Nuclear-armed Iran changes world

Greg Sheridan, foreign editor for The Australian:

THERE is, I would guess, somewhere between a 30 and 40 per cent chance that the Bush administration will bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities before the end of the year.

This is, naturally, a personal judgment. It is based on two weeks of intense conversations I have had with American national security figures.

Washington, all the capitals of Europe and Canberra are united in their determination to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

The consequences of a nuclear-armed Iran are obvious. Its leaders are theologically motivated and believe Israel should be wiped off the map. It is the chief global sponsor of terrorism through groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Middle East experts believe a nuclear-armed Iran would soon be followed by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and perhaps others as well.

Nobody should underestimate what this means.

A senior US Defence Department official told me: “We know how nukes worked in a two-player situation (the US and Russia), or even on the Indian subcontinent. But we don’t know how it works in a multiplayer situation. All those countries with nascent nuclear programs: they’d all be very vulnerable to pre-emption.

“The risk of catastrophic misuse rises dramatically. I don’t think the international community has addressed it with sufficient urgency.”

The same official describes a nuclear-armed Iran as “a very immediate existential threat to Israel, because of the short distances involved and its inability to withstand even one nuclear strike”.

The argument against striking Iranian nuclear facilities is twofold. The first is that the US still has significant diplomatic and financial measures it can take to dissuade the Iranians. It should exhaust those first.

Second, the cost would be too great, both in terms of Iranian retaliation and in terms of the US’s standing in the Muslim world and more broadly.

One of the things the US can still do against Iran is revealed by Seymour Hersh in this week’s The New Yorker. Hersh alleges that the top secret intelligence committee heads of Congress have authorised $400million for covert operations in Iran. This program is designed to gather information about Iran’s nuclear facilities and support opposition, including violence, to Iran’s Government and military.

It is sensible to take what Hersh writes with a grain of salt, but he does have a track record of securing leaks from the CIA. In this case, two separate national security insiders have confirmed to me that the US has a substantial covert operations effort in Iran.

This is all background to the question: What are the chances that George W. Bush will strike Iran, and how do we calculate those chances?

For a start, the Bush administration clearly houses a range of divergent views on this question.

People who know Vice-President Dick Cheney well believe he wants to strike Iran, that he has made a sober judgment that time is running out.

Hersh reports, and others confirmed to me, that Defence Secretary Robert Gates is strongly opposed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is also opposed.

Some analysts believe that in the first Bush administration Cheney won all such arguments, whereas in the second administration Rice is dominant. They take this to mean Bush won’t strike.

I don’t think it’s that simple. It is true that Bush has ceded an enormous amount of national security power to Rice. However, the Bush administration is better seen as having two personalities, the psychology of which rose out of Bush’s peculiar historical circumstances.

Bush understands that he is unpopular across the world and, as a result to some extent, so is the US. Therefore, on every issue where it’s possible, from Africa to North Korea, he presents a kindly, moderate, multilateral face. And that face is Rice.

However, Bush also knows that history will judge him on the outcome in Iraq. So he does absolutely everything he can to win in Iraq. And this means mostly following Cheney’s advice. Remember that for all of Rice’s undoubted sway, she opposed the troop surge in Iraq, as did Gates. The surge went ahead anyway, and was successful.

So at this moment, in the second half of 2008, does the Rice side of Bush or the Cheney side win the argument on Iran?

I think anyone who pronounces dogmatically on that question doesn’t know what they’re talking about. For a start, if the Iranians are caught doing something stupid, the calculations change dramatically.

Here are two more factors of central importance. Figures right across the Bush administration routinely describe a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat to Israel. Existential here means a serious threat to Israel’s existence. Another national security figure tells me that if Israel really does regard a nuclear Iran as as existential threat, it would have no alternative but to strike.

Instead it may be that Israel regards a nuclear Iran as an extremely serious threat, says this national security figure.

If that is the case, Israeli spokesmen use the term existential threat in order to make other people take the situation more seriously.

By using the term existential threat, the Bush administration at the very least is itself legitimising the Israeli strike option.

Finally, no one in the Bush administration or anywhere else doubts that the Iranians are pursuing nuclear weapons. A senior Bush administration official (not a hawk) tells me: “It’s my judgment that they (the Iranians) are trying to pursue that capability. People will argue whether that means weaponisation or one step before weaponisation, where they could easily move to weaponisation.”

A senior US Defence official tells me: “They are continuing their efforts to enrich uranium. When they produce fissile material, they will be about six to 12 months away (from building a weapon).”

What, then, of the US National Intelligence Estimate released last December that said Iran had ceased its weaponisation efforts? The same NIE report also concluded that Iran was continuing work on the technically more challenging efforts of enriching uranium and producing long-range missiles.

But the NIE report with its benign finding concerning weaponisation is now held in more or less open contempt throughout the Bush administration. A senior US Defence official tells me: “I’ve never seen an NIE where the director of central intelligence (CIA) has disowned it. The Defence Secretary has said they (the Iranians) are pursuing nuclear weapons, and the director of national intelligence says he’d write it differently now.”

The inherent unpredictability of these matters makes analysis difficult. A year ago, who would have thought that the US would now be doing better in Iraq, and considerably worse in Afghanistan?

A nuclear-armed Iran changes the world for all of us. It is the most important issue on the international agenda today.

I don’t know for sure whether the Bush administration will strike Iran’s nuclear facilities. Neither, I think, does anybody else. But on all the evidence I can access, I would put the chances about 30 to 40 per cent.