Dore Gold: While America sleeps

Dore Gold served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1997 to1999. Dr. Gold’s new book — The Rise of Nuclear Iran: How Tehran Defies the West — has just been published by Regnery. The book addresses one of the most critical issues confronting the civilized world at present. We accordingly invited Dr. Gold to write about the book for Power Line readers. He has graciously responded as follows:

For over two decades, Iran has been identified in various U.S. official reports as the most prominent state-supporter of terrorism in the world. Its terrorist arm, Hizbullah, struck at the U.S. Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 American servicemen; it also bombed the French military headquarters at the same time. It unleashed attacks on Western embassies in Kuwait, and held Western hostages for years in Lebanon.
Recently, Iran has directly supported insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan with arms and training against U.S. and allied forces. Iran has vastly expanded its security ties in Latin America, especially with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has allowed Hizbullah to run freely in his country. True, given this background, in Western capitals one can hear the refrain that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons is “unacceptable,” but there is little sense of urgency that is behind those statements.
The Obama administration pinned its hopes on diplomatic “engagement” with Iran when it took office. The idea was that Tehran could be persuaded to drop its nuclear program through unconditional direct talks. While Washington has made repeated overtures to Iran’s leaders, they have rejected outright any concessions in the nuclear field. Then came the June 12 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mass riots against the Iranian regime for rigging the elections. It became immediately appropriate to ask why should the U.S. hold high level meetings with this Iranian regime and give it any international legitimacy.
Nonetheless, there is now a late September deadline that the Iranians have been given to take up Washington’s repeated offers. While “engagement” appears to be losing its relevance as the cornerstone of American policy in the Middle East, it is not clear what President Barack Obama will chose to replace it. There are well-connected journalists who are reporting that “Plan-B” is to accept the reality of a nuclear Iran and to hold it in check with deterrence. In the meantime, as of June 2009, according to the data of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Iranians have managed to enrich enough uranium to fuel two atomic bombs, should they decide to take the enrichment process to the next stage and produce military-grade material.
Why is the the impending Iranian challenge not at the top of the agenda of every Western government?
A cottage industry has downplayed the Iranian problem for years. Back in 2007, there was the poorly-worded U.S. National Intelligence Estimate that took information about a temporary suspension of part of the weaponization portion of the nuclear program in 2003 and presented it so that many thought the whole nuclear program had been terminated.
Surprisingly, there are still many voices affecting the policy debate on Iran who seek to understate the problem. It should come as no surprise that the Russians try to present Iranian intentions in a favorable light; they have been selling weapons and technology to Tehran for years. They also do not want the US to deploy missile defenses in Europe against Iran. Thus in 2008, Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to Washington reassured his listeners at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace that Iran posed no threat to the West.
In 2009, a joint Russian-American report for the East-West Institute played down the dangers emanating from Iran’s ballistic missile program. It boldly concluded that “the military threat from Iran to Europe is not imminent,” also adding that there was no evidence that Iran was able to develop “solid-propellant rocket motors” (solid-fueled rocket capability would put Iran in a whole new league of missile powers).
The East-West Institute report was extensively quoted and featured in both the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. Yet within days of its release, the Iranians tested a new solid-fuel missile, called the Sejil, that had a reported range of 1,350 miles and could strike European territory. But in the meantime, the impression had already been given that the Iranian threat was not what it had been trumped up to be.
Then there are some influential commentators who just dismiss the Iranian problem completely. For example, Fareed Zakaria, one of the most respected experts on U.S. foreign policy, put forward the thesis in a Newsweek cover story on June 1, 2009, that Iran had no intentions of developing nuclear arms because there was a fatwa (an Islamic legal ruling) issued by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004 describing “the use of nuclear weapons as immoral.”
While Iranian diplomats often cite the story of Khamenei’s “nuclear fatwa” as a ploy to mislead Western audiences, a careful perusal of the Supreme Leader’s website shows that the purported decree is not even listed along with his other legal rulings ( see here), which are normally carefully updated by the Iranian authorities. In short, the famed “nuclear fatwa,” at best of dubious value to the West in any case, does not even exist. But Zakaria’s claim undoubtedly contributed to the general sense that the Iranian challenge is not urgent.
It is possible that in many circles, the idea of another nuclear power is not so disturbing. After all, both Pakistan and North Korea tested nuclear weapons and the sky did not fall. But Iran is very different from those cases. The North Korean regime sees nuclear weapons as part of its internal survival strategy; it does not see itself exporting its revolution to Japan and Taiwan. Iran’s military leaders still speak about exporting the Islamic Revolution. In 2008, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards told his fellow officers: “Our revolution has not ended.” He then added: “Our Imam did not limit the movement of the Islamic Revolution to this country, but drew greater horizons.”
Few understand the significance of the moment the world is facing. A nuclear Iran involves the merger between radical Islam and nuclear weapons technology. When al-Qaeda attacked New York and Washington on 9/11, it operated from bases in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The Taliban did not have nuclear weapons or long-range missiles. As a result the US and its NATO allies could retaliate and remove the Taliban regime from Kabul, setting an example for any state that hosts global terrorist organizations that threaten the American homeland.
But a nuclear Iran will be able to offer a protective, nuclear umbrella over al-Qaeda or any group, allowing it to strike with impunity. Would the West move against a nuclear Iran, the same way it went after the Taliban in Afghanistan? In short, a nuclear Iran will totally alter the international security environment, setting the stage for a new scale of terrorist threats that the world has not yet witnessed.
A nuclear Iran can still be stopped. Iran is closing in on the finish line, but has not yet crossed it. As has been pointed out by others, Iran has many vulnerabilities, particularly its dependence on imported gasoline and other refined petroleum products (it does not have enough oil refineries). What is needed is strong Western leadership to stand up to this challenge, that is not distracted by analysis that claims Iran is not really a problem. All forms of Western leverage over the Iranian regime must be used to bring to a halt its nuclear program.
The Iranian problem cannot be swept under the rug with arguments that hold no water and help put the leaders of the Western alliance to sleep bogging them down with doubts that lead to dangerous inaction.

Dr. Gold gives this column the title “Iran approaches the nuclear finish line: Why is the world complacent?” My heading for the post alludes to Donald Kagan and Frederick Kagan’s 2000 book While America Sleeps: Self-delusion, Military Weakness, and the Threat to the West Today, which itself recalled Churchill’s While England Slept and JFK’s Why England Slept. The blogger conference call with Dr. Gold discussing his new book has been posted here.