Jan. 10 (Bloomberg) -- No one should doubt that President Barack Obama is prepared to use military force to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon if sanctions and diplomacy fail, the president’s former special assistant on Iran said.
Obama has “made it very clear” that he regards a nuclear-armed Iran as so great a threat to international security that “the Iranians should never think that there’s a reluctance to use the force” to stop them, Dennis Ross, who served two years on Obama’s National Security Council and a year as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s special adviser on Iran, said in an interview yesterday.
“There are consequences if you act militarily, and there’s big consequences if you don’t act,” said Ross, who in a two-hour interview at the Bloomberg Washington office laid out a detailed argument against those who say Obama would sooner “contain” a nuclear-armed Iran than strike militarily.
The administration considers the risks of permitting a nuclear-armed Iran to be greater than the risks of military action, said Ross, who last month rejoined the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a research group.
His comments came after Obama’s top civilian and uniformed defense officials warned that Iran developing a weapon would precipitate a U.S. strike.
“Are they trying to develop a nuclear weapon? No,” Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said in an interview broadcast Jan. 8 on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” program. “But we know they’re trying to develop a nuclear capability. And that’s what concerns us. And our red line to Iran is, do not develop a nuclear weapon.”
On the same program, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has been responsible for planning and positioning assets to be ready if ordered to take military action.
Clinton today condemned Iran’s move to begin enriching uranium to almost 20 percent U-235 at the underground Fordo underground site near the holy city of Qom, calling the step “contrary to its obligations” under United Nations Security Council resolutions. She rejected Iran’s assertion that it needs the uranium for its research reactor, and urged Iran to return to nuclear negotiations with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the U.S., France, Britain, China, Russia -- and Germany.
Peaceful Nuclear Energy
The U.S. “goal remains a comprehensive, negotiated solution that restores confidence in exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program while respecting Iran’s right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” Clinton said.
Iran, the world’s third largest oil exporter, says its nuclear program is strictly for civilian energy and medical research.
The International Atomic Energy Agency issued a report Nov. 8 citing what the UN watchdogs called evidence of nuclear activities without a non-military purpose. The U.S. has said the IAEA report bolsters the case that Iran is seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons even if it hasn’t yet made a decision to go forward with a bomb.
Ross said his conclusion from the IAEA report is that Iran has been careful “to not necessarily cross certain thresholds that they think could provoke responses, but I don’t think there’s a whole lot of doubt that they are embarked on a program that can produce at a certain point weapons.”
Containment Won’t Work
While some Iran analysts have suggested an alternative to military strikes would be to “contain” a nuclear Iran, much as the U.S. managed to live with a nuclear-armed Soviet Union, Ross said the analogy doesn’t translate to the situation in the Mideast. Nations in the region, he said, lack equivalent Cold War-era “ground-rules,” lines of communication and a protected second-strike nuclear capability, which deterred a surprise attack during U.S.-Soviet tensions.
A nuclear-armed Iran would set off an atomic arms race among neighbors, pose a risk of proliferation to other states or terrorist groups, and increase the chances of a nuclear strike resulting from miscalculation, he said.
“You don’t have any communication between the Israelis and the Iranians. You have all sorts of local triggers for conflict. Having countries act on a hair trigger -- where they can’t afford to be second to strike -- the potential for a miscalculation or a nuclear war through inadvertence is simply too high,” he said.
Ross acknowledged that a military strike would have serious consequences as well, including Iranian retaliation, either directly or through terrorist proxies around the world, a possible effort to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, and a spike in oil prices.
Understanding those risks, “nobody uses military force lightly,” he said, and “nobody commits to using military force one minute before they have to.”
Crude for February delivery climbed 0.9 percent, to settle at $102.24 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange amid growing concern the dispute between Iran and western governments may lead to a disruption in Middle East crude exports.
Ross underscored that U.S. willingness to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons affects decision-making in other countries that fear Iran, including Israel and Gulf states. If the White House abandoned a pledge to stop Iran made by Obama and President George W. Bush before him, the U.S. would lose all credibility, he said.
“I wouldn’t discount the possibility that the Israelis would act if they came to the conclusion that basically the world was prepared to live with Iran with nuclear weapons,” he said. “They certainly have the capability by themselves to set back the Iranian nuclear program.”
Ross said he believes there is still time for diplomacy to work, as the financial pain of sanctions may yet persuade Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program.
“Force is not inevitable,” he said. “Diplomacy is still the desired means. Pressure is an element of the means.”
Coordinated efforts to tighten penalties, including the European Union’s preliminary agreement on an oil embargo, new U.S. sanctions on the Central Bank of Iran, and pressure on Japan and South Korea to reduce their imports of Iranian oil, may finally persuade Iran’s leaders to give up the program rather than suffer a shutdown of their economy, Ross said.
Hitting Oil Revenue
The latest measures are the first “really affecting the core of their revenue, which is their sale of oil,” Ross said. Historically, “when they’re really pressured, they look for ways out.”
The leaders of Islamic Republic of Iran only accepted a cease-fire with Iraq, halted the assassination of Iranian dissidents in Europe, and abandoned the enrichment of uranium in 2003 when “it wasn’t worth the cost” anymore, Ross noted.
The latest round of punishing sanctions target oil sales, which fund a majority of Iran’s government revenues, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Iran is “feeling pain in a much more dramatic way” than ever, Ross said.
He dismissed threats by certain Iranian officials to retaliate against oil sanctions by closing the Strait of Hormuz, through which one-fifth of the world’s oil transits, as “bluster” aimed to send a message at home and abroad, as Iranian leaders vie for power in a struggle that Ross said is as intense as any since the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.
The IAEA yesterday confirmed that Iran has begun enriching uranium to as much as 20 percent U-235 at the underground Fordo underground site near the holy city of Qom, as Iranian leaders had pledged to do last year. The site is monitored by IAEA inspectors to detect any attempt to enrich uranium to the 90 percent level necessary for a nuclear bomb.
“There really is no justification for it,” Ross said of the latest enrichment activities. “I don’t think there’s a whole lot of doubt that they are embarked on a program that can produce, at a certain point, weapons.”
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