Monday, September 28, 2009

The Missiles of Late September

“Allahu Akbar” (God is great in Farsi) was heard above the din as Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Air Force test-fired two short-range missiles in central Iran on September 27th. In case you weren’t able to attend, the government released an official tape showing the launch. Air Force leader, General Hossein Salami, was quoted by the official press: “The message of the war game for some arrogant countries which intend to intimidate is that we are able to give a proper, strong answer to their hostility quickly.” The next day, the war games, lovingly entitled “Great Prophet IV,” continued with the test-launch of Iran’s advanced and powerful medium range missiles (with an estimated range of 1,250 miles). The U.S. had just warned Iran that its nuclear program was unacceptable to the rest of the world, words spoken by President Obama after it was learned that Tehran was building a secret underground nuclear facility – another one.

European leaders issued even stronger challenges to Iran’s not-so-secret-secret nuclear weapons program. Talk was of harsh sanctions and increasing isolation for this Shiite nation. President Ahmadinejad had been in fine form of late denying the Holocaust, proselytizing with anti-Western venom during speech at the United Nations as the representatives of many Western nations walked out, and generally enjoying his role in bating the U.S. and the West. He seemed almost to be begging for the West to impose those sanctions so that he could show his people that the world was powerless to stop Iran in any path it might choose. Tehran is sending a clear signal to the West just in advance of the upcoming “face-to-face” direct discussions between the U.S. and Iranian officials this week.

But all is not well in the Islamic Republic. Protests continue. Admissions of government-supported torture are constantly in the news, and the once solid political rock that Iran likes to present to the world appeared cracked, chipped and flawed. Iran’s economy was not particularly great before the global meltdown, and the recession has dropped the quality of life there several nasty notches downward. The very questionable election results that returned Ahmadinejad to power only seemed to reinforce that the powers in Tehran are truly concerned. Using the outside world as the scapegoat for internal failures is hardly new, and Ahmadinejad is clearly in need of that distraction, but has he used this strategy once too often? Perhaps that only makes what is happening in Iran that much more dangerous. Ahmadinejad can’t fall back to the “same old, same old” anymore; he might just be forced to escalate.

Despite pledges of seeking only a peaceful use for nuclear fuel that began with the Ayatollah Khomeini in the earliest stages of this country, the West has never believed them. Indeed, with stories of Venezuelan strongman, Hugo Chavez, wanting access to Iranian uranium and technology, this is most certainly no time for complacency. (Sept. 5th) reported: “Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has given his backing to Iran's nuclear programme, which world powers suspect of having non-peaceful aims…. Chavez, who was visiting the Iranian capital Tehran… said that Iran had the right to use atomic energy for peaceful purposes.” On September 6th, Chavez said: “There is no single proof that Iran is building a nuclear bomb.” Chavez is sitting on oil surpluses that will last a century or more; I suspect nuclear-generated power isn’t exactly what’s on his mind.

Can there be any level of sanctions that would actually be effective against this religious dictatorship? Would bordering Russia cooperate or simply provide an alternative to the supplies and business lost by reason of sanctions. Would Israel mount a preemptory military strike, with or without American support? And exactly what would such a strike do to the price of oil, stability in the Middle East, the mining of the Strait of Hormuz (though which much of the earth’s oil supply must pass), Iran’s support of terrorist activities all over the world and the vestiges of the U.S. presence in Iraq? Our own Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, as quoted in the September 27th Washington Post: “[T]he list of possible sanctions is plentiful, and that there is ‘no military option that does anything more than buy time… Sanctions on banking, particularly sanctions on equipment and technology for their oil and gas industry… think there's a pretty rich list to pick from, actually.’”

As the U.S. and Russia meet to discuss extending the treaty, set soon to expire, regarding the proliferation of nuclear weapons, there are a whole host of nations who see a need to build the very kind of arsenal we are trying to dismantle. What kind of a world will the next generations face?

The issues are extremely complex. The side and after-effects of our upcoming decisions concerning Tehran could be devastating, and indeed, the failure of sanctions would indeed make us look powerless. The only benefit of such sanctions, which will have a cruel impact on the Iranian people (many of whom deplore their system of government and their dogmatic leaders), is to denigrate the quality of life even more in this Islamic republic such that the protests continue and perhaps escalate, cracking the rock of Iran with dozens of new fissures… fomenting the opposite internal response than that desired by the leadership. There are no clear options, but the Middle East is boiling and bubbling with complexity, and change – good and bad – is inevitable.

I’m Peter Dekom, and I approve this message.

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