NOW THAT NORTH KOREA has called America's diplomatic bluff by testing a nuclear device, and the wrangling has begun over how best to sanction Pyongyang, the question arises of what's in store for Iran. Will we bomb? Some insiders say yes, that President Bush has already decided that if Iran fails to freeze its enrichment program, he will direct our Air Force to attack Iran's nuclear plants sometime before he leaves office.
The urgency for bombing, of course, turns on the assumption that we can know precisely when Iran will acquire its first nuclear weapon--which we can't. A decision to bomb also presumes we can set Iran's nuclear weapons program back significantly with a single targeting campaign. This, at best, is unclear. Iran, for instance, might have a parallel, hidden nuclear weapons effort. Given Teh ran's ability to tunnel a kilometer deep, and its stonewalling on what it has done with the advanced uranium enrichment plant designs it bought and claims it chose not to build, there's cause for concern. No bombing campaign is likely to destroy Iran's nuclear engineers. Whatever plants we destroy, they can rebuild.
A decision to bomb should turn less, then, on when we think Iran will "go nuclear" (something we are sure to get wrong) or how effective our first strike might be (also a matter of uncertainty) than on what we and Iran are likely to do with the time such a strike might conceivably buy. Although there's some confusion about what we might do--bomb indefinitely or persuade the Iranian people that we are on their side--what Iran might attempt is pretty clear.
First, since February, senior Iranian officials have repeatedly warned that Iran would retaliate against any U.S. strike by blocking the Strait of Hormuz. All oil shipped from the Persian Gulf on tankers exits through this channel. If successful, such a move would choke off international access to roughly 40 percent of the world's oil exports--an economic disaster for every oil importer worldwide.
Second, we know Tehran is willing to use terrorist proxies against Israel, Iraq, the United States, and any of its friends.
Finally, Iran has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and to block further international nuclear inspections if it is sanctioned or otherwise prevented from exercising its "inalienable right" to make "peaceful" nuclear fuel. If Iran were to do this, a cascade of proliferation--starting with Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey--could easily commence.
The United States and its friends could hedge against these threats, and should already be doing so. The first move is to reduce the vulnerability of energy exports from the Persian Gulf. Oil experts have determined that all but the 2 to 3 million barrels a day that Iran itself ships through the Strait of Hormuz could be piped instead to ports on the Red Sea and the Sea of Oman. Pipelines from Iraq, past Kuwait, through Saudi Arabia to the Red Sea, the UAE, and Oman are already in place; they only need to be connected.
This could be done by reopening the Iraqi pipeline across Saudi Arabia that the Saudis seized from Saddam in 2001, and by having anti-drag agents (chemical additives that increase the flow of existing oil pipelines as much as 60 percent) at the ready. It also would require building relatively short spur lines to integrate Omani and UAE pipelines with the Saudi pipeline system (something now under discussion). Most of this project could be completed in roughly 18 months for less than a billion dollars. In addition, it would be useful to build up a stock of oil on ships at sea as a floating reserve. This could provide a supply cushion for several weeks, allowing a smooth transition to moving oil by pipe rather than through the strait.
Insurance underwriters could discreetly back this project by raising premiums on oil shipments through the strait and lowering them for oil that bypasses the strait. This would make good business sense. If Iran were to block the strait, the proposed bypass system would substantially mitigate the damage to the U.S. economy.
The second step the United States and its allies should take is to make sure that if the Strait of Hormuz is blocked, the pain falls mainly on Iran. Some 80 to 90 percent of Iran's foreign export earnings and up to 75 percent of its revenues depend on Iranian oil getting through the strait. Iran is reported to have roughly $50 billion in foreign cash reserves. Some believe this is enough to keep the regime (and the 100 elite families that run it) operating for one to two years. But if the U.S. Treasury and allied financial ministries act in concert, it's unclear how much of this money Iran would have access to.
Assume the world's strategic oil reserves continue to grow (the United States alone has 687 million barrels in its government reserves and our key allies are not far behind). Allow a decline in oil demand due to higher prices. And assume the availability of a million barrels a day of surplus pumping capacity in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. Clearly, under this set of assumptions, the importance of Tehran's influence over the energy flowing through the strait begins to wane. More important, Iran would be less able to threaten commerce through the strait than would the United States and its friends, depriving the mullahs of their most important power source: Iran's oil export revenues.
To drive this prospect home, the United States and its allies should also increase their air and naval presence in the Gulf region. One nonprovocative way to do this would be incrementally to increase those substantial international forces already deployed in the region to enforce conventions against drug and slave trading, terrorist transit, and smuggling. Russia and China may disapprove, but most of NATO's navies (and those of smaller states like New Zealand) are actively supporting these operations already, as are most of the Gulf states, including Iran. Neither Moscow nor Beijing has a veto over enforcing these conventions and augmenting naval forces in the Gulf.
Finally, it would make sense to propose country-neutral restraints on nuclear proliferation. France has recommended that, if states violate their inspection obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and withdraw from the treaty, they ought to be held responsible for their transgressions. France has also highlighted a proposal to prohibit states that violate these obligations from making nuclear fuel for a decade, and to require that they allow intrusive wide-area surveillance inspections as provided under the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA's) Additional Protocol, which Iran has signed. Washington should back these sensible ideas and start making the case that Iran must act to restore its good name after having been found in violation of its IAEA inspections obligations.
Washington also should join with its friends to fund and staff an IAEA wide-area surveillance unit that could be on the ready for cases like Iran (a $10-30 million a year proposition). Such inspections, if Iran were ever to agree to them, would be far from foolproof, but they would help slow down and ferret out illicit nuclear activities. Standing up such an inspection unit would also demonstrate that we were serious about demanding more nuclear transparency of Tehran, and that we had some clear equitable criteria by which we might increase or relax pressure on Iran. Certainly, if we took these prudential steps now, we would be in far better position to demand that the mullahs either comply with their nonproliferation obligations or face tough measures, starting with a regime-threatening oil quarantine. Getting ourselves to this point, far more than any bombing campaign, is what we should be aiming for.
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center and co-editor with Patrick Clawson of Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (Strategic Studies Institute, 2005).