U.S. and Iran, a Troubled Past

Most Americans believe that the Iranian leaders are just religious fanatics who hate us for no good reason. But they have some solid justifications for their dislike and suspicion, and we shouldn’t strike this pose of injured innocence. In fact, if our positions were reversed I think we would be even more antagonistic than they are.

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Let’s take just a few from a long and disreputable list. Back in 1953, the CIA ran Operation Ajax that orchestrated the overthrow and eventual death of Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. This is comparable to a direct strike against our President. If you don’t want to go back so far, then during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988, we backed Saddam even though we were well aware of his use of chemical weapons that killed and maimed thousands of Iranians. Doesn’t that make our “holier than thou” attitude about WMDs look a trifle self-serving?

If neither of these seem sufficient to explain their attitude, we should consider the Vincennes incident. In 1988, the American guided missile cruiser, USS Vincennes, shot down an Iranian civilian airplane carrying 290 passengers and crew. All 290 died. The Iran Air Airbus A300 was in Iranian airspace on a regularly scheduled flight. We claimed that it was mistaken for an F14-A Tomcat fighter jet making aggressive moves toward our vessel. Anyone familiar with radar signatures would know that this is barely plausible. It is true that our cruiser made several attempts to contact the plane, however they failed because they used the wrong transmission frequency.

We never formally apologized, although we did make a monetary settlement through the International Court of Appeals. The captain of the Vincennes was subsequently given a medal and promoted. Be honest, how do you think we would react in their circumstances? Would we just forgive and forget? I think not. Their casualty total is quite comparable to our losses on 9/11 if you account for the difference in our respective populations.

Finally, and perhaps most significantly, don’t forget our support for the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. He was an autocrat imposed on Iran during WWII. A secular Muslim, the Shah had modern views that pleased us but his secret police, the SAVAK, conducted a reign of terror not unlike the Syrian dictators, Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, whom we so strongly condemn.

There isn’t much we can do now to alter their view of us, but pretending that it has no justification is simply wrong and probably aggravates the situation.

Making the Nuclear Pact Work

Russian President Vladimir Putin often prevails because everyone is unsure that he will act prudently, the way we might in a similar situation. He is obviously a risk taker and some might even suspect he is unstable. Perhaps one of the few upsides to a President Trump would be that the world, and especially our enemies, might be hesitant to confront us for the same reasons.

This line of thought led me to a possible solution to our Iranian nuclear problem. As I have previously noted, we have a Plan B if either the nuclear deal falls through or Iran fails to meet its obligations. The problem is that we would be very hesitant to employ this plan as the risks of escalation are great and our current administration is congenitally timid. Our adversaries in Teheran fully understand this diffidence, and that greatly lessens the plan’s deterrence.

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But what if we subcontracted Plan B to a more believable implementer? No one doubts that Israel will do anything within its power to prevent Iran from having the nuclear capability to make good on its constant threats to annihilate them. Currently, however, Israel doesn’t have the necessary tools to do much about it, other than issuing vague threats involving its own nuclear arsenal. And if they followed through, the consequences would be far worse than our Plan B. So, what if we gave Israel the tools?

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This involves access to B2 stealth bombers, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP) devices, and some technical support for their use. One approach would be to station the strike force on Israeli soil if a safe location could be found. But a better solution would be to let the Israeli Air Force station its crews at the American base on Diego Garcia island in the Indian Ocean. The range and lift capacity of the B2 bomber are enormous, so almost anywhere in the world would work.

No doubt the world would convulse. Russia in particular would have a diplomatic fit though there is not much they can do to prevent this, short of war with the U.S. We have a perfect object lesson of this reality in Putin’s recent incursions in Ukraine, employing sympathetic resident insurgents. What could we or the other Western democracies do about it? The fact is, though no one was willing to admit it, Russia has an important vested interest in Ukraine. Similarly, we and Israel have an important vested interest in a nuclear-free Iran. Worrying about our fingerprints on an Israeli operation would be entirely comparable to Putin fretting about his obvious complicity in Ukraine. Both of us must do what is needed and the world understands that fact.

Once things settled down, nothing would happen except that Iran would be faced with an entirely new reality. Israel wouldn’t wait for the kind of proof needed in a court of law or even to convince a skeptical Security Council. If Iran restarted its covert development, or let slip evidence of its ongoing efforts, they would understand the real risk they face. Mossad is a formidable force that would lie behind the IAEA in enforcing the inspection provisions of the nuclear pact. This would now have real teeth and we could feel confident in signing it.

