By Dr. William Harvey, M.D.
Well, not exactly. This year, in 2009, things couldn’t be more different. In Iraq, we’re watching National Sovereignty Day, as American troops “withdraw” into nearby enclaves, out of sight but not “out of mind” and certainly not out of harm’s way. In Afghanistan, our troops are definitely in harm’s way, with a “surge”–a plan deemed by the media to be destined for failure under Republican control but somehow brilliant now with Democrats at the helm–against the Taliban underway. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the Middle East, our president and State Department, aligning with Europe, Russia and the United Nations, are emphasizing that a lasting peace requires Israel to, as a pre-condition, cease all further settlement activity, even though the understanding with the previous administration was different. The Democrats’ premier think-tank, the Center for American Progress, a significant source for Obama’s Middle East thinking, is going even further, proposing a more or less permanent independent administration of all of Jerusalem. The Israeli government has already rejected the settlement proposal and the Israeli media is less than impressed with the Jerusalem proposal.
In Iran, where one might argue a military coup occurred during the last election just a few weeks ago, we quietly repeat the same line as the Iranian government: that it’s an internal matter and up to the Iranian public to deal with their election process . . . and their current rulers. After all, perhaps now isn’t the best time for America to comment on how elections should be run “by the book,” with candidates qualified to hold the office and voters legally entitled to vote in the jurisdiction in which they cast their ballot, right?
Still, all in all, it’s a peaceful weekend, very much like Honolulu must have felt that first weekend in December, 1941. There is an air of expectancy, tenseness — the Middle East is approaching a tipping point and the only questions are who will be involved and how bad the ride will be once it starts.
The New York Times has a fascinating lead article, while the Washington Post has an equally fascinating editorial. The Times announces the selection of Yukia Amano as Director General of the International Atomic Energy Commission starting in December 2009. The prior head (since 1996), the Egyptian-born lawyer Mohamed El Baradei, had irritated the United States in 2002 by placing the IAEA in the pivotal position of exclusive negotiator with Iran over its disclosures regarding nuclear development and its intentions. However, to be fair, IAEA has the legal authority–granted by the UN and by multiple treaties involving nuclear safety and non-proliferation–and the obligation to handle such discussions with member states. On the other hand, a post-9/11 United States has along with the European Union become sensitive to the risk posed by a state with the history of terrorist activity that Iran has. Accordingly, there have been independent negotiations by the IAEA on Iranian compliance with treaty obligations for disclosure and for inspection and parallel negotiations (with the EU to this point, although the Obama administration may increase U.S. involvement in the future) regarding Iran’s intentions regarding peaceful and military development of nuclear power.
Just as with Iran, El Baradei was felt by many to be uninterested in pursuing the details of the nuclear ambitions of Syria. After all, once the Israelis, acting unilaterally (and loudly condemned publicly but quietly thanked privately by the world community), put a significant delay in Syria’s program by bombing a research facility thought to house a nuclear reactor, the IAEA conducted only a half-hearted investigation of whether that facility was involved in weapons research.
The chronology of Iran’s development of nuclear power is fascinating but very convoluted. The two best sources of information can be found in the Nuclear Threat Initiatives (NTI) archives and, for basics, at Wikipedia. The United States was Iran’s first partner in developing nuclear reactors for power production in 1956, under Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace’ Program. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, U.S. involvement terminated. Since then, Iran’s partners have included (at different times) Germany, Argentina, France, the Russian Federation, China and the IAEA itself. The U.S. has often been involved in convincing Iran’s partners to terminate the partnership at critical points in development. Iranian reactor facilities were bombed by the Iraqis in 1984-88 during the Iran-Iraq War.
The Israelis now find themselves in a significant strategic dilemma. Their primary Western ally, the United States, is clearly embarking on a path towards greater understanding and alignment with the Islamic world. As part of that policy, the durability of the philosophy, foreign policy and support provided by the last 12 U.S. presidents is being called into question. In some ways, this is a position Israel has been in many times, in many of the mid-East wars and one she bears, albeit reluctantly — except for the Sinai Campaign of 1956, Israel has always gone into battle alone against a multinational foe.
Now, however, if the multi-lateral interminable “negotiations” over nuclear development with Iran continue, while the Iranian program continues apace, Israel will be the primary target facing a nuclear-armed implacable foe in the not too distant future, or have to repeat the pre-emptive strike approach, either to buy time for future allies to understand the stakes or to develop what it will need to create a true anti-Iranian defense.
The U.S. and the USSR spent four decades in a Cold War, relying on mutually assured destruction as the deterrent for use of nuclear weapons. Can mutually assured destruction work when one party is an active proponent or martyrdom . . . or has no hesitation to turn weapons of mass destruction over to “state-sponsored” stateless organizations? As Sean Connery said in Finding Forrester: “Not exactly a soup question now, is it?”
John Bolton, the outspoken former U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, provides the details and makes the case far better than I could, so I urge you to read the Washington Post editorial. As you know, Bolton’s politics are anathema to some; if you’d like to read an opposing view, or if you want the most in-depth unclassified analysis (probably better than what the CIA could produce today) of what anyone contemplating military action would face, see Abdullah Toukan’s 114 page “Study on a Possible Israeli Strike on Iran’s Nuclear Development Facilities.” Just be warned: the objective discussion of capabilities, both for Israel and Iran, makes for terrifying reading when the implications of either conventional or nuclear attack (and retaliation) become clear.
When placed in context with the de facto military coup in Iran and the election of a new IAEA head, the nuclear picture in the Middle East could become much hotter much faster than anyone would like.
A nuclear-armed Iran is in no one’s best interest. The only question is how to solve the problem. Iran shows no interest in changing its course; if anything, once the government has crushed the opposition remonstrations (whether through intimidation or through violence), the pace of development is likely to accelerate. Perhaps we should let history be our guide — and this time, not let Israel bear the burden alone, but join a multilateral coalition to safeguard all the Western cultural states (as well as many Islamic-oriented states) from the greatest threat to our existence.
As we learned this week, Saddam Hussein’s greatest fear was Iran; he was prepared to create an alliance with us to defend himself against Iran. Iraq also understands that a great deal of the sectarian violence it has seen has had its origin in Iran. As Edward R Murrow said many times, from a much simpler, if not less deadly, war zone: “Good night, and good luck.”
It is my hope that, despite this, each and every one of you were able to have a great holiday weekend — and that you were one of many Americans to remember what Independence Day is all about.
William Harvey is a physician with extensive experience in drug research and development. He began as an academic researcher but has been a pharmaceutical executive in the global development arena for almost two decades. His current position involves the strategic use of comparative effectiveness research to speed drug development and to educate healthcare stakeholders: government, payors, prescribers, and patients. He lives in the greater Philadelphia area.