Saturday, January 6, 2007

The nuclear crisis boiling away under the surface for the last three years with Iran has finally erupted. Over the next three to six months, expect things to get much worse, with a very real possibility of a war could spread far beyond the Persian Gulf. How we got here was entirely predictable — as is the path to a violent future.

Caving in to intense pressure from the CIA and the foreign policy establishment, the White House has refused to do the one thing that could have headed off this crisis: support the rights of the Iranian people and their struggle for freedom against this clerical tyranny. And now, it is almost — almost — too late.

The immediate trigger for the crisis occurred just two days before Christmas, when the United Nations Security Council finally passed a binding resolution to impose sanctions on Iran because of its illegal nuclear program.

Many U.N. critics (and I am one), find UNSC Resolution 1737 to be a tepid move. While on the surface it bans nuclear and missile-related trade with Iran, Iran has already received most of the know-how it needs for its programs, and the rogue traders it works with won’t be deterred from supplying whatever else Iran needs.

More significant than the U.N. action was the Iranian reaction. “This resolution will not harm Iran and those who backed it will soon regret their superficial act,” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said with typical bluster on Christmas Eve. “[W]e will celebrate our atomic achievements in February,” he added. In earlier statements, he claimed Iran would have a big nuclear “surprise” to unveil to the world by the end of the Persian year, March 20. Now it would appear he is accelerating the tempo.

In early December, Mr. Ahmadinejad announced Iran had completed its uranium enrichment experiments and was preparing to install 3,000 production centrifuges at its now-declared enrichment plant in Natanz, in central Iran.

His announcement fell exactly within the timeline Israeli nuclear experts have derived from Iran’s public declarations to the International Atomic Energy Agency and the on-site inspections by IAEA experts in Iran. If this timeline holds, Iran will have the capability to make its first bomb by September 2008 — just in time for the U.S. presidential elections.

A second reaction to the U.N. Security Council resolution came from Mr. Ahmadinejad’s top nuclear adviser, Ali Larijani. On Christmas Eve, he said the regime now planned to accelerate the installation of the production centrifuges. “From Sunday morning [Dec. 24], we will begin activities at Natanz — the site of 3,000-centrifuge machines — and we will drive it with full speed. It will be our immediate response to the resolution,” Iran’s Kayhan paper quoted him as saying.

The United States and Britain have begun a quiet buildup of their naval forces in the Persian Gulf, with the goal of keeping the Strait of Hormuz open to international shipping if a crisis develops.

The spark point of open military confrontation could occur in many different ways. The Iranians, for example, might escalate their current military involvement in Iraq. (A clear sign Iran is contemplating such a move was revealed recently when the U.S. captured four Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers during a raid on the headquarters of an Iraqi Shi’ite leader in Baghdad).

The U.S. could and should respond to this Iranian provocation. One option would be to attack Revolutionary Guards bases near the Iraqi border that are involved in aiding the Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

As further steps, Iran might choose to launch “swarming” attacks against U.S. warships in the Persian gulf, or to attack a foreign-flagged oil tanker carrying Iraqi or Kuwaiti oil, or to increase rocket and missile supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon to spark another diversionary war against Israel.

There are scores of ways such a scenario could evolve. But we are heading toward a direct military confrontation with Iran — an Iran which could be a nuclear power, and certainly will be a suspected nuclear power, in a matter of months, if not weeks.

There is no easy way of walking this back. Even the insane Baker-Hamilton proposal of a direct dialogue with Iran will not get them to abandon their nuclear program, which this regime in Tehran has clearly identified as a strategic asset it is willing to make great sacrifices to develop and protect.

So fasten your seat belts. We are in for a rough ride.

Kenneth R. Timmerman was nominated for the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize along with John Bolton for his work on Iran. He is executive director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran and author of “Countdown to Crisis: the Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran” (Crown Forum: 2005).

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