Archive for the ‘Hamas’ Category

Missile Defenses in the Middle East

February 1, 2010

Administration and military officials have announced that the US is deploying additional missile defense systems in the Middle East/Persian Gulf.  The deployments include Patriot missile batteries in Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Bahrain (similar batteries have long been stationed in Israel and Saudi Arabia), as well as Aegis cruisers armed with missile interceptors that are positioned in the Persian Gulf.  The moves are intended to counter the threat posed by Iran’s short -range and medium-range missiles; Western leaders fear that the Islamic Republic is developing nuclear warheads (Iranian leaders deny that they seek to acquire the Bomb) that could be launched by the aforementioned delivery vehicles against other countries in the region or America’s military forces. 

The US wants to prevent Iran, which is viewed as a hostile nation, from joining the nuclear club.  The administration has tried to resolve the crisis through diplomacy and threats of economic sanctions if the Iranian regime does not agree to take steps that would make it difficult for its scientists to enrich uranium to weapons-grade levels.  In December of last year, Tehran accepted a deal to ship its unprocessed uranium abroad but backed out before it was finalized.

According to administration officials, the US is deploying the missile defense systems for the following reasons:

1. To reassure its Arab allies and dissuade them from building their own nuclear arsenals for deterrence purposes.

2. To deter Iran from developing the Bomb or using it against American interests in the region.

3. To persuade Israel not to launch a preemptive military strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

It is doubtful if the deployments will have much of an effect on the situation.  They might provide a modicum of psychological comfort to Arab leaders, but American security guarantees (i.e., promises to come to the defense of its friends and allies in the event of an Iranian attack) would better achieve that purpose.  The US has already suggested that it would retaliate against Iran if the Islamic Republic launched a nuclear strike, and that threat should be sufficient unless Arab governments do not consider it to be credible.

When it comes to deterring Iran from creating an atomic arsenal, missile defense systems will not likely change the decision calculus of Iranian leaders, who understandably fear that America will invade their nation and almost certainly want nuclear weapons to protect themselves from perceived external threats; such weapons would be a good deterrent because no country would want to invade a nuclear Iran and risk suffering an atomic counterattack even if the invading forces, or its allies, possessed missile defense systems that could lower the chances that a nuclear-armed missile would get through.  As far as dissuading Iran from launching a first strike, the threat of nuclear retaliation alone would be enough to deter the Islamic Republic, so Patriot missiles are superfluous in this regard.

Israel already had Patriot missiles before the US put more in the region, and putting interceptors in Arab countries and the Persian Gulf would not substantially change Israel’s security status because Israel is not very close to the Gulf and Patriots are terminal-phase defense systems (meaning they are designed to destroy incoming warheads shortly before they detonate in the target area), so basing them in Arab states would not protect Israel.  Israel has its own nuclear arsenal, but if the Jewish state still feels like that is not enough to deter Iran from hitting Tel Aviv with atomic weapons the mere presence of more Patriot missiles and Aegis cruisers will not stop Israeli leaders from bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Nuclear weapons would not be the greatest threat to American interests emanating from the Islamic Republic if Iran becomes a nuclear power.  The country’s ability to use terrorist groups (such as Hamas and Hezbollah) as proxies, foment instability in Iraq and Afghanistan, and close down the Straits of Hormuz, through which a large percentage of the world’s oil supply transits, are much more plausible methods that Iran could employ against the US and its partners in the region. 

However, theater missile defense systems are not without purpose.  They could be useful in knocking down Iranian missiles armed with conventional warheads in the event of a conflict.  Although the odds that Iranian leaders would launch a nuclear first strike are extremely low (unless their country were invaded), there is a significant probability that they would use regular missiles to attack American military bases, large ground formations or the cities of US allies if a war involving the Islamic Republic broke out in the Middle East.

Containing a Nuclear Iran

January 19, 2010

Last Friday, ForeignPolicy.com published an op-ed piece by Michael Singh in which he discusses the implications of Iran acquiring nuclear weapons.  Mr. Singh makes the following arguments:

1. There is no possibility of a rapprochement between the US and Iran similar to the one President Richard Nixon achieved when he went to China in the early 1970s.

