Friday, September 01, 2006

The Iran Conundrum (Part II)

A few months ago, I first wrote about the Iran Conundrum. Since then, nothing concrete has been done to stop the situation, and Iran has continued in its uranium enrichment activities. Last night, the deadline imposed by the UN Security Council for Iran to stop its uranium enrichment activities was flagrantly ignored by the Iranian government, which is continuing to pursue its nuclear ambitions. It is now up to the UN Security Council to determine the next steps for what to do about Iran.

If recent history serves as any guide, the UN Security Council will probably not do much. After all, Russia and China, both of whom have veto power over any UN Security Council resolution, have consistently resisted pressure from the United States and others to get tough on Iran. If they did not act before, why should they act now? So, if recent history serves as a guide, we can look forward to another several weeks of wrangling at the UN Security Council, which would be eventually followed by a vague resolution "condemning" Iran, or possibly a set of emasculated sanctions that have no real effect on limiting Iran's capabilities. Another oil-for-food scandal, here we come!

At the same time, I cannot understate the severity Iran's nuclear program poses to stability in the Middle East region. As I have written in the past, it is troublingly easy to make a nuclear weapon, the only really difficult part is getting your hands on the ingredients. Weapons-grade enriched uranium or plutonium is not something you can buy at your local grocery store - it is extremely difficult, dangerous, and expensive to manufacture. And, the same process that makes reactor-grade enriched uranium can be used to make weapons-grade enriched uranium, which is why the existence of a uranium enrichment program in a country like Iran can be worrisome.

Iran's Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has been very vocal about his hatred of Israel, referring to it repeatedly as a blot that needs to be wiped off the map. However, Ahmedinejad must know that Israel would not go down without a fight. If Iran were to have nuclear weapons and seek to use them against Israel, the other challenge would be hitting a target that far away: Iran does not share a border with Israel - to hit Israel from Iran requires a flight over both Iraq and Jordan - a distance of over a thousand miles. Iran does not have missile technology that could accurately hit a target at that distance. And, even if Iran does figure out how to hit Israel with a nuclear weapon, they must realize that Israel's nuclear capability and missle technology far exceeds its own.

Unfortunately, Iran does have a possible solution to this puzzle: Hisballah. Many of the missiles Hizballah used against Israel over the past month were provided by Iran. Imagine how different the war would have been if a few of those missiles had been long range, and nuclear-tipped: Haifa and Tel Aviv would be radioactive piles of rubble. As a guerrilla group, Hizballah does not have as much to lose as an army representing a country.

I am sure Israel's government knows all of this too. The key question is how long they will tsand for it. Will they allow Iran to continue developing nuclear technology, knowing that if they are successful, this technology may end up in the hands of Iran's Hizballah allies and used against them. Or, will Israel take unilateral action to stymie Iran's nuclear ambitions. I expect the latter course is the more likely - Israel has done it before (to Iraq in 1981), and would likely do it again if they needed to. Israel's government must also realize that if Iran is successful in developing nuclear technology, its own long-term existence in the region will become much more tenuous.

The next few months will be interesting indeed....