Iranian Crisis: “Cuban Missile Crisis In Slow Motion”?

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Is the current crisis involving Iran just one more news cycle blip that will pass without triggering the worst case scenarios on each side? Or is this really “the Cuban Missile Crisis in slow motion” as one expert believes?

Two things are thing is certain.

1. From the comments coming from each side at the end of the week, it’s clear that it’s No More Mr. Nice Guy — or at least polite guy — on the part of Washington and its allies and on the part of Iran (if Iran was ever playing the Nice Guy card).

2. A diplomatic message caused the Obama administration to conclude that Iran was lying bigtime so it took off the rhetorical gloves and got to work diplomatically with a speed that apparently surprised Tehran.

The New York Times gives this background on the genesis of the most recent twist in Iran’s in-your-faces nuclear declaration wide stance:

On Tuesday evening in New York, top officials of the world nuclear watchdog agency approached two of President Obama’s senior advisers to deliver the news: Iran had just sent a cryptic letter describing a small “pilot” nuclear facility that the country had never before declared.

The Americans were surprised by the letter, but they were angry about what it did not say. American intelligence had come across the hidden tunnel complex years earlier, and the advisers believed the situation was far more ominous than the Iranians were letting on.

That night, huddled in a hotel room in the Waldorf-Astoria until well into the early hours, five of Mr. Obama’s closest national security advisers, in New York for the administration’s first United Nations General Assembly, went back and forth on what they would advise their boss when they took him the news in the morning. A few hours later, in a different hotel room, they met with Mr. Obama and his senior national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, to talk strategy.

An interesting side note related to this. Yesterday on his radio program controversial conservative talk show host Michael Savage warned listeners that he was about to shock them with a conclusion about Barack Obama, who he lambasts frequently for being a socialist, etc. He said he concluded that Obama really believed his talk about sitting down with Iran but not to underestimate Obama’s learning curve in this crisis. His implication was that Iran was underestimating Obama’s ability to quickly re-evaluate the political realities — particularly if he felt burned and felt the nation was truly threatened.

The Times article suggests some of this is what was going on:

The White House essentially decided to outflank the Iranians, to present to their allies and the public what they believed was powerful evidence that there was more to the Iranian site than just some pilot program. They saw it as a chance to use this evidence to persuade other countries to support the case for stronger sanctions by showing that the Iranians were still working on a secret nuclear plan.

It was three dramatic days of highly sensitive diplomacy and political maneuvering, from an ornate room at the Waldorf, where Mr. Obama pressed President Dimitri A. Medvedev of Russia for support, to the United Nations Security Council chamber, where General Jones at one point hustled his Russian counterpart from the room in the middle of a rare meeting of Council leaders.

The Washington Post’s David Ignatius writes:

Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who is one of America’s leading security strategists, likes to speak of the U.S.-Iranian nuclear confrontation as “the Cuban missile crisis in slow motion.” Well, on Friday morning, that slow-mo process started moving a little faster, as President Obama issued a stark warning about a secret Iranian project that poses a “direct challenge” to the international order.

World leaders used language this morning that described a dangerous ladder of escalation ahead. Obama said Iran will be “held accountable” for its actions. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said that unless Iran changes its nuclear stance by December, harsher sanctions will be imposed. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, normally no Churchill, said there was “no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”

Allison’s Cuban analogy may strike some people as alarmist, but it seems more and more apt to me. The United States and its allies have caught Iran cheating, again, on International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards — this time by building a second undeclared enrichment facility in a mountain near Qom. It was an Iranian effort to gain leverage, reminiscent of Moscow’s moves in Cuba in 1962 as described by Allison in his classic book, “Essence of Decision.”

The Iranians outed their covert project in a lame, obtuse letter to the IAEA last Monday. But they must have suspected that the U.S., which has covertly monitored this breakout since the Bush administration, was about to blow the whistle.

Indeed: Iran’s rhetoric is in effect DARING the U.S., Israel and other countries to do something about its move to develop nukes.

Its rhetoric resembles what Americans see on the Sunday morning TV political interview shows where seemingly winking, smirking politicians say things everyone knows is spin and then in the political roundtables the talking heads seemingly wink and smirk, all but admitting that they also know and the audience knows it is all spin. Spin is often a nice word for lies or legalistic language falling just short of lies.

And Iran’s defiance continues:

Tehran’s new uranium enrichment plant will be operational soon, and “will blind the eyes of the enemies,” Iran’s semi-official news agency Fars reported Saturday, quoting a senior Iranian official.

On Friday, Tehran acknowledged the existence of a second uranium enrichment facility near the Shia Muslim holy city of Qom.

The announcement came ahead of a planned meeting October 1 between Iran and the five permanent United Nations Security Council members, plus Germany.

“God willing, this plant will be put into operation soon, and will blind the eyes of the enemies,” the senior official, Hojjatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi Golpayegani, said in a written statement from Fars.

Golpayegani heads of the office of the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

An official from The Netherlands calls Iran’s action a major threat to world peace:

The Netherlands on Saturday called upon Iran to comply with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions and to contribute to the Mideast peace process and stability in the region.

Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende made the call during Saturday’s session of the General Assembly general debate.

“The Iranian nuclear issue represents a major challenge to international peace and security, to regional stability and to the non-proliferation regime,” the prime minister said.

