Bushehr: And So It Begins…

The Greenroom » Bushehr: And So It Begins, Part I.

Danged if I didn’t write about the reactor at Bushehr just a few days ago.  It looked like maybe Iran was practicing her defensive measures for a reactor start-up – local air defense, trying to get Israel preoccupied with attacks from multiple axes – because the start-up could be imminent.  I hoped, writing that earlier piece, that Russia still had doubts about the wisdom of defying US policy and UN sanctions to this extent.  But apparently the Russians are satisfied that we’re not going to do anything.

That’s no surprise at this point. Indeed, there are few real surprises lurking out there anywhere, at this point.  Someone, somewhere, has predicted almost everything that’s going to happen, and a lot of people are aware of most of the predictions.  If we were to put things in terms of a familiar analogy, the main question is probably how long it will take, from 2010, to get from the modern version of 1936 to the modern version of 1939.

March 1936 was when Hitler’s Germany, in defiance of the Versailles and Locarno treaties, remilitarized the Rhineland.  For military-technological reasons, that action didn’t necessarily have the same meaning in 1936 that it had had to the armistice negotiators of 1918-19.  European politicians looking for good excuses in ‘36 leveraged that fact for all it was worth.  But it was a watershed political event: it signaled Nazi Germany’s determination and direction, and it signaled the unwillingness of England and France to do anything about it.  Most importantly, it signaled Hitler’s assurance that England and France would take no action.

Lighting off the Bushehr reactor stands the test of this analogy pretty well.  The Bushehr reactor itself is not, technically, the key to Iran’s nuclear weapons program.  It will have a subordinate role at best, partly because of the limitations of light-water reactors for producing weapons-grade material, and partly because Iran has agreed to send the reactor’s spent fuel rods back to Russia anyway.  Flouting this agreement with Russia would constitute a significant political break on Iran’s part, one that’s not unthinkable but is unlikely.  Russian collusion in diverting uranium from the reactor to weapons production is more likely, in my view, than Iran making an abrupt political break.  And neither is on the horizon at this moment.

But Russia enabling Iran’s nuclear program at all is directly opposed to the substance of the UN’s demands to Iran, the sanctions on Iran, and US and EU policy.  There is no question that Russia has chosen to take this step in the belief that the US and Europe will do nothing about it.  What matters here is what mattered in 1936:  the absolute clarity of the political decision point, and the expectations about who will do what.

Earlier this week, Jeff Goldberg of The Atlantic wrote an extensive piece about US and Israeli decision factors for a strike on Iran’s nuclear program.  I wanted to post a piece of my own in response to it, but found myself stumped as to how to say anything fresh on the topic.  It seemed that the most efficient approach would be to link to the number of pieces I’ve written before, which have treated all the points raised by Goldberg’s very comprehensive summary.  Yes, Israel’s is a one-shot option.  Yes, the Israelis would have to prioritize and hit far fewer targets than an American force could.  Yes, Iran will have Hezbollah attack Israel from the north and Hamas from the south.  Yes, the Iranian regional backlash will be hard to contain.  Yes, these things are all dangerous to mess with and hard to predict, even though the Arab nations don’t want to be under nuclear-armed Iranian hegemony either, and would be allies of convenience for Israel – for a few hours, at least – in a pinch.

Caroline Glick this week makes a profound point that I made here last year:  that a nuclear-armed Iran can and will squeeze the US out of the Middle East.  She is right.  An Iran empowered with a nuclear arsenal will upend the status quo irreversibly.  Nuclear power deters us a lot better than it deters autocratic predators, and everyone knows that.  Our nuclear power didn’t deter the Soviet Union from waging proxy wars abroad, but the Soviets’ nuclear power deterred us from fighting back in those wars with the goal of actually winning.  It was the Soviet nuclear arsenal that enabled the USSR to set expanding lines of confrontation and have them respected by the West.

And the point, for those who found themselves on the Soviet-influenced side of the line, was not that nukes were never used against the United States, it was that they themselves were subject to brutal totalitarian rule.  A nuclear arsenal empowered the Soviets to make it seem too costly to the US to guard the freedom of vulnerable peoples.  We constrained ourselves instead merely to fight – and only sometimes; not always – in bloody and protracted symmetrical conflicts, and on their territory.

That, right there, is exactly what Iran intends to achieve with a nuclear arsenal:  the hobbling of American will and options.  The mullahs don’t want to attack their neighbors with nukes, they want to make us pull our punches and then leave the region entirely.  They will do that by harassing the neighbors who host us, with terrorism and insurrection, while carrying in the background the threat of nuclear retaliation.  Ultimately, in a US-free Middle East, cowed neighbors who do Iran’s bidding will function to isolate Israel.

