The nuclear crisis boiling away under the surface for the past three years with Iran has finally erupted.
Over the next three to six months, expect things to get much worse, with a very real possibility of a war that could spread far beyond the confines of the Persian Gulf.
How we got here was entirely predictable – and avoidable. So is the path to a violent future.
We got to this point because the White House essentially caved in to intense pressure from the CIA and the foreign policy establishment, and refused to do the one thing that could have headed off this crisis: that is, to support the rights of the Iranian people and their struggle for freedom against this clerical tyranny. And now, it is almost – almost – too late.
The immediate trigger for the crisis occurred on Saturday, just two days before Christmas, when the UN Security Council finally quit dithering and passed a binding resolution to impose sanctions on Iran because of its illegal nuclear program.
While far from perfect (remember: this is the UN), UNSC Resolution 1737 bans nuclear and missile-related trade with Iran, and includes a short list of Iranian government entities and individuals whose assets could be subject to seizure and who could be banned from international travel.
(The United States had wanted both to be mandatory measures in this resolution, but gave in to a Russian demand to again give Iran more leash).
The UN Security Council passed a similar, binding resolution on July 31 giving Iran one month to suspend its nuclear programs in a verifiable manner, or else…It’s taken all this time since that the earlier deadline expired for China and Russia to exhaust their formidable bag of diplomatic tricks. Now even they have come to acknowledge the obvious, that Iran is using the IAEA as a foil for acquiring all the technologies it needs to make the bomb.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded typically to the news from Turtle Bay in New York. “This resolution will not harm Iran and those who backed it will soon regret their superficial act,” he said on Christmas Eve.
“Iranians are neither worried nor uncomfortable with the resolution...we will celebrate our atomic achievements in February,” he added.
In earlier statements, he has claimed Iran would have a big nuclear “surprise” to unveil to the world by the end of the Persian year, which ends on March 20. So unless he is just blowing smoke (and I will explain shortly why I don’t believe that he is), then we will be facing very bleak choices in very short order.
Remember, just a few weeks ago, Ahmadinejad announced to the world that Iran had completed its uranium enrichment experiments and was now preparing to install 3,000 production centrifuges at its now-declared enrichment plant in Natanz, in central Iran.
His announcement fell exactly within the timeline that Israeli nuclear experts have derived from Iran’s public declarations to the IAEA, and the on-site inspections by IAEA experts in Iran.
As I wrote after interviews in Israel this past June, the Israelis projected that Iran would complete work on two 164-centrifuge experimental enrichment cascades within six months, and that installation of the 3,000 centrifuge pilot plant would take another nine months. From then, it would take Iran twelve months more to make its first bomb’s-worth of nuclear fuel.
So far, Iran is right on schedule. This will give it nuclear weapons capability by September 2008 – just in time for the U.S. presidential elections. (And remember: this timeline is not speculative. It is based on information, not intelligence.)
Once the UN Security Council resolution was passed, Ahmadinejad’s top nuclear advisor, Ali Larijani, said the regime now planned to accelerate the installation of the production centrifuges.
“From Sunday morning [December 24] , we will begin activities at Natanz – the site of 3,000-centrifuge machines – and we will drive it with full speed. It will be our immediate response to the resolution,” Iran’s Kayhan paper quoted him as saying.
How is this possible? Well, for one thing, it is likely that Iran has been producing centrifuges in factories and workshops it has not declared to the IAEA. Worse, it may be operating a clandestine enrichment facility buried deep underground already, as many in Israel and U.S. intelligence have long believed.
The Israelis told me this summer this was their “worst-worst case” scenario. But a senior Israeli intelligence official I saw recently said the likelihood of that “worst-worst case” now appeared to be far greater than he or others had previously believed. “There can be no doubt they have a clandestine program,” he said.
And because it’s clandestine, we don’t know the size or shape of it, and therefore can’t make estimates of Iran’s nuclear timeline based on speculation and fear. But now the Israelis, the Americans and the British are beginning to understand – finally – that what they don’t know about Iran could be fatal.
After all, they are facing a president in Iran who has said that the Holocaust never really occurred under Hitler, but that he intended to carry it out himself, by accomplishing Ayatollah Khomeini’s goal of “wiping Israel off the map.”
On December 21 – just two days before the UN Security Council resolution – British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave the bleakest assessment of his entire tenure at 10 Downing Street of the threat posed to the West by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Speaking in Dubai, he gave an unusually blunt speech that warned of a monumental struggle between Islamic moderates and Islamic extremists, and that labeled Iran as “the main obstacle” to hopes for peace.
For the first time, a key world leader actually uttered parts of the laundry list of Iranian regime misdeeds that people like myself and Michael Ledeen and Iranian dissidents such as Rouzbeh Farahanipour and Reza Pahlavi have been warning about for years.
Blair said there were "elements of the government of Iran, openly supporting terrorism in Iraq to stop a fledgling democratic process; trying to turn out a democratic government in Lebanon; floutting the international community's desire for peace in Palestine - at the same time as denying the Holocaust and trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability.”
Blair expressed surprise that despite these overt deeds, “a large part of world opinion is frankly almost indifferent. It would be bizarre if it weren't deadly serious.”
"We must recognize the strategic challenge the government of Iran poses," Blair added. "Not its people, possibly not all its ruling elements, but those presently in charge of its policy."
While all of this is developing, the United States and Britain have begun a quiet buildup of their naval forces in the Persian Gulf, with the goal of keeping the Strait of Hormuz open to international shipping.
The spark point of open military confrontation could occur in many different ways.
The Iranians, for example, might choose to get directly involved should the U.S. military aid the Iraqi government in a crackdown on the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army and the Badr brigade, two Shiite militias fueling the sectarian violence in Iraq. (A clear sign that Iran is contemplating just such a move was revealed on Christmas day, when the U.S. Acknowledged it was holding four Iranians captured during a raid on the Headquarters of Abdulaziz al-Hakim in Baghdad just three weeks after he met with President Bush in the Oval Office).
Should Iran send troops, or escalate its current level of military involvement in Iraq, the U.S. might choose to take the war into Iran, say by attacking Revolutionary Guards bases near the Iraqi border that were involved in aiding the Iraqi Shi'ite militias.
Should the United States bomb a Rev. Guards base here or there, the Iranians might choose to respond by launching “swarming” attacks against U.S. warships in the Persian gulf, or by attacking a foreign-flagged oil tanker carrying Iraqi or Kuwaiti oil, or by increasing rocket and missile supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon to spark another diversionary war against Israel.
There are scores of ways this could happen. But where it gets us is to a direct military confrontation with Iran – an Iran which could be a nuclear power, and certainly will be a suspected nuclear power, in a matter of months, if not weeks.
And there is no easy way of walking this back. Even the insane Baker-Hamilton proposal of a direct dialogue with Iran will not get them to abandon their nuclear program, which this regime in Tehran has clearly identified as a strategic asset it is willing to make great sacrifices to develop and protect.
So fasten your seat belts. We are in for a rough ride.