Any redistribution of force like this entails risk. However we have declared that allowing Iran to become a nuclear power is unthinkable. If we really mean that, this plan may be the only feasible enforcement mechanism. Unlike the nuclear pact, which is time-limited, this deterrence would remain indefinitely. We would be sending a message of real determination and, not incidentally, going a long way toward mending a fractured relationship with a good and valued ally.

I am sure that there are those who fear that Israel might recklessly employ this fearsome weapon in a spasmodic reflex of preemptive revenge. But there is absolutely nothing in Israel’s short, tumultuous history that supports this fear. Even an aggressive leader like Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu would understand that this is a last resort weapon and that consequences of its use would be severe. The difference between having Israel rather than us make the intervention choice is that their stake is immeasurably higher. We have laid down a firm red line of no nuclear weapons in the hands of the Iranian Mullahs and their Revolutionary Guard. If we mean what we say, then here is a way to prove it.

Playing the Semantics Game

This week’s House hearings on the Iran nuclear deal centered on two related issues, trust and the inspection regime. The three cabinet secretaries, Kerry (State), Moniz (Energy) and Lew (Treasury), continually emphasized that trust has no part in the agreement and that there is a robust inspection process to enforce its provisions.

A questioner brought up the putative concept of “anywhere, anytime inspection.” Moniz admitted using that phrase but said that what he meant it to mean is “managed access in the sense of a well-defined process with a well-defined end date.” That isn’t the first connotation of that fairly specific phrase that springs to mind, or at least not to mine anyway. Kerry interjected that never once in the four years of negotiations was “anywhere, anytime inspection” even mentioned by any party to the talks. He went on to say that no country would permit such intrusions into their sovereignty. Laying aside the issue that Kerry and Moniz need to get their story straight, there is some element of truth to Kerry’s claim.

The only other White House official to use that precise term is Ben Rhodes, Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor. He did so on two occasions during TV interviews. However several officials, including the President, did aver to “the most robust and intrusive inspections and transparency regime ever negotiated for any nuclear program in history.” And they certainly made no attempt either to walk back on Ben Rhodes’ characterization or to point out the intended meaning as described by Secretary Moniz.

Separate from these semantic hijinks, another questioner brought up an interesting ploy now open to Iran. “What if” he asked, “Iran accepted the deal, pocketed the $100B+ of frozen funds they will receive, waited a while, and then just told the inspectors to take a walk and resumed their march to the bomb?” It’s likely, but by no means certain, that robust sanctions would be reimposed. But wouldn’t this just be the status quo except for them having bamboozled us out of a ton of cash?

kerryfleecedKerry responded that this scenario is unlikely essentially because Iran would have seen the benefit of open commerce with the West and would be loath to give it up just to get the bomb. Maybe…and maybe not. What is the evidence to support this?

Iranian Nuclear Talks: Plan B

iran-nk-obama-cartoonI have no idea how the Iranian nuclear talks are going or whether an agreement will be reached. But essentially, they are irrelevant anyway. At best we can only delay Iran, and they seem very determined to join the nuclear club, for prestige purposes if for nothing else. However, we do have a Plan B in place, fully operational and awaiting only the call from the White House.

This plan involves a sudden set of aerial strikes against all known Iranian nuclear facilities. These would be followed by an indefinite series of repeat strikes as target assessment is performed and new information is obtained. There is more to it of course, such as preliminary air defense suppression strikes, but that is the essence. It is often reported that we are hampered in this by poor intelligence on the ground. This is almost certainly untrue but the real facts must be concealed for security and operational reasons.

Our current operational weapon system is capable of destroying all known nuclear research, development and storage facilities in Iran, probably with a single strike at each. It is called Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP). MOP can penetrate “at least” 200 feet of rock or reinforced concrete and carries a 5,300 pound high-intensity explosive. It destroys via initial blast and a shock wave that would collapse buried shafts, pathways and interior rooms. Its secondary effects are to make an entire underground structure unstable. No one inside the structure would survive.

Only the B2 Stealth Bomber has the lift capability and range to deploy this weapon. Each B2 can carry two of these monsters. Our current stockpile at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri is limited (about 20) but only because MOP is quite expensive. It can be easily replenished. Moreover, a much larger guided missile version is under contract, although the details are classified.