“The recent revelation of a nuclear facility which was long kept secret is additional reason for great concern.”

Balkenende said the revelation calls for a strong reaction by the international community and for total transparency by Iran. He said Iran must regain the trust of the international community, comply with relevant Security Council resolutions and contribute to peace and stability in the Middle East.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Friday and voiced “grave concerns” about Iran’s continued uranium enrichment activity, a U.N. statement said.

Now the question becomes: will Israel respond (by itself or with the tacit look-the-other-way approval of other countries)? Reuters has an excellent Q&A on this issue. Here’s a small part of it:

….Many analysts believe the risk of a strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear program, even one not endorsed by its ally the United States, is significant.

It’s a poker game with high stakes and a degree of bluff. Israeli leaders refuse to rule out any option. They do not believe Iran’s assurances it wants only nuclear energy. Noting President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s repeated assertions that Israel has no future, Israel has said an Iranian bomb would be a threat to its very existence that it simply would not tolerate.

Last year, however, it emerged officials were making plans for how Israel might live with a nuclear Iran in a state of mutual deterrence. And a June poll showed Israelis would not expect a nuclear Iran to attack.

Since becoming prime minister in March, Benjamin Netanyahu has, aides say, made ending threats from Iran a defining element of what he sees as his personal role in Jewish history. A 1981 Israeli air strike that destroyed Iraq’s only nuclear reactor, as well as a strike in Syria in 2007 that is cloaked in mystery, set precedents. Despite official silence, few doubt Israel has nuclear missiles. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said recently: “Israel can lay waste to Iran.”

In his weekly radio/Internet address Obama addressed the Iranian issue once again:

President Barack Obama said on Saturday the discovery of a secret nuclear plant in Iran showed a “disturbing pattern” of evasion by Tehran which added urgency to its October 1 talks with world powers.

Iran acknowledged the existence of the uranium enrichment facility near Qom for the first time on Monday in a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency. U.S. officials said the disclosure was aimed at pre-empting an announcement by Western governments, which were aware of the site.

“This is a serious challenge to the global nonproliferation regime and continues a disturbing pattern of Iranian evasion,” Obama said in his weekly radio and Internet address.

“That is why international negotiations with Iran scheduled for October 1 now take on added urgency,” Obama said of the talks between Iran, the United States and five other powers due to occur next week in Geneva

What is the timetable now? Some say Iran is now one year away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon. UK’s The Mirror:

Iran is little more than a year away from developing a nuclear weapon, it was yesterday revealed.

The Tehran regime admitted it had a nuclear plant concealed in tunnels drilled into a mountain 100 miles south west of the Iranian capital.

British, American and French spies had uncovered details of the secret plant and presented it to the Iranians, leaving them little choice but to admit it existed.

The spies tracked it for two years as bunkers were dug near Qum. Three thousand centrifuges – vital equipment for making weapons-grade uranium – were installed and scientists brought in.

And senior Western diplomats said there is now nothing to stop Iran getting its own weapon very shortly. “They have enough to go all the way if they want to. If this facility goes ahead they will have enough material to make a nuclear device in a little more than a year.”

The sources said the installation was too small to be a power plant for generating electricity and too big to be some sort of test. That means its only purpose could be the development of a nuclear weapon

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What’s the likely outcome? Some thoughts:

  • If there are additional strong sanctions on Iran if can cut two ways. First, it can produce additional strains on a government now under fire — a goverment that has had the mask of democracy ripped off and is now revealed to be a raw, figleaf-democracy military-religious dictatorship. The other possibility: sanctions will allow Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to try and rally his country using nationalistic us-versus-them rhetoric.
  • If there is military action (large, small, by Israel, Israel and other countries) there could be a downside for Washington. Unless there was military action that flattened Iran into a virtual parking lot (not gonna happen) any kind of military operation — even a limited one — would allow Ahmadinejad to rally his nation using nationalistic rhetoric, and crack down even more on the opposition. He already enjoys mlitary support and his support would likely be strengthened. Some experts have noted that no one really knows what kind of consequences such action would have in terms of Iran unleashing allied terrorist colleagues on the U.S., Europe, or some kind of action against American forces in Iraq and Afgahnistan. What would the impact be on oil and gas prices in the U.S.?
  • But those become side issues with the larger issue: can Iran be allowed to continue to thumb its nose or hold a certain finger up to Washington and other countries and produce a nuclear weapon?

    The best view of Iran’s President is that he’s all talk and a nuclear bomb doesn’t mean the worst case scenarios (including him using the bomb to wipe Isreal off the face of the earth) wouldn’t really come to pass. The worst view — which many feel most realistic — is that like the late German dictator Adolf Hitler, he means what he says and has said and that a nuke in the hands of him, or any other Iranian hard line leader who may replace him (it’s likely any Iranian leader would continue the nuke program), could change the world with almost unthinkeable consquences.

    The Obama administration has taken off its rhetorical gloves when it comes to Iran. The questions now become:

    Is this a slow motion Cuban missile crisis?

    And, if so, are Israel, the U.S. and other interested and fearful countries willing to take off more than rhetorical and diplomatic gloves?

    It looks as if Iran believes they won’t.

    The cartoon by Frederick Deligne, Nice-Matin, France, is copyrighted and licensed to appear on TMV. Reproduction prohibited. All Rights Reserved.