Belmont Club readers will be familiar with the themes in this Foreign Policy article: Putin’s Got America Where He Wants It. The first point it makes is that Russia has checkmated America in Syria, where the administration continues to “lead from behind”.
Let’s start with Syria, where Moscow has vetoed two attempts to pass a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Assad regime. In the case of the May 25 Houla massacre, where over 100 civilians were murdered in cold blood, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed that “both sides evidently had a hand in the deaths of innocent people.” This injected moral equivalence where none existed, since U.N. peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous said that pro-regime shabbiha militias were likely responsible.
The source of US weakness has been described here before. But let us hear it from Foreign Policy. America, which was the dominant power in the region, shipped all its muscle to Southwest Asia where the force can only be supplied at Putin’s sufferance. As Foreign Policy explains this rather limits the administration’s ability to play hardball with Putin.
Moscow has also served as Iran’s arms dealer — selling more than $5 billion in military equipment to Tehran in the past decade. Reset advocates declared victory in 2010 when the Kremlin cancelled its sale of S-300 anti-aircraft system to Tehran, which could be used to shoot down American or Israeli jets. By why would Putin ever would agree to sell such sophisticated missiles to the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism in the first place? Because his preferred style is to create a minor problem, then solve it and take a disproportionately long bow.
This is even true when it comes to the Northern Distribution Network (NDN) in Afghanistan. Since September 2009, NATO has been able to transport non-lethal supplies and equipment to Afghanistan through Russia. And since November 2011, when Pakistan closed the supply routes that ran through its territory — payback for a U.S. drone strike that killed 24 Pakistani soldiers that year — the NDN has grown even more crucial to the international war effort in Afghanistan.
But even Russia’s professed support for the NATO mission — a product of the Kremlin’s own self-interest — hasn’t stopped it from making life difficult for the United States. Key Central Asian states’ commitment to allowing the traffic to continue is in doubt — largely because of Russian pressure. One cause for the latest bout of Russian attacks on McFaul is that the put-upon ambassador made the mistake of telling the truth during a recent lecture: Russia, he said, had “bribed” the Kyrgyz government in an attempt to close the U.S. military base at Manas, through which critical materiel is flown into Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan’s pro-Russian president has furthermore demanded that the United States leave Manas when its lease expires in 2014.
You would have thought the President would have thought that it was a bad idea to lead from behind in the Middle East after he stranded a huge American force in a landlocked theater where it could only be supported via Pakistani or Russian controlled territory. The defects of that conception were apparent to many readers on this site, but not alas, to those who call the shots.
This same administration which has assured Israel that there is plenty of time to deal with Iran. In this interview former IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya’alon explains that’s not how he sees the problem of Iran to journalist Ari Shavit.
Shavit: What the vice premier is telling me is that we are close to the moment of truth regarding Iran.
Ya’alon: “Definitely. When I was director of Military Intelligence, in the 1990s, Iran did not possess one kilogram of enriched uranium. Today it has 6,300 kilograms of uranium enriched to a level of 3.5 percent and about 150 kilograms enriched to a level of 20 percent. When I was chief of staff, in the first decade of this century, Iran had a few hundred centrifuges, most of which were substandard.
“At present there are about 10,000 centrifuges in Natanz and in Kom, which are enriching about eight kilograms of uranium a day. Since this government took office in 2009, the number of centrifuges in Iran has almost doubled and the amount of enriched uranium has increased sixfold. The meaning of these data is that Iran already today has enough enriched uranium to manufacture five atomic bombs. If Iran is not stopped, within a year it will have enough uranium for seven or eight atomic bombs.
