A Nuclear Iran: Obama's Dire Strait

The economic downturn may have given the Obama White House its first major crisis, but the fast-looming Iran nuclear crisis is about to give him his second.

It was some of the Administration's highest ranking officials, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Adm. Mike Mullen and the Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that put the exclamation marks on the issue on March 1.

Mullen when asked on CNN whether Iran "might now have enough fissile material to make a bomb" he answered: "We think they do, quite frankly." He went on to add "Iran having a nuclear weapon, I believe, for a long time, is a very, very bad outcome for the region and for the world."

Secretary Robert Gates, speaking on NBC's "Meet the Press," while acknowledging the Iranian problem said of Iran, "They're not close to a stockpile, they're not close to a weapon at this point and so there is some time." What he was not pressed about is the duration of this time. It may be running out fast.

Even before his inauguration on January 20, President Obama, trying to show his differentiation from single-minded, "cowboy" George W. Bush, has been expansive on the philosophy of new international co-operation, multi-lateral working with previously considered rogue countries, even promising new talks without pre-conditions with Iran. But, as regards the latter, Obama has been conspicuously short on specifics.  Meanwhile, in what can only described as a suicide wish and one that can only be possible in that part of the world, Teheran continues to flaunt the fact it is closing fast on its nuclear goals, whatever they may be.

While the issue of how and when new talks might be conducted may define the White House thinking, President Obama needs to consider two equally serious questions if Israel, as appears increasingly likely under prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, moves militarily against Iran. First, how, given it is Iran's nuclear-build partner, will Russia react? Second, what contingency plans does Obama have to safeguard vital American and world oil supplies if, as threatened, Iran moves to close the vital Strait of Hormuz?

Latest Key Developments

In an op-ed in the Jerusalem Post, Edwin Black noted four key developments since mid-January that have ratcheted up the stakes since President Obama's inauguration. They include:

  • Iran launching a space satellite - claiming it was to ‘monitor earthquakes and enhance communications'
  • The International Energy Agency admitting it had underestimated Iran's nuclear stockpile by about one-third.
  • Iran boosting the number of its centrifuges to over 5,400 (actually, Iran now claims it has reached its target figure of 6,000)
  • Benjamin Netanyahu becoming Israeli Prime Minister
As with North Korea's recent claim that it too was about to launch a "communications satellite", the response from Western politicians and the media alike was cynical. The Washington Post claimed the North Korean's had "dressed up a long-range ballistic missile".  Is anyone in the West gullible enough to really believe the Iranian Mullahtocracy was doing anything other than testing its own missile delivery system? The IEA has also stated that it totally underestimated Iran's capacity to manufacture sufficient low-enriched uranium to create at least one nuclear bomb. If the latest Iranian claims over the number of centrifuges it possesses is even remotely close to be correct, that process is set to speed up dramatically. Equally significant is the return to power in Jerusalem of Benjamin Netanyahu, a man deeply committed to pre-emptive action to prevent Iran achieving its nuclear potential.

Reality vs Wishful Thinking

With Israeli politicians themselves also wanting to avoid any sort of military intervention, most in the West appear to be pinning their hopes on a combination of Obama-instigated talks and the possibility that the Iranian hardliner President Mahmud Ahmadinejad might be voted out of office in upcoming Iranian elections in June. 

Just what diplomatic arm-twisting President Obama might bring to the table that has not already been tried remains a mystery. With tension mounting, EU leaders are, yet again, even at this late hour with Operation Nuclear Iran almost up and running, calling for more sanctions.  As we have written previously, sanctions had little chance of working and now are 3-D: a diplomatic dead duck.  That leaves talks. If they fail, as even the Obama fawning New York Times asked, "Then what?" Hope that a victory for more moderate former president, Mohammed Khatami, would make a significant difference must be a forlorn one. As recently put by one Iranian diplomat, it was an article of "faith within the regime that they all have to support the nuclear program".

Endless talks and ostrich-like head hiding are hardly an option for Israel faced with what it -- and many others -- consider a deeply ideological regime committed to Israel's destruction, and about to achieve the means to ‘deliver' it. And, with the potentially hawkish threat of the Bush administration downgraded to the dovish diplomacy of the Obama White House, the fear is that yet more talking can only buy Teheran more time. Time Israel undoubtedly believes it no longer has.  

Israel's Covert War

Recent reports reveal that Israel has been conducting a covert war against Iran's nuclear program in a bid to avoid military intervention and slow down Iran's nuclear progress using hitmen, sabotage and other means. According to Reva Bhalla, a key analyst with Stratfor, the US private intelligence company, the "decapitation" program has been aimed at taking out key scientists and others.  Mossad, for instance, is believed to have been behind the death of Ardeshire Hassanpour, a top Iranian nuclear scientist who died from "gas poisoning" in 2007. But the limitations of a covert operation of this kind was recently put into perspective by Vince Canastraro, former CIA counter-terrorism chief, who said, "You can't get rid of a couple of people and hope to affect Iran's nuclear capability."

So when Iran began testing its first nuclear reactor in late February it was a signal the program was approaching the ‘point of no return' feared by the West and by Iran's neighbors in the Middle East alike. As the reactor whirred into action, Iranian nuclear scientists were waxing lyrical on their achievements. Gholamreza Aghazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organisation, claimed that an extra 1000 centrifuges had been brought online (making 6000) since just last November. He also alluded to a new nuclear milestone that would be reached in April this year.

The Russian Role

At Aghazadeh's shoulder during the launch at the Bushehr plant was Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Rosatom, Russia's state-owned nuclear company and Iran's full partner in the project.  Is this what is driving Iran's freewheeling attitude to world opinion? The dual knowledge that the Obama administration is desperate to avoid military conflict but also because Iran may have a Russian ‘bodyguard'.

It remains hard to see what diplomatic leverage Obama can employ that has not already been tried. That leaves military force. And with Hamas and Fatah currently patching up their differences and a ceasefire in Gaza, it leaves Israel, with its new prime minister, free to concentrate on the Iranian threat.  

So what does President Obama do if final talks fail? All the indications are that there is no back-up plan. If Israel should then take the only action logically left open,  President Obama will immediately be faced with two equally serious issues: first, what will Iran's partner Russia do? (and what should the US do if Russia does take action?) Second, the Iranians will close the Straits of Hormuz cutting off vital world and US oil supplies. The first is clearly a major issue, but is not our concern here. The second is. 90 percent of oil exported from the Persian Gulf is carried on oil tankers through the Straits of Hormuz. A staggering 35 percent of all transnational oil trade passes through.  A headline that the Straights are closed will sky-rocket the oil price. Headlines ruled prices when they went to almost $150 (only last July) and economic crisis headlines brought it down to an unsustainable $40. There was no rational reason for either. But then there has never been as dire headline than the potential closing of the Straits of Hormuz.

The Iranian nuclear affair is plainly reaching its denouement. If proposed talks fail even President Obama will find it difficult to restrain an Israel that fears for its very existence, threatened as explicitly and clearly as could be by Ahmadinejad.  In the event of a military strike by Israel, Obama is likely to have to deal with an irate Russian ‘project manager' as well as Iranian ‘fallout'.  Moreover, if he fails to react swiftly to protect the oil supply through Hormuz, he will quickly see what appears to be his total lack of contingency energy planning turn into a full-blown domestic security nightmare.

Peter C Glover is a British writer & European Associate Editor at Energy Tribune. Go  Michael J. Economides is a professor at the University of Houston, author of The Color of Oil, editor-in-chief at Energy Tribune.