by Peter C. Glover and Michael J. Economides (May 2010)
The leaked memo revealing US defense secretary Robert Gates’ concern at the lack of a ‘Plan B’ to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions implies two things. That the Obama administration has no coherent strategy to prevent Iran realizing its nuclear ambitions; worse, that the White House may already have changed policy, from ‘prevention’ to ‘containment’.
While the fear of what any action might lead to undoubtedly haunts this administration, we suggest here why Plans B and C need not paralyse it into inactivity. These are plans that, given the total failure of sanctions, must target regime-change and fears for a Middle East conflagration or WW3 are greatly overplayed. All this with the backdrop of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad boasting on April 18 that Iran is “too mighty” to be attacked by anybody.
Plan B is simple enough: Blockade Iranian ports cutting off the country’s critical gasoline supplies. For all its enormous oil and gas resources, Iran’s lack of refining capacity means it is forced to import a very large portion of its transportation fuel. Literally, the country would speedily grind to a halt. It’s a prospect the regime must fear, as it would, once again, bring irate rank and file citizens out onto the streets to vent their anger at isolationist government policies. Iran’s isolation has also led to one of the most incredible facts in the entire energy industry. With the world’s second largest natural gas reserves, Iran is a net importer of natural gas, which may offer another means to put pressure on the regime. It is hard to see how, this time, it would not bring down a domestically – and not just by Israel and the West, as we shall shortly see – much despised hard-line regime.
Yes, sabre-rattling young hotheads and Jihadists would be out on the streets across the Middle East. Yes, strong denunciations would follow from Arab and Muslim leaders and elites. After all, ‘appearances’ are everything in Middle East politics. Yes too, Russia, but mostly China with its newly inked energy and trade arrangements with Teheran, would register “strong diplomatic protest”.
The blockade would have the additional benefit of preventing Iran from closing the Straits of Hormuz, as they tried to do (till the US navy secured it) in the 1980s spat with Iraq. 35 percent of the traded world’s oil is exported through this energy choke point.
Plan C: take out Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities. It would undoubtedly take bunker-busting bombs with massive loads to do the job. Iran’s nuclear facilities at Isfahan, Bushehr, Natanz et al, are all constructed to withstand conventional bombing. It may take two weeks or more to complete the task.
Wouldn’t an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities trigger Armageddon? Well, no, it is most unlikely in fact, and here’s why.
For all the sabre-rattling and strong language from across the Middle East, Iran’s neighbours fear the regime’s nuclear intentions every bit as much as Israel and the West.
What the Obama White House does not seem to grasp is how a US or Israeli military strike to stifle Shia Iranian ambitions is likely to play beneath the public façade of Middle East Sunni Arab rhetoric.
The West/Islamic East divide may have a 1400-year history of violence, but the 1000-year history of the Sunni-Shia schism has been no less bloody, as the intra-Islamic sectarianism in Iraq bears stark testimony. Even so, the region's Sunni rulers, fearing what it will mean in terms of their regional influence, are desperate not to be left behind by a nuclear Iran.
In 2005, King Abdullah of Jordan warned that Iran's growing influence in Iraq was part of a concerted attempt to "create a Sh'ite crescent" through the region. Iran's proxy wars against Israel, using Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas from Gaza, further alarmed Iran's Sunni Muslim neighbors. In August 2007, the respected British defense journal Jane's reported, "Bellicose rhetoric and the increasing influence of Teheran-affiliated Shia groups in Iraq, Lebanon and other Middle Eastern countries, have alarmed Sunni regimes." The report went on to identify that "the near-simultaneous decision of so many Sunni Arab regimes" to pursue a nuclear energy program "raises the possibility of a nuclear arms race among the Islamic countries of the Middle East."
Any lingering doubts over the sudden Sunni Muslim nuclear scramble were dispelled by King Abdullah in January 2007. In an interview with Israel's Haaretz newspaper the king said, "The rules have changed on the nuclear subject throughout the whole region. Where I think Jordan was saying, 'We'd like to have a nuclear-free zone in this area,' after this summer [referring to Hezbollah's Iran-backed war with Israel], everybody's going for nuclear programmes."
Thus, it was not just the West that made the connection between nuclear development “for peaceful” purposes and its potential for obvious military uses in the Middle East. The connection with the Iranian actions is obvious for all to see.
In September 2006, Egypt's President Mubarak became the first leader of a Sunni Arab state to announce a new nuclear program. In Egypt's case it meant reinstating a nuclear program formerly suspended for two decades in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster. Egypt is facing, as are many Middle East states, a shortage of electricity and water along with a soaring youth population. While Egypt already has a handful of small nuclear research reactors, it has been building the country's first nuclear power plant at Al-Dabaa. Though the plant, due to come online in 2015, will help Egypt 's burgeoning domestic power demands, the Egyptian government is also known to be worried at the failure of the United Nations to stop Iran's pursuit of uranium enrichment.
By the end of 2006, so concerned had many regional governments become that the issue of Iran's nuclear ambitions rose to the top of the agenda for a conference of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) of Arab States. At its conclusion all six members, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Kuwait and the UAE, announced their intention to pursue domestic nuclear energy programs "for peaceful purposes".
Hot on the heels of the GCC conference, in January 2007, Algeria signed a nuclear development deal with Russia. In the early months of 2007 Morocco and Jordan each independently declared they too wanted to go nuclear. By late summer 2007 French president Nicolas Sarkozy had already cut a nuclear cooperation deal to progress Libya's nuclear plans.
By September 2007 France had also committed to helping the United Arab Emirates launch its nuclear program, while the GCC group of six Arab states, of which the UAE is a member, had already entered into serious partnership negotiations with the International Atomic Energy Agency in order to advance their atomic plans. Thus, domestic nuclear programs became the top agenda item at the GCC’s conference in Qatar in November 2007.
The Arab League has also given its blessing to these nuclear initiatives. In March 2007 it "called on the Arab states to expand the use of peaceful nuclear technology in all domains serving continuous development."
In total, a dozen or so Sunni Muslim states have jumped on the Middle East nuclear bandwagon, mostly as a direct consequence of growing nervousness at Iran's regional ambitions. It seems Middle East confidence in UN-style diplomacy with Iran matches our own.
As former US Ambassador to the UN, John Bolton dryly observed last year referring to a potential strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, "There'll be public denunciations but no action." We would go further; if you listen more carefully, just beneath the rhetoric, we in the West would detect an enormous collective sigh of relief from Riyadh to Amman to Cairo.
Peter C Glover and Michael J. Economides are co-authors of “Energy and Climate Wars: How naive politicians, green ideologues and media elites are undermining the truth about energy and climate” to be published by Continuum Books, September 2010, and available for pre-sale here at Continuum and here at Amazon.
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