“In addition, the Iranians apparently possess a weapons development system which they are hiding from the international supervisory apparatus. The Iranians also have 400 missiles of different types, which can reach the whole area of Israel and certain parts of Europe. Those missiles were built from the outset with the ability to carry nuclear warheads. So the picture is clear. Five years ago, even three years ago, Iran was not within the zone of the nuclear threshold. Today it is. Before our eyes Iran is becoming a nuclear-threshold power.” …
Shavit: We survived the Cold War. We also survived the nuclearization of Pakistan and North Korea. Israel is said to possess strategic capability that is able to create decisive deterrence against Iran. Would it not be right to say that just as Europe lived with the Soviet bomb, we will be able to live in the future with the Shiite bomb?
Ya’alon: “No and no and again no. The first answer to your question is that if Iran goes nuclear, four or five more countries in the Middle East are liable to go nuclear, too. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, Jordan and other Arab states will say that if Iran has a bomb they also need a bomb. The result will be a nuclear Middle East. A nuclear Middle East will not be stable and therefore the world will not be stable. Iranian nuclearization will bring in its wake nuclear chaos.
“The second answer to your question is that a nuclear umbrella will allow Iran to achieve regional hegemony. The Gulf states, finding themselves under that umbrella, will ask themselves which they prefer: distant Washington or nearby Tehran. In my view, they will opt for nearby Tehran. A nuclear Iran is liable to take control of the energy sources in the Persian Gulf and of a very large slice of the world’s oil supply. That will have far-reaching international implications. But a nuclear Iran will also challenge Israel and bring about a series of brutal conventional confrontations on our borders. That will have serious consequences for Israel.
“The third answer to your question is that one day the Iranian regime is liable to use its nuclear capability. That does not mean that the day after the Iranians acquire a bomb they will load it on a plane or a missile and drop it on a Western city. But there is a danger of the use of nuclear weapons by means of proxies. A terrorist organization could smuggle a dirty bomb into the port of New York or the port of London or the port of Haifa. I also do not rule out the possibility of the direct use of nuclear weapons by means of missiles. That risk is low, but it exists. That extreme scenario is not impossible.”
Shavit: But the Americans are with us. The Americans will rescue us. Why jump in head-first?
Ya’alon: “There is agreement between the United States and us on the goal, and agreement on intelligence and close cooperation. But we are in disagreement about the red line. For the Americans, the red line is an order by [Ayatollah] Khamenei to build a nuclear bomb. For us, the red line is Iranian ability to build a nuclear bomb.
“We do not accept the American approach for three reasons. First, because it implies that Iran can be a threshold-power which, as long as it does not manufacture nuclear weapons in practice is allowed to possess the ability to manufacture them. Second, because in our assessment there is no certainty that it will be possible to intercept in time the precious report that Khamenei finally gave the order to build a bomb . Third, there is a disparity between the sense of threat and urgency in Jerusalem and the sense of threat and urgency in Washington.”
The key difference between Ya’alon’s analysis and the administration is that the Israeli bases his threat assessment on Teheran’s capability while Washington relies on an estimate of its intent as a trigger for ation. To the administration, until the actual order to build a bomb is detected, Washington is prepared to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.
In this context the administration’s weakness vis a vis Russia in Syria becomes significant. Syria provides an opportunity to stifle Iran without resorting to bombing it.
If Obama could take down the Iranian supported Assads in Syria he would deal a huge but indirect blow to the Iranian nuclear program. But he does not have that option or has denied himself that. Instead he is allowing Syria and Iran’s superpower patron — Russia — to pull Assad off the ropes. Nor can he scowl back at Putin, because grandmaster of the Kremlin holds the NATO supply lines in the palm of his hand, having realized almost instantaneously from his map what a strategic godsend the Messiah from Chicago had handed him.
How did it come to this? Intelligence perhaps, though not of the kind that is measured on standardized tests. By those measures the administration’s strategy has been nothing but a intellectual disaster. Maybe readers of this site will someday read a Foreign Policy article repeating these points. But by then the hour will be late.
It would be the ultimate irony if the President who promised to reject all unproven missile defense systems, cut all spending on advanced combat systems and reduce America’s nuclear weapons to zero should be the ultimate cause of a nuclear armed Middle East.
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