2. Iranian leaders might use nuclear weapons because their rationality is open to question.

3. There is a significant chance that Iran would give atomic bombs to terrorist allies like Hezbollah or Hamas.

4. Iran becoming a nuclear power would fundamentally change the security situation in the Middle East.

5. Arab states would respond to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by building their own.

6. The US could not contain a nuclear-armed Iran.

It appears that Mr. Singh is correct in asserting that a major diplomatic breakthrough between the US and the Islamic Republic is unlikely at the present time.  Hardliners in Tehran remain vehemently anti-American and they continue to view the US, which has surrounded their country with its military forces and expressed sympathy for Iranian dissidents who are calling for democratic reforms, as a threat to their regime.  Moreover, they face no strategic threat from a third party that would compel them to seek an alliance with the US for counterbalancing purposes.

Mr. Singh’s suggestion that Iran might launch a nuclear first-strike against Israel or other nations is absurd.  He observes that the certainty of massive retaliation would probably dissuade them from doing so, but he says that the possibility should not be discounted because Iranian leaders might be irrational.  Although some political elites in Iran have railed against Israel and leveled threats against it, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.  The West should not react hysterically to their rhetoric; after all, Nikita Khrushchev said his country would “bury” the US, but neither he nor other Soviet leaders intended to attack the US with nuclear weapons unless they were attacked first.

A similar counterargument can be used to discredit his warnings that Iran might give the Bomb to terrorist groups.  If groups like Hezbollah or Hamas detonated a nuclear device in Israel, Israeli policymakers would assume that Iran was behind the assault and they would respond by destroying Tehran and other sites with their atomic arsenal.  Once again, Iranian leaders are not suicidal.

Whether Iran “going nuclear” would fundamentally change the security situation in the region is highly questionable.  Mr. Singh says that Iran would act more aggressively and give more weapons to militant groups, but they are already doing that in Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Iraq, and they do not need nuclear weapons to do such things without suffering serious consequences.  Arab states like Egyt and Saudi Arabia would certainly be very concerned about their Persian rivals having the Bomb, but they would not necessarily create their own arsenals if the US extended a nuclear umbrella over them; America promised to protect Japan and Germany from their nuclear-armed adversaries and successfully prevented proliferation in those two countries. 

They idea that Iran could no longer be contained if it joins the nuclear club is unfounded.  The US has the capability to thwart a conventional attack against is allies in the region and prevent Iranian naval forces from closing the Strait of Hormuz for an extended period of time.   Nuclear deterrence still works for reasons mentioned above, and Iran would not have a greater ability to aid terrorist groups because atomic bombs are not the type of weapons that a state would want to pass on to extremists.  Despite what Mr. Singh claims, America and its partners could still contain a nuclear Iran and protect their interests much like they contained Russia during the Cold War.

The Price of Doing Business

January 5, 2010

Yesterday, ForeignPolicy.com published an article by foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt in which he argues that Islamic terrorism is blowback from US foreign policy decisions that affect the Muslim world and not simply the work of evil men looking for thrill kills.  His blog post comes in the wake of a recent attempt by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, an extremist affiliated with Al Qaeda, to blow up an airliner headed for Detroit.

Mr. Walt does not say that America’s foreign policy is wrong (with the exception of America’s virtually unconditional support for Israel); he merely says that living with an increased terrorist threat is “the price of doing business”  for a superpower that interferes in the affairs of other nations around the world.  He claims that most Americans fail to see the connection between terrorism and US attempts to dominate the international arena, and he believes they are overly concerned and unreasonable about their security.

Mr. Walt is right in asserting that Islamic terrorists are motivated by aspects of America’s foreign policy, such as its military presence in the Middle East, civilian casualties resulting from US attacks and America’s unwavering support for Israel in its conflict with Palestinians.  He is also correct in saying that certain elements of US strategy do not necessarily need to be changed in response to the danger posed by Al Qaeda and other militant groups (after all, it would be impractical for America to pull out of the Middle East where the world’s the main oil supply that the global economy relies upon is located).  However, taking precautions when it comes to things like airport security is reasonable, and implementing measures like full body scans for airline passengers is prudent in light of terrorism incidents over the past decade. 

Americans will have to live with the terrorist threat and accept the fact that complete safety is an impossible goal.  The government and the public should try to avoid the opposite pitfalls of overreaction and complacency, and policies will have to be modified when they are too close to either folly.

