To illustrate a paradox in the field of quantum mechanics, physicist Erwin Schrodinger proposed a thought experiment. He would seal his cat along with radioactive material into a metal box. The radioactive material had a 50/50 chance to decay and kill his cat, or not. To an observer, then, the cat was both alive and dead while it was sealed in the box. The hypothetical Schrodinger’s Cat scenario describes the uncertainty central to subatomic physics.
Radioactive material in Iran is creating similar political uncertainty in the Middle East and in the 2012 US elections. It is important to understand that Iran will probably never have a high-yield warhead that it could affix to a ballistic missile. Short of that capacity, which only a few countries possess, there are many steps along the path of nuclear statehood. These steps include:
- the ability to enrich uranium or plutonium
- weapons grade nuclear material
- an unassembled bomb, or “breakout capacity”
- an assembled bomb
- a tested bomb
- a short range delivery system
- a long range delivery system
Iran has admitted to enriching uranium part of the way to weapons grade. But unless the Ayatollah is hiding something extremely well, Iran probably still needs two to three more years to obtain weapons grade uranium. Each further step would take more years still.
There is broad agreement that Iran should not develop a bomb. But there is no international consensus on which of these steps should be considered Iran’s nuclear Rubicon. A poorly understood high-stakes global political battle to define the red line is reaching a crescendo.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that his government is willing and able to attack Iran. Netanyahu’s policy is possibly to “cry wolf” to focus the world’s attention on Iran and hold Israel back, or he could be deadly serious. But, if Obama doesn’t support military action, Netanyahu could back himself into a corner with little real option but to attack.
Netanyahu meets Obama in Washington tomorrow. It will be a meeting heavy with fate between two allies who don’t much care for each other personally.
Today, Obama delivered a speech to AIPAC, the powerful Israeli lobbying group. He said,
“The United States and Israel both assess that Iran does not yet have a nuclear weapon, and we are exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program. Now, the international community has a responsibility to use the time and space that exists. Sanctions are continuing to increase, and this July – thanks to our diplomatic coordination – a European ban on Iranian oil imports will take hold. Faced with these increasingly dire consequences, Iran’s leaders still have the opportunity to make the right decision. They can choose a path that brings them back into the community of nations, or they can continue down a dead end.”
When Obama took office, Iran’s influence was ascendant in the Middle East, largely because the Bush administration removed the Ayatollah’s biggest rival, Saddam Hussein. Obama exposed Iran’s “intransigence” to the world by seeking to engage Tehran diplomatically, which the Ayatollah quickly rebuffed. Using this leverage, he has since assembled a vast coalition to isolate Iran, and has struck hard with unprecedented sanctions. His position is that the diplomatic penalties need time to work, and that there is still time.
On the other hand, Netanyahu has said that Obama has a responsibility to end Iran’s nuclear “ambitions.” Where Obama sees more time for diplomacy, Netanyahu believes Iran has already gone too far. Netanyahu also questions whether Iran is a rational actor. He said,
“Since the dawn of the nuclear age, we have not had a fanatic regime that might put its zealotry above its self-interest. People say that they’ll behave like any other nuclear power. Can you take the risk? Can you assume that?”
Iran may be nutty and impose bizarre laws and punishments on its people, but it’s not irrational. A rational actor is one that seeks to preserve itself above all other interests. The mullahs in Tehran have clung to power for over thirty years, in spite of the wishes of their people and most of the world. There is no reason to believe that Tehran would do anything to invite its annihilation.
Nonetheless, the Republican candidates for president have been repeating Netanyahu’s threats like a flock of parrots. Gingrich called Ahmadinejad a “madman” and said the president has an “absolute moral obligation” to ensure Iran does not get nukes. Romney went one silly step further and said that if Obama is re-elected, Iran will get nuclear weapons and will use them. But Santorum, true to form, took the crazy cake when he said that Obama is actively helping Iran get the bomb and is betraying Israel.
Maintaining peace in the Middle East is a delicate, complex and high-stakes procedure at the best of times. Obama has strengthened the position of America and its allies while isolating our rivals under turbulent conditions. And he has done it while holding military action as a last resort. This is a welcome contrast to the Bush administration. It is understandable that the US and Israel would view Middle East security differently, but Obama shouldn’t be expected to kowtow to Israel. The Republicans long for a return to Bush’s cowboy foreign policy, deciding with the gut and selling solutions to worst-case scenarios with terrifying sound bites. At best the GOP candidates are like medical students screaming questions at a surgeon performing open-heart surgery. At worst, they flirt with treasonous rhetoric when they attempt to push the president into a war against American interests at the behest of an extremely hawkish ally.
It’s hard to imagine what the Republicans would do differently. The diplomatic isolation is working, if too slowly for Jerusalem’s pleasure. Beyond that, there is no real way to stop Iran. Even if the US and Israel attacked Iran, it would only slow Iran down. But it would give the regime an excuse to clamp down on its population, and spread its spiritual influence among Shiites in the Syrian government, militias in Iraq, Hezbollah and Hamas. Fighting in the region would launch oil prices to unfathomable heights, threatening Europe’s recovery and causing a new global recession. All hell could break loose across the Middle East and Central Asia. It is impossible to know how long the conflict would last, or what would emerge on the other side of it. The fact that China and Russia get oil from Iran should also give Republicans pause. Beijing and Moscow may not wish to go toe to toe with Washington, but they won’t take it sitting down either. An attack could result in Cold War-esque proxy wars throughout the region for years to come. It could hasten America’s decline and quicken China’s ascendance. For all these reasons, the Ayatollah may even want to be attacked. What the mullahs definitely do not want, though, is for their people to become emboldened in resisting their rule, while their income from oil dries up and Russia and China are diplomatically shamed from supporting them.
Obama’s foreign policy has demonstrated that America can remain a premier power without antagonizing most of the rest of the world even as many nations race to catch up. Iran and Israel are locked in a battle for hegemony in the Middle East. While the US should support its allies, that doesn’t mean the president has to rush into an ill-considered war with a significantly powerful foe. Obama has cultivated an array of advantages in the game for the Middle East. If Iran insists on pursuing nukes, it may find itself nearly as irrelevant geopolitically as North Korea. Obama needs to communicate this clearly to the American people before conservatives in America and Israel conspire to force his hand. If they fully understand the issues, the American people will once again support the intelligent, strategic approach over the belligerent one.