Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Brinkmanship with the Desperate: Now is not the time to attack Iran

By Robert Joustra


By Robert Joustra                             

Monday’s announcement by the European Union to embargo Iranian oil further hamstrings an already crippled Iranian economy. Iran is a country, argues Fareed Zakaria, growing in desperation.

E.U. oil imports represent 600,000 barrels per day, or 26.3% of Iranian exports (WSJ). The game of brinkmanship in the Strait of Hormuz, between forty thousand U.S. troops stationed in the Gulf, accompanied by strike aircraft, two aircraft carrier strike groups, two Aegis ballistic missile defense ships, and multiple Patriot anti-missile systems is a badly fated gamble. It gets worse.

On January 12, the fourth nuclear scientist in two years was killed, many suspect by an impatient, pre-emptive Israel, as intolerant of a nuclear capable Iran as it was in 1981 of a nuclear Iraq. As Syrian moral and political authority collapses, under siege from the Arab League, Iranian allies look thin. Last week, Saudi Arabia concluded its largest-ever purchase of U.S. arms, and Riyadh isn’t likely to abide a disruption in key energy infrastructure. The United Arab Emirates, argues Colin Kahl in Foreign Affairs, may well respond to an attack on U.S. forces at its Al Dhafra Air Base with an attempt to seize Abu Musa, Greater Tunb, and Lesser Tunb, disputed Gulf islands currently occupied by Iran.

Things are bad for Iran, and yet amidst this enormous international pressure calls persist for outright tactical bombardment of its enrichment facilities.

Now is not the time to attack Iran. A public justice approach must resist any short-term attempt to stall Iran’s nuclear facilities, while further isolating and radicalizing its political class. Comparisons to previous preventative strikes which halted Syria’s program in 2007 or Iraq’s in 1981 are misleading. Syria’s Deir ez-Zor reactor was more exploration than commitment, and Iraqi deterrence was singularly unsuccessful, eventually drawing the Middle East into not one, but two Gulf Wars. Iran’s nuclear program is not confined to one or two sites, its population is educated, its nuclear expertise is civilian, and all of it is bank rolled by an oil-rich theocracy. Put simply, say Alexandre Debs and Nuno Monteiro in Foreign Affairs, “a preventative strike against Iran can hardly be both limited and effective.”

All the while Iran’s nuclear program makes progress.

But let’s be clear: the problem is nuclear weapons, not nuclear technology. Nuclear technology is 70 years old, and Iran has a serious scientific community which sees such technology as a national pride. Not even regime change will fix that. Iran’s Green Movement strongly supports the nuclear program and has criticized Ahmadinejad for giving away too much to the West.

If something like a just resolution will be found with Iran, it will not be accomplished with ill-fated tactical strikes on proliferating reactors packed with civilians or by car bombing nuclear scientists in Tehran. What must be forestalled are the weapons, not the technology.

So far no agency or country is claiming that Iran actually possesses nuclear weapons. What has the international community worried is the jump in enriched uranium. On January 9, the IAEA confirmed that Iran had begun producing 20 percent enriched uranium at Fordow, a plant buried deep underground near the holy city of Qom. This combined with 20 percent enriched uranium already underway in Natanz has produced an oversupply of uranium for Iran’s civilian nuclear needs. Such extra enrichment does not, as President Ahmadinejad said in September, make economic sense.

The 20 percent enriched uranium does need further, albeit faster, enrichment to reach 90 percent weapons grade. And while this does not guarantee actual nuclear weapons, it does guarantee what is called a virtual nuclear arsenal: the material and capacity to quickly assemble a nuclear bomb.

Nevertheless, there is still time. Sanctions are a dangerous game which risk building pressures that can take their own course, but sanction-driven diplomacy to suspend enrichment and feed existing uranium stocks into the Tehran Research Reactor may be the only practical alternative. No one wants a nuclear Iran. No one wanted a nuclear North Korea either. But bombardment will not resolve decades of mistrust and suspicion, nor will it practically resolve the problem of a virtual arsenal. Tactical strikes cannot indefinitely deter a country as advanced as Iran.

Idealist and wrong-headed as it may seem, a public justice approach must hold out for the possibility of restoring Iran to the regional community, as Steven Meyer has argued. Non-proliferation cannot be dropped from 30,000 feet in the postmodern world.

—Robert Joustra is the Editor of Cardus Policy in Public and a lecturer in international relations at Redeemer University College.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”