Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Spinning for war: Ratcheting up the incendiary rhetoric on Iran

In my last post I argued that there is now an opportunity to roll back the incendiary rhetoric and to consider what other, non-military options should be on the table with respect to the Iranian nuclear crisis. In fact, "crisis" is too loaded a term. There is some sort of crisis, to be sure, but there is no immediate crisis. Iran is not about to build a nuclear arsenal in the near future, let alone to launch it against Israel and Europe. It's true that Iran is now enriching its own uranium, but it's also true that enriching uranium isn't an all-or-nothing deal. Simply put, Iran has a long way to go before it can produce weapons-grade uranium. The U.S. and the E.U., not to mention Russia and China, need to take advantage of this short-term window to come up with a non-military solution to the problem of a nuclear Iran. After all, it's much better to deal with a nuclear Iran in its infancy than with a nuclear Iran pushing its weight around with missiles behind its back. (The IAEA's ElBaradei is in Tehran for talks.)

(Consider what David Ignatius wrote in today's Post: "The Bush administration has demonstrated, in too many ways, that it's better at starting fights than finishing them. It shouldn't make that same mistake again. Threats of war will be more convincing if they come slowly and reluctantly, when it has become clear that truly there is no other choice.")

The problem is, the incendiary rhetoric continues as the White House prepares for, and seems intent on, war. And it seems like 2002-03 all over again. Just substitute Iran for Iraq -- except that Bush has little to no credibility left. The chief warmongers -- Cheney, Rumsfeld, all those neocons who have disappeared into the ether like Saddam's Republican Guard -- have credibility problems, too, of course, and they're not pushing war now the way they were pushing it back then. As far as I know, Cheney hasn't used the words "mushroom" and "cloud" on the Sunday talk shows yet. But Rice, who seems to have been given the lead on this (because at least she has some credibility left) and who is at least working with the U.N., has stated that "strong steps" are needed. And McClellan -- whom, one presumes, still speaks for the White House -- has stated that "[i]t is time for action". Strong steps and action... vague, no?

In addition, Bloomberg (which may as much of a White House spokesman as McClellan) is reporting this: "Iran, which is defying United Nations Security Council demands to cease its nuclear program, may be capable of making a nuclear bomb within 16 days if it goes ahead with plans to install thousands of centrifuges at its Natanz plant." This according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Stephen Rademaker. Which means, of course, that there isn't much of a window. If Iran is only days away from building a nuclear bomb, then surely there are no suitable options other than military ones.

But is this even true? It would appear not. According to the BBC, Iran may still be two or three years away from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels. And that's if all goes well. (It may not.) True, this is much smaller than the ten-year window predicted by the CIA and various experts on nuclear technology, but two or three years is a bit more of a window than, say, 16 days. Surely there is still time to consider non-military options.

Iran has stated that it has enriched uranium to 3.5 percent. Here's Juan Cole:

The ability to slightly enrich uranium is not the same as the ability to build a bomb. For the latter, you need at least 80% enrichment, which in turn would require about 16,000 small centrifuges hooked up to cascade. Iran does not have 16,000 centrifuges. It seems to have 180. Iran is a good ten years away from having a bomb, and since its leaders, including Supreme Jurisprudent Ali Khamenei, say they do not want an atomic bomb because it is Islamically immoral, you have to wonder if they will ever have a bomb.

So what's going on?

What is really going on here is a ratcheting war of rhetoric. The Iranian hard liners are down to a popularity rating in Iran of about 15%. They are using their challenge to the Bush administration over their perfectly legal civilian nuclear energy research program as a way of enhancing their nationalist credentials in Iran.

Likewise, Bush is trying to shore up his base, which is desperately unhappy with the Iraq situation, by rattling sabres at Iran. Bush's poll numbers are so low, often in the mid-30s, that he must have lost part of his base to produce this result. Iran is a great deus ex machina for Bush. Rally around the flag yet again.

If this international game of chicken goes wrong, then the whole Middle East and much of Western Europe could go up in flames. The real threat here is not unconventional war, which Iran cannot fight for the foreseeable future. It is the spread of Iraq-style instability to more countries in the region.

Bush and Ahmadinejad could be working together toward the Perfect Storm.

I'm obviously much more concerned about a nuclear Iran than Professor Cole is. A "civilian nuclear energy research program" is one thing. But do we trust Iran to stop there? Are we really prepared to deal with a nuclear Iran that at the very least has the capacity to build nuclear bombs? And if the goal is peaceful, i.e., nuclear energy, then why didn't Iran allow Russia to enrich its uranium? It seems to me that the risks of a nuclear Iran are simply too high for us to back off entirely.

Yet Professor Cole is surely right that much of this is political bluster. Iran is a deeply nationalistic country. Young Iranians may look favourably at American culture, but they look even more favourably at their own nation, at Iran's political autonomy. What could be more popular, more appealing to Iranian nationalism, than refusing to give in to U.S. and European demands on such a high-profile issue as nuclear technology and the prospect of nuclear weaponry?

And Professor Cole is also surely right that Bush is rattling his sabres. After all, what does he have left?

We need to pull back from these short-term considerations and focus on devising a solution to the long-term prospects of a nuclear Iran. As I've said before, military action may eventually be necessary. And this reckless game of chicken may indeed take us to that point whether we like it or not. But there is truth and there is spin. The spin is the incendiary rhetoric of impending doom, of a crisis that is about to burst. The truth is that there is still time.

May the truth win out.

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