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Could Iran Trigger A New Cuban Missile Crisis?

Deadly embrace? Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmud Ahmadinejad at a welcoming ceremony in Tehran in April 2009.
Deadly embrace? Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmud Ahmadinejad at a welcoming ceremony in Tehran in April 2009.
Iran is well on its way to becoming a nuclear power. Iranian officials have been loud and clear: their country's nuclear program is not bazaar merchandise. Nothing withheld by sanction, offered in exchange, or threatened for noncompliance has so far induced Tehran to trade.

Hence the latest angst in Washington, London, Paris, and Berlin -- this time triggered by Iran's disclosure to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the construction of a plant to enrich uranium near the holy city of Qom. Iranian officials responded, feigning puzzlement, that they were fulfilling international treaty obligations in a timely fashion although IAEA rules (which Iran unilaterally abrogated) require notification prior to construction.

Of course, in this age of high-tech surveillance, the U.S. government had known of the facility's existence since shortly after construction supposedly began in 2005 -- although reports from Iran suggest that the project's inception dates to the early 1990s and received Chinese assistance. So some, if not all, of the intelligence agencies of other permanent members in the United Nations Security Council (the so-called P5) knew as well.

Washington had hoped to keep the issue under wraps to serve as a test of Iran's fulfillment of obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and additional protocols. Then Iran jumped the gun, notifying the IAEA before Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed the UN General Assembly in New York and before U.S. President Barack Obama could convince the UN Security Council to adopt a sweeping nonproliferation and disarmament resolution.

United Front

Speaking in Pittsburgh at the Group of 20 summit, U.S., British, and French leaders chided Iran for unveiling yet another nuclear complex, fearing its endeavors would contribute to a weapons program.

Iran's president fired back that those Western statesmen would regret their hostile words, claiming the plant would produce low-enriched uranium for peaceful energy only. Indeed, even prior to the Obama administration disclosing to the press that Iran had a uranium-enrichment plant at Qom, Ahmadinejad announced that Iran would seek to purchase high-enriched uranium from the P5 -- supposedly for isotope and medical research. At the same time, Iran and Venezuela were declaring cooperation to facilitate the latter's nascent nuclear program within the framework of the NPT.

Despite attempts by the P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States, and Germany) to present a united front against Iran, the French are vacillating over proposed sanctions on refined nuclear-fuel exports to Iran as noted by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner while at the UN General Assembly. At the G20 summit, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev went on record saying that sanctions were not the best way to achieve results -- despite U.S. hopes that Russia was on board in the wake of Washington's missile-shield pullback from Central Europe. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman indicated Beijing would not go along with the U.S.-led push for crippling sanctions.

The West has been told that Iran "will never negotiate" over its nuclear "rights" and that it views talks with the P5+1 as focusing on "global challenges." Iran has repeatedly made those points amply clear -- through the international scope of its recent negotiations-framework proposal and in numerous public statements by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki.

Lessons Learned

So negotiators can try hard when the P5+1 talks with Iran open in Geneva on October 1, but they are unlikely to dissuade Iran from nuclearization.

Let's also keep in mind that Iran learned well from Israel's air strike against an Iraqi nuclear plant in 1981. Since the inception of its own nuclear program, Tehran has taken tactical steps aimed at ensuring that military strikes would be less than effective. By locating multiple facilities near major population centers, Iran also placed the West in the awkward situation of potentially endangering innocent civilians.

Moreover, the window for a limited yet truly effective first strike against Iran's nuclear facilities closed during the waning days of George Bush's presidency and the opening years of Bill Clinton's first presidential term. After the mid-1990s, it was no longer possible to accomplish the West's goals with one or two days of air strikes against an emerging nuclear program.

Now, even if its nuclear facilities are attacked and severely damaged, Iran has the knowledge, experience, and capability to rebuild within five to 10 years. Iran would certainly withdraw from the NPT, barring IAEA inspectors from its reconstruction efforts. Iran could retaliate by blocking the Persian Gulf -- through which one-fifth of the world's crude oil flows. It could attempt missile strikes against U.S. and British forces in the Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and against Israel.

Even without blocking crude-oil shipments or attacking the West and Middle East directly, Iran could work through Hamas, Hezbollah, and even team up with Al-Qaeda to generate much long-term conflict.

The U.S. Congress and American public are yearning to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. The prospect of having to redouble efforts in those two places to hold off trouble stirred up by the Iranian government, plus move additional forces into the Persian Gulf region to safeguard oil and gas shipments, would be most unwelcome, if not downright unacceptable.

Rearguard Action?

Ultimately, only a handful of states -- the United States, Israel, England, France, and Germany -- are truly concerned about the negative ramifications of Iran's nuclear capabilities. Much of the rest of the world couldn't care less.

Indeed, the Russians and Chinese actually have played major roles in aiding Iran's atomic and missile research. As a result, Ahmadinejad's government knows that neither crippling sanctions nor military strikes are likely; nor does Tehran fear either will be effective.

So despite cries of outrage by some members of the P5+1, it's most likely that the world will end up accepting Iran into the system of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Whether Iran actually tests a nuclear weapon or not will be a moot point -- Tehran is now too far along the way toward developing fissile material, warhead and detonation technology, and a ballistic delivery system to be stopped by the outside world.

A recent opinion poll indicates that many Iranians attribute advantages to developing nuclear energy, especially as their oil reserves eventually will be exhausted. The same data reveal most Iranians, however, do not see benefit accruing from their country possessing an atomic arsenal. So it seems that political change from within Iran, led by Iranians who realize that while nuclear energy may be beneficial, nuclear weapons are not, can alter the course that the current government in Tehran is taking both at home and abroad.

Yet the world, and especially the United States, can still learn from mistakes made by not taking timely action to halt Iran's nuclearization. At least as troubling as Iran's march toward atomic fission is its sharing that technology with Hugo Chavez's government in Venezuela -- in the United State's own neighborhood.

Resurrecting shades of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Ahmadinejad, his autocratic regime, and their allies know full well how to jerk Washington's chain. The U.S. government could, in a worst-case scenario, live with a nuclear Iran.

But can Washington politically accept another nuclear-weapons-wielding country in the Americas?

Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, Indian, and Islamic studies and former director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Indiana University and a member of the National Council on the Humanities at the U.S. National Endowment for the Humanities. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL