strike is a feasible, though risky, option of last resort.” If Iran cannot be trusted to adhere to international norms then the military option is clearly the lesser evil.
In addition, the United States needs to take concrete steps to make clear to Teheran that there will be other negative consequences of its acquisition of nuclear weapons. These will include a greater U.S. presence in the region, the creation of a regional security system directed at neutralizing Iran’s nuclear, conventional and unconventional capabilities, supplying local allies with overwhelming military capabilities and developing the means of cutting off oil exports from and gas imports to Iran while protecting the flows for other Gulf states. The well-respected Bipartisan Policy Center recently published a report which recommended, inter alia, that the U.S. immediately increase the U.S. Fifth Fleet’s presence in the Persian Gulf and Gulf of Oman; enhance the military capabilities of U.S. allies in the region; initiate a strategic partnership with Azerbaijan to establish a broader regional presence on the ground; and work with Iraq and Saudi Arabia to improve their capacity to ship oil out of the region without passing through the Straits of Hormuz. Sounds like a good plan.
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