In the short run, Biden might well keep his promise that Iran won’t get nukes

In the short run, Biden might well keep his promise that Iran won’t get nukes
Playing charades. Kerry, Ashton, and Zarif meet for coffee in Muscat, Oman on 10 Nov. (Image: Reuters/Nicholas Kamm via Al-Monitor)

It’s not just the promise, of course.  It’s the Bidenesque way he makes it:

Monday, Biden had to remind Israeli leaders that the U.S. is not seeking a negotiation with Iran at Israel’s expense.

“I have heard so much malarkey about our position on Iran,” Biden said. “We will not let Iran acquire a nuclear weapon, period. I would not put my 42-year reputation on the line if I were not certain when I say it. We mean it.”

Daniel Greenfield casts a doubt or two on that 42-year reputation, and that’s fair enough.  We would be fools to take seriously such assurances from Joe Biden.

But there are reasons why Iran may well delay that moment of focused provocation when the radical Islamic regime proves itself nuclear armed.  If the Iranians don’t have the means to offer that proof yet, they are very close to it – so close that it is now their choice how fast to move, and in what way.

Where we are

Iran now lacks only the public demonstration of uranium enrichment to a weapons-grade level (above 95%), and a detectable warhead detonation.  To talk of a “breakout” capacity – a bomb-in-waiting – as something we are still looking for is now misleading.  Using such terms suggests that there is something more we need to see from Iran, before we officially set the breakout watch.

But the reality is that there is nothing we have yet to see that we can reliably expect to see.  We’ve reached the point at which it is prudent to assume the breakout watch has already started – and imprudent not to.

Fifteen years ago, Iran did not have a reliable uranium enrichment process; did not have an industrial-scale infrastructure for enrichment; did not have a stockpile of enriched uranium; did not have her own uranium production capacity; did not have a detonator mechanism for a uranium warhead; did not have a missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead; and did not have anything close to an intercontinental missile capability.

As little as six years ago, moreover, the United States had more than enough ready combat power, between our Air Force and Navy, to quickly strike a meaningful blow against an Iranian nuclear infrastructure that was still comparatively rudimentary and geographically concentrated.

Both of those conditions have changed significantly.  Iran now does have all the things she lacked in 1999: enough low-enriched uranium for at least 7-8 warheads; a proven enrichment process, including enrichment to higher purity (19.75%); an industrial-scale infrastructure, with geographic dispersion; an indigenous uranium production capacity (see here and here); a tested detonator mechanism for a nuclear warhead; at least one medium-range ballistic missile series that could deliver a nuclear warhead; and a satellite/rocket program advanced enough to support ICBM testing in as little as 1-3 years.  Iran has acquired almost all of these things since UN sanctions were implemented in 2007, and under the regime of IAEA inspections.

Reminder: Nothing has interrupted the trend of Iran’s uranium enrichment. Red column shows low-enriched UF6 stockpiled (versus total cumulative enrichment in blue), once Iran began enriching some stock to 20% in Jan 2012. Although Iran has “downblended” her 20%-enriched stock, the rate of increase in the total stockpile of 5% LEU has been robust: 17% from 11/13 to 11/14. (Data source: IAEA)
Reminder: Nothing has interrupted the trend of Iran’s uranium enrichment. Red column shows low-enriched UF6 stockpiled (versus total cumulative enrichment in blue), once Iran began enriching some stock to 20% in Jan 2012. Although Iran has “downblended” her 20%-enriched stock, the rate of increase in the total stockpile of 5% LEU has been robust: 17% from 11/13 to 11/14. (Data source: IAEA)

American military power, in the meantime, has declined to such an extent that mounting a quick, comprehensive strike on the Iranian infrastructure is no longer feasible.  We couldn’t do it quickly.  Not only could we not do it quickly; we couldn’t do it without first restoring the readiness of military units we no longer keep at their highest readiness level.  It would take months to prepare for a comprehensive strike campaign – and would require the prior allocation of special funding from Congress.

Where Iran once wanted to be

Iran’s vision for the future has been shaped, as everyone’s has, by the consequences of the Arab Spring.  It has also been shaped by the withdrawal of American power under Obama.

Four or five years ago, Iran took as a given the U.S. posture in the larger Middle East.  That posture included a key strategic presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan; close partnerships with almost all the Gulf Cooperation Council nations; special relationships, including military cooperation, with both Egypt and Israel; and unchallenged supremacy on the regional seas.

Iran’s basic objective was to peel America’s partners away through the pressure of proxy insurgencies (and other underhanded tactics), and thus squeeze us out of the region.  The first-order purpose of having the bomb was to immunize Iran against retaliation in that process, as the USSR had immunized itself with a nuclear “deterrent” force when it worked through proxy conflicts in the Cold War.