The Implications of a Nuclear Iran

October 1, 2009

The West is engaging in diplomatic talks with Iran to try to peruade the government in Tehran to abandon its nuclear program and allow intrusive international inspections of its nuclear sites.  Western officials believe that Iran intends to use its nuclear program to develop atomic weapons, a charge that Iranian leaders deny.  The US and its European allies have threatened to impose harsh economic sanctions on Iran if a diplomatic solution is not achieved, and Israel has warned that it might take military action against the Islamic Republic.

A failure to reach a deal could have major implications for the Middle East region.  If Israel attacks Iran’s nuclear sites or the West imposes sanctions, Iran could retaliate in various ways.  The Islamic Republic might use militant groups like Hezbollah and Hamas as proxies to carry out attacks against Israel and Western interests.  It could foment unrest in Arab countries with large Shiite populations such as Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.  It could also close down the Strait of Hormuz and disrupt the oil supply from the Persian Gulf.

If the Iranians shut down the Strait, the US Navy would attempt to open it back up back by escorting foreign ships through the Strait and taking out hostile Iranian vessels and shore batteries.  The US military might also seize control of Iran’s southern oil fields and bomb strategic targets in the Islamic Republic in retaliation. 

If Iran develops nuclear weapons, Arab states would almost certainly move closer to the US because they fear Iran will become more aggressive and hegemonic once it possesses the Bomb.  The US would likely extend a “nuclear umbrella” over the Middle East to reassure allies and deter Iran from using atomic weapons.  American missile defense programs would probably accelerate and more missile defense sites would be created.

One reason Iran might want to pursue nuclear weapons is to insure against regime change by external forces after witnessing what happened to Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.  The Islamic Republic might also want the international prestige that comes with being a nuclear state.  Some believe that Iran intends to use atomic weapons to destroy Israel, but such an event is highly because Israel and the US are capable of destroying Iran with a nuclear counterattack and Iranian leaders are aware of this fact.

Naturally, Western powers want a diplomatic solution to the nuclear isse with Iran given the potential consequences of not finding one.  It is unclear exactly how Iran would respond to Western punishments and what it would do if it acquired nuclear weapons.  Although the situation might not be as dire as some of the scenarios mentioned above, Iran “going nuclear” would have a destabilizing effect and be detrimental to other countries with interests in the Middle East, and it might ultimately prove counterproductive for the Islamic Repubic as well.

Israel and Iran

July 27, 2009

Earlier today, Israeli officials implicitly threatened to attack Iran militarily if the Islamic Republic does not abandon its nuclear weapons program.

During a news conference with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Israelie Defense Minister Ehud Barak said “We clearly believe that no option should be removed from the table.  This is our policy.  We mean it.  We recommend to others to take the same position, but we cannot dictate it to anyone.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a similar line.

According to an official press release from his office, the prime minister, during a meeting with Gates, “reiterated the seriousness which Israel views Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the need to utilize all available means to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear capability.”

The Obama administration, like all American administrations during foreign policy crises, says that all options are on the table, including military action.  But the US appears prepared to press for further economic sanctions against Iran if that nation develops the Bomb rather than a military response. 

Washington seems to have realized that striking Iran would be counterproductive in terms of promoting American interests in the region, including efforts to reach a peace accord between Israel and its Arab neighbors, especially the Palestinians. 

The Israeli government apparently takes a different view, if the statements made by Israeli officials truly reflect their opinions.  If that is the case, it would be unfortunate because Israel need not destroy Iranian nuclear sites to protect itself; Israel’s nuclear arsenal will be a sufficient deterrent against Iran launching a nuclear attack.  It is true that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made inflammatory statements regarding Israel such as saying Israel should be “wiped off the map,” but other leaders during the atomic age have made similar threats, such as Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev’s telling the US “We will bury you,” without following through on them.  Iranian leaders may be anti-Semetic, but they are not suicidal.  As much as they may hate Israel, they do not hate it enough to risk the annihilation of themselves and their people.  Hopefully, Israeli leaders will realize that deterrence still works before launching a foolhardy bombing campaign in a futile effort to put an end to Iran’s nuclear program.