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Is President Obama’s Attempt to Contain Iran’s Nuclear Ambitions Doomed to Failure?

September 26th, 2009

When President Barack Obama, flanked by his leadership colleagues attending the G20 Summit in Pittsburgh, made his dramatic announcement regarding Iran’s covert second site for uranium processing, he did so with a high degree of credibility. Not wishing to follow the fanciful nuclear allegations made by the Bush administration to justify its invasion of Iraq, President Obama and his advisors deliberated for several months with  the U.S. intelligence community before being persuaded of the true purpose underlying a secretive underground facility being constructed by the Iranian regime outside the holy city of Qom.

The carefully worded statement by the president telegraphs an unambiguous message to the international community, and especially to those nations most concerned with the dangers of nuclear proliferation. The configuration of the Iranian nuclear facility, apparently built in violation of Tehran’s commitments to the International Atomic Energy Agency, makes it unsuited for any possible civilian purposes. However, once in operation, it would be ideally suitable for constructing at least one fission nuclear warhead per year.

Once the Iranian ruling elite realized that their secret facility was about to be unveiled, they hurriedly informed the IAEA that, apparently, they had regrettably forgot to inform the UN’s nuclear watchdog that a second uranium processing plant was being built. The fact that it was being constructed underground, below a mountain, was in no way indicative that this was anything other than a peaceful nuclear project, so claim the Iranian authorities.

No serious government believes the Iranian rationalizations, not even the Russians, who up till recently were opposed to imposing severe economic sanctions on Tehran. However, the apparently unassailable intelligence data on the nature of the nuclear facility near Qom has convinced even Moscow that sanctions may be warranted. That apparently is the hope of Washington, with the momentum now in place for a deadline that would place Iran under a sanctions regime by December, unless it is in compliance with all UN resolutions regarding her uranium enrichment program.

As laudable as President Obama’s intentions are on resolving the Iranian nuclear issue through diplomacy, I believe recent history does not leave grounds for optimism. Economic sanctions are only effective if they are imposed on a regime that is susceptible to domestic public pressure. In the case of  a Iran, the fixing of the recent presidential election and brutal suppression of public protest at having their votes disregarded  is clear evidence that the theocratic elite in Tehran does not factor in public opinion when formulating policy. Furthermore, the scope of and immense financial investment being made on the Iranian nuclear project, at a time when that nation’s economy is experiencing high unemployment and rampant inflation, is incontrovertible proof that acquiring nuclear weapons, and the missile technology to deliver atomic warheads to distant targets, is that regime’s top priority.

For more than a decade, the international community has imposed draconian  economic sanctions on North Korea in an effort to contain Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. The North Korean economy is a basket case, yet that reality has in no way restrained the nuclear ambitions of a regime that sees nuclear weapons as its best insurance policy for survival. The North Korean example would seem to suggest that when a dictatorial regime, immune to internal public opinion, is determined to develop nuclear weapons, economic sanctions are an ineffective policy response. There is every likelihood that Iran’s theocratic leadership is similarly immune to economic pressure, and sees diplomacy as merely a delaying tactic, to buy time while Tehran rushes forward with its covert uranium enrichment activity.

If in fact sanctions do not  impede Iran’s nuclear goals, what is likely to happen? Based on Israel’s aggressive non-proliferation policy  in the Middle East, and how they perceive the Iranian nuclear threat, it is unlikely they will remain passive if it appears that Tehran is on the verge of becoming a nuclear power. If the only alternative to an Iranian nuclear weapon is an Israeli attack on Iran, there should be no illusions about the Iranian reaction. They are likely to strike back not only at Israel, but at every Western country, most probably by mining the straits of Hormuz and attacking oil tankers in the Persian Gulf. The economic crisis the world is currently enduring will be massively exacerbated, with oil prices rising through the stratosphere. It is not inconceivable that a long-term regional war will erupt, while the global economy enters a tailspin.

It is not pleasant to contemplate the strong possibility that economic sanctions will fail to thwart Iran’s nuclear weapons program. However, the real world of geopolitics is often unpleasant, and frequently ugly. As painful  as it is, I hope that Washington is contemplating other options besides economic sanctions.  Otherwise, the Obama administration and the international community will, in effect, make a decision that the Israelis should handle the Iranian nuclear problem, and allow all the horrific yet predictable consequences to ensue.

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