We probably wouldn’t find all of the important targets, and there is a technology race underway between building more impenetrable facilities and designing more devastating ordinance. But there is little doubt that we could deliver a crippling blow that would make a sustaining program extremely expensive for Iran. If this race continued long enough there would be no choice but to transition from conventional to low-yield nuclear weapons, and Iran would certainly know this. It is not a path that either Iran or we would follow lightly.

Make no mistake, Plan B means going to war. No country would accept the punishment and loss of life that Plan B will inflict without reacting savagely, and that would almost certainly quickly ratchet up into full conflict.

The question is, would we really execute Plan B? Much depends upon who is President when the time comes for a decision. In choosing our next President, it would be wise to think about how he or she might react to this question. There is no way to know for certain and I doubt that candidates could or would make this clear. Nevertheless, I think I could make an educated guess about many in the current field.

Personally, I don’t think the risks and costs of Plan B are worth its limited benefits, and I am persuaded that most Presidents would agree. It might have marginal value as a threat, but not much more. Those familiar with the movie “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” know of a possible flaw. We haven’t as yet made clear to Iran what Plan B entails, so it is not much of a threat, is it?

As an aside, Israel doesn’t have the capability to execute the initial phases of Plan B, unless of course we supply the tools. Thus they would have to go immediately to the final phase, using their “secret” nuclear arsenal. Bluster aside, that just won’t happen.

Here’s what I think will actually occur. The nuclear talks are just a sideshow. Iran will get the bomb and a suitable delivery system. In time, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia will follow suit. It is just too depressing to follow this chain of logic to its inevitable and tragic conclusion.

A Fun Week Ahead

Greece’s future is really on the line and everyone seems to have dug in their heels. It has been announced that the Greek stock market won’t open on Monday, although a short delay may not materially affect the expected carnage. In addition the Greek banks will remain closed. This may be a necessary precursor to capital controls, which always require some internal adjustments before they can be implemented.

As of 6pm Tuesday their time, Greece will essentially be bankrupt. It won’t have the funds to repay $1.8B to the International Monetary Fund and the ECB says that it won’t help any more. This automatically triggers a number of financial actions that will aggravate and freeze the crisis. The various players in the EU and world financial community really want to work out a deal so I wouldn’t call Greece toast quite yet. But negotiators may not be able to sell continued forbearance to their national legislators who are completely out of patience with what they see as Greek profligacy.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras proposes a referendum next weekend on the creditors’ proposals, while simultaneously strongly arguing for their rejection. This muddled response is too little and too late. It is fairly clear that the EU’s Plan B is now in effect. This is intended to arrange a smooth transition of Greece out of the Euro zone and to mitigate expected financial turmoil. Even if a last-minute delay is negotiated, the writing is on the wall – in indelible ink.

The other big item is the looming deadline for Iran Nuclear Negotiations on June 30. It is obvious to anyone with a grain of sense that this deal, if there is one at all, won’t satisfy any of the red lines established by the Obama administration. Effective inspection is dead. Maintaining the sanctions until we have proof of compliance has been summarily rejected by Iran, and our coalition of sanction partners will likely collapse with or without a deal. I suspect that this deadline is yet another head fake, one of many. Even though progress has been negligible recently, our negotiators led by Secretary Kerry are so committed to a deal that they just won’t take no for an answer. Still, whatever comes of this won’t past muster in Congress by either political party.

A Nuclear Deal?

obama iran negotiationsIt’s beginning to look like this deal won’t go through after all if the Senate has its say, and that may be for the best. I know that all they are claiming is a framework for final negotiations, but both sides have now publicly released their versions of the deal and they are vastly different. These are not just negotiating positions, both purport to be what was agreed. This is the obvious and predictable consequence of not producing a signed agreement.

They differ on when and which sanctions will be lifted, how many and what kind of centrifuges are allowed, how and where inspections will be performed, how much fissionable material they can keep, what level of enrichment is permissible, what specifically happens to their plutonium reactor, etc. For heavens sake, what did we accomplish at all?

The Iranian negotiator slightly nods his head. Kerry writes furiously in his notebook and says, “Good, we have agreed on this point.” And the Iranian turns to his colleagues and whispers in Farsi, “There he goes again! What is that idiot writing down this time?”