Iran also set her sights on chokepoints in the regional waterways, from the Strait of Hormuz through the Red Sea and all the way to Morocco and the Strait of Gibraltar.  No one was close to having a navy that could challenge the U.S. Navy, but even great navies are vulnerable in chokepoints.

At a kind of eschatological-strategic level, meanwhile, just as the Arab Spring was unfolding in early 2011, Iranian TV was running a mullah-approved “documentary” that outlined a scheme of military preparation for the arrival of the “twelfth imam.”  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad figured as a great military commander from Shia prophecy in this fantastical oeuvre, which depicted a dénouement in the armed conquest of Jerusalem.  (“Rescuing” Jerusalem had already figured for years in Iranian policy rhetoric, as well as in the concept of some major military exercises.)

Where Iran now wants to be

In the years since Obama took office, much has changed.  One thing hasn’t, and that’s Iran’s interest in gaining leverage at critical chokepoints in the regional seaways.  But some of the focused urgency has been bled out of the pressure campaign against America’s regional partners, in part because of the Arab Spring, and in part because Barack Obama has been doing an excellent job of peeling them away from us himself.

The momentum of Iran’s efforts has shifted to a new, more geographically focused vector, one that as recently as 2011 appeared to be unthinkable.  Where once Iran was confined to putting general pressure on various American partners in the region, and perhaps maneuvering to leapfrog nearby territory in which we seemed established – Iraq, Jordan, Israel – Iran can now realistically contemplate making an “internal” line of communication (LOC) through that territory.  She might accomplish that by proxy first, and then, eventually, exploit the LOC directly.

In fact, with much of the territory in question now disputed between ISIS and a weak Iraqi government, Iran has all the more reason for being there, with advisors and military equipment.

The bonus?  The U.S., weakened and compromised as our power is, has signed up to do at least some of the fighting against ISIS.  If Iran plays her cards right, American forces will open her strategic LOC through the heart of the Middle East for her.

Iran's Qods Force commander, Qasem Soleimani (3rd from left), embedded with Iraqis in 2014. (Iranian forces image via Sydney Morning Herald)
Iran’s Qods Force commander, Qasem Soleimani (3rd from left), embedded with Iraqis in 2014. (Iranian forces image via Sydney Morning Herald)

It is in light of these changed conditions that we must look at Ayatollah Khamanei’s recently published 9-point plan to eliminate Israel – and contrast it with the vision of a military conquest of Jerusalem for the Mahdi back in 2011.

The importance of this comparison is that we know both visions have had the ayatollah’s approval, and by implication that of the clerical council in Qom.  The difference between them indicates a clear shift from a more linear, but less concretely developed, strategic concept to a non-linear but realistically “developable” one.

The “Mighty Ahmadinejad” concept was quite linear and militarily conventional in implication: arrive with troops – somehow; exact campaign method not specified – and wage a military battle for Jerusalem.

The 9-point plan is a proxy plan, and one that seeks to induce Jerusalem to fall, and drive the Jews out through pressure – presumably a combination of political pressure and guerrilla-terrorist violence – rather than setting up a pitched military confrontation.

Ayatollah Khamenei's 9-point plan for eliminating Israel. Nov 2014.
Ayatollah Khamenei’s 9-point plan for eliminating Israel. Nov 2014.

The plan proposes a referendum among “Palestinians,” wherever they are on earth, to set up a Palestinian government and, effectively, dissolve the modern state of Israel and eject the Jews from it.  Until the referendum can be held, says Khamenei, the West Bank should be armed, and enabled to join Gaza in waging “armed resistance.”

It’s quite possible for this plan to be seen as the missing link in the “Mighty Ahmadinejad” concept: the interim campaign that will position a Shia warlord to accept the surrender of Jerusalem.  (Ahmadinejad, of course, isn’t likely to be involved.)  The 9-point plan is not a conventional military campaign, but in the conditions of 2014, its strategic outlines have the advantage of being feasible – unlike the impressionistic vision of 2011.

What we can also see now, however, is a prospect there was no glimmer of in 2011: the prospect of Iran being able to move a military force from her territory across central Iraq.  We are a long way off from a real possibility of that; for one thing, Iran would have to build the force.  But the most important shift has already occurred.  Instead of being impossible, this prospect is now merely improbable, or at least is clearly not imminent.

