Thursday, May 18, 2006

Whether war with Iran

There should be imminent news from Iran: today or tomorrow the deadline elapses for Iran to reply to the International Atomic Energy Agency with a timetable for resolving all remaining issues from the IAEA's Director General's report (Adobe Acrobat file) dated February 27, 2006. If indeed Iran were to resolve all remaining issues, in theory the IAEA could issue it a clean bill of health, and its compliance with the Non-Proliferation Treaty would no longer be Security Council business. Clearly, any announcement is a significant diplomatic step that could buy Iran a great deal more time.

The stakes are as high as they can be right now, I think, without Israel taking unilateral action. Perhaps this is obvious, but I haven't read anyone else point out that the reason Russia and China are remaining so stubborn about passing a resolution now under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter (which would allow punitive action, basically either economic sanctions or military attack) is that this crucial step was the legal fig leaf by which the United States pursued war with Iraq in March 2003. Passing this sort of resolution (Adobe Acrobat file) is supposed to be a preliminary move, after which if there's further noncompliance the Security Council finally lowers the axe by means of an operation organized pursuant to a second resolution.

I'm beginning to think that Iran has fought this one off. The United States has gotten progressively weaker on diplomacy as this crucial Security Council meeting approached, not stronger. Up until this week, they resolutely refused to offer Iran any carrots, only the stick. They've finally conceded that ground, and Russia and China are still firmly stating their opposition to any possibility of military enforcement. Bush and his lieutenants have repeatedly said, "All options are on the table," meaning that they refused to rule out force, even nuclear force; but now that Iran has forced them by means of its historic "rambling 18-page letter" to publically state and restate their refusal to begin direct negotiations, the Administration appears more and more baldly hypocritical and/or dishonest.

In the meantime, Bush will never again receive from Congress a declaration of war an authorization to use military force (AUMF). That ship has sailed. Not being able to get a specific authorization to attack Iran, he might try to rely on the September 18, 2001 AUMF, but he has already tried to use that to assert broad presidential power, and that argument is being hotly contested. Would Bush/Cheney, even at 30% approval and with the possibility of impeachment in the immediate future, bomb Iran?

I have to think not, since even the most egregiously inflated estimates of time till Iranian nuclear weapon capability by American and Israeli intelligence are about two years, the broader consensus figure being more like five to ten. Moreover, if the media were to air a free, extended discussion of a hypothetical nuclear-armed Iran, I suspect American public opinion would find it relatively easy to live with. Despite the current Iranian president's wild rhetoric, I doubt a serious analysis would conclude that a nuclear Iran would move to destroy Israel. How can they destroy Israel and not the Palestinians? They want credible defense and a seat at the Asian nuclear table: they cannot afford not to have nuclear weapons surrounded by Russia, China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, along with the United States.

That's in the worst-case scenario of the perpetuation of Iran's current theocratic regime administered by a willing executive. In reality, the bottom-up pressure to reform or replace Iran's government and official culture is enormous and still growing. By the time Iran has nuclear weapons, it could easily have a different President, possibly even a changed balance of power between the supreme council of clerics and the parliamentary government.


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