Thursday, April 22, 2010

Iran's cunning power play: They will get a nuke not with a bang, but with a whimper

The Obama administration is finally coming around to the alarming conclusion it has no idea what to do about Iran's nuclear bomb. The admission comes in the guise of a just-revealed top-secret memorandum sent by Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the White House in January, which, according to press leaks, made the case that the U.S. possesses no long-term, effective policy to stop Iran from building a nuclear bomb. Although a lot of people arrived at the same conclusion a long time ago, it's the first time it has been given an official imprimatur at this high of a level.

In reaction to the leak, Gates released a statement explaining that the absence of a policy vis-a-vis Iran's nuke has nothing to do with negligence but rather with the grim reality that there are simply no good options here. In other words, short of war, Iran cannot be stopped...

He's right. In all fairness to this administration and previous administrations that tried to do something about Iran's bomb, the Iranians have played the game brilliantly. Early on they understood that a lot of countries were willing to evade the spirit of sanctions or just cheat. And it wasn't just China and Russia enabling their bad behavior. The United Arab Emirates, one of America's closest allies in the Persian Gulf, has been an egregious sanction buster.

Iran understood its trump card was that there never would be real sanctions unless Iran actually tested a bomb. And this is exactly what Iran will not do, if the past is a guide to the present. Iran will walk right up to that bright red line but not cross it. It will continue to enrich uranium for bombs, design and build triggering devices, and develop a delivery capability. In a couple of years, Iran, if it needs to, will be able to assemble the pieces for a workable bomb in less than a month, as I'm told.

In other words, Iran will enter the club of nuclear nations with a whimper, not a bang. But at this rate, it will most certainly enter it. Because Gates is right: The United States and its allies simply have no effective cards to play.

None of this is to suggest that our problems with Iran begin and end with nukes. Iran's influence continues to spread across the Middle East with a near inevitability. Two weeks ago, I was in Beirut having dinner with an old friend, a retired Lebanese general who remains a mentor to active officers. He shook his head in disbelief that over the past decade, Iranian-backed Hezbollah has become Lebanon's de facto state. Not only is Hezbollah's militia stronger than the Lebanese Army, Hezbollah in all but name commands the army.