The no-longer-impossible LOC – in fact, being facilitated by the U.S. armed forces.  Part of the Middle East’s changing reality. (Google map; author annotation)
The no-longer-impossible LOC – in fact, being facilitated by the U.S. armed forces. Part of the Middle East’s changing reality. (Google map; author annotation)

Iran’s strategic approach – and the bomb

The approach we can expect from Iran will continue to emphasize what Iran has emphasized for years: proxy insurgencies, client forces, and terrorism.  In addition to Hezbollah and Hamas, Iran has backed guerrilla terrorists ranging from Boko Haram in Nigeria to Taliban factions in Afghanistan.  The Assad regime has been a client state of longstanding, as has the Bashir regime in Sudan; there is now a real possibility that the government of a “rump” Iraq will be an Iranian client (here, here, here, here, and here), and that the Iranian-backed Houthi insurgency in Yemen will form the core of a government, and make Yemen another client state.

Iran has shifted her regional posture in the last couple of years, and in some ways improved it, without the bomb, because of the power vacuum left by Obama’s America.  Six years ago, Iran couldn’t contemplate achieving so much without a nuclear deterrent to wield against the U.S.  Now, with Obama in the Oval Office through January 2017, she can.

In fact, there are advantages for Iran today in delaying a nuclear tipping point.  For one thing, Israel might attack if a critical waypoint appears imminent.

But it’s not just Israel whose reaction matters, nor should the critical juncture be defined simplistically as “Iran getting a bomb” or Iran being “about to” get a bomb.  The nations of the region will jockey based on perception.  As conditions shift, each nation will prepare to defend its interests (and even pursue newly feasible strategies for extending power); the driver will actually be big-picture expectations, and the factors will go beyond nuclearization.

No one will want to be in a tail-chase.  We can expect Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt to operate, with some level of anxiety and determination, in a forward-looking mode.  They are already doing it, in matters like the Turks’ dealings with the Kurds, and the Saudis’ back-channel maneuvering to bolster Sunnis in Lebanon.  Neither Ankara nor Riyadh makes the mistake Western observers do, of imagining that today’s arrangements are being made in a stable situation.  Those in the region see clearly that the arrangements they make today are for the purpose of shaping the changes that must come.

The Iranians know that going nuclear will be a transformative game-changer.  It will provoke regional reactions; change conditions that today are highly exploitable, even favorable.  I’m not so sure they want to pull that lever while Obama is in office.  They’re making too much hay off of him.  Why screw that up for themselves?

After all, they can keep the highly profitable nuclear “negotiations” charade going for as long as Obama is the president of the United States.  In the absence of American power, no one is going to force Iran to undergo any UN inspection she does not choose to submit to.  Iran doesn’t have to let herself get any further from being able to “break out,” as the price of stringing the Western powers along for another three years.  She can keep doing exactly what she’s been doing: increasing her stockpile of enriched uranium, limiting the access of inspectors to a level that is functionally meaningless, and testing ballistic missiles.

She can also keep pushing on the other vector of her strategic approach: the client/proxy vector.  It’s on this vector that only the United States could mount decisive pushback.  The best any other opponent can achieve, whether it’s ISIS, Turkey, a Sunni Arab coalition, Israel, or the Western Europeans, is to get into a nasty, draining confrontation with Iran – one on the daunting model of guerrilla terrorism versus the beleaguered state.

Make no mistake:  from this perspective – destabilization and misery in the Middle East – it will be no better for Iran to not get the bomb than to get it, in the next few years.  Territory will be encroached on.  People and governments will be subjected to the slow torture of instability and proxy harassment.  Since it will still be probable that Iran will ultimately get a bomb, the Iranian leadership will enjoy the advantages of that expectation, without the drawbacks of an officially triggered reaction.

This will be an exceptionally hard set of conditions in which to make the case that Iran needs preempting.  As far as the Western media and many Western politicians are concerned, Iran will be able to hide behind her proxies and avoid any meaningful political culpability, as the old Soviet Union so often did.

(There are plenty of other worrisome actors besides Iran, but that doesn’t change the fact that Iran will make a difference to outcomes around the region by backing some, opposing others, and intervening directly with the Bolshevik-style methods characteristic of Hezbollah and Iran’s Qods Force.)

It won’t be hard to see what Iran is doing, but it will be easy for the Western left to pretend it isn’t happening.  Throughout the process, the mullahs will be watching for the most opportune time to go nuclear.  They do ultimately want to do that, but they want to box Israel in first, lull potential antagonists like Saudi Arabia into complacency (or at least into distraction and fatalism), and time it so that there will be no effective ability to respond in Washington or Brussels.

As long as Iran hasn’t actually pulled the trigger yet, the West will avoid taking action, its excuse ready to hand.  The beauty of Joe Biden’s promise is that, for the next couple of years, he probably can keep it – if radical Iran continues to play the long game she’s been playing.  As “good news,” that will be on a par with driving drunk every day and congratulating yourself if you don’t have an accident.

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer

J.E. Dyer is a retired Naval Intelligence officer who lives in Southern California, blogging as The Optimistic Conservative for domestic tranquility and world peace. Her articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s Contentions, Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard.


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