Of course, this vision would be achieved only through time, lurches, and false starts.  The Arab nations won’t just sit still for it.  They will try to realign, defend themselves, and wrest regional leadership from Tehran.  Saudi Arabia doesn’t have the population to make herself a serious rival to Iran, but Egypt does.  Egypt is a prize that Iran is trying to leverage today, but I predict the Muslim Brotherhood and its various Salafist tentacles will confront Iran’s proxies there in the very near future.

And that point expands outward to become the most important of all, which is that an Iran mobilized and empowered, and unchecked by the United States, will force on the whole Eastern hemisphere confrontations and decision points that are only latent today.  Caroline Glick focuses, quite naturally, on the fate of Israel under these conditions – and Americans, as Israel’s allies, must do so as well.

“An Iran mobilized and empowered, and unchecked by the United States, will force on the whole Eastern hemisphere confrontations and decision points that are only latent today.”

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But there’s another point that is almost never discussed, and it can be summarized thus:  geopolitics abhors a vacuum.  Iran is not a great enough power, even with nuclear weapons, to step into America’s shoes in the region.  Someone else will try to, and we don’t have to guess who.  It will be a competition between Russia and China, with Russia holding the lead at the starting line.  Turkey, seeing herself under Erdogan’s leadership as a resurgent regional hegemon, will seek to broker it.  Those four nations – Russia, China, Iran, and Turkey – will offer all the patronage they can to line up the other nations in their corner and block the advances of the other three.  They’ll cultivate each other as necessary to establish advantage.  They will have far less compunction than the US in their dealings with smaller nations and vulnerable peoples, as we have seen with Russia in the Caucasus, China in Tibet, and Turkey with the Kurds.  But the nations of the region will have no choice but to seek accommodation and alignment with them.  US power will be increasingly inert.

And borders will be breached at some point.  Can Iraq’s fledgling democracy survive in these circumstances?  Do Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen stand a chance?  Whom will Libya and Algeria throw in with?  How will all this affect Europe, and the tradeways snaking through its junction with Asia and Africa?  And what will happen to Israel?

With the reactor being fueled at Bushehr, and assuming – with Moscow and Tehran – that Obama does nothing about it, we are moving beyond the static assumptions on which Jeff Goldberg’s piece was based.  The symbolism of Obama not stopping this event is far more important, politically, than the reactor itself.  Casting the issue as an Iran-Israel dyad is already outdated, but so is thinking only in terms of Iran acting against US interests in the context of current conditions.  Everything is about to change.

Sadly, it’s in this kind of situation that the cavalier approach of America’s leftists to using national power can be the most dangerous.  Obama’s apparent tendency to do “something, but not quite enough” – so much like Lyndon Johnson’s and Jimmy Carter’s – could put the US in painful, untenable, and bloody positions, if he seeks to take military action on the 1960s-era, limited-war principle of “demonstrating our determination.”

From the US perspective, it has always been the case that merely hitting Iran’s nuclear sites would provoke such a backlash that it wasn’t worth hitting only the nuke sites.  If the hornet’s nest was to be stirred up anyway, the cost demanded a higher payoff:  hitting the whole Revolutionary Guard infrastructure and crippling the national leadership.  The political hurdle that objective represents has been an enduring show-stopper – as, frankly, it should be, at least up to a point.

Obama and his senior advisors, however, are fond of taking clever intermediate actions, which they characterize, regardless of their likely effectiveness, as “using all the tools of smart power.”  If any president is going to use not-enough military force against Iran – if any president is going to decide to pursue a “calibrated” payoff that’s not worth the cost – it will be Obama.  I’m not as convinced as Caroline Glick is that Obama won’t do anything about Iran.  What I do predict, however, is that he won’t wield force in a way that justifies its use with a sufficiently decisive political outcome.  I suspect that whatever he does will accelerate the deterioration of security conditions in the region.

If he were to slow down Iran’s pursuit of a bomb for a few months or a year, that would not, as they say, be nothing.  Certainly it would be meaningful to Israel, as well as to many of the other nations of the region.  But the Middle East, and perhaps most of the world, is headed for the chaos of a major realignment – and our president, who poses no obstacle to the politically-freighted light-off of the Bushehr reactor, is the same one who will decide America’s responses as the drama intensifies.  If you’re a praying citizen, now would be a really good time.

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