Does America still have nuclear redlines for the Middle East, and will it act on them if they are crossed?
What has America learned over the last 40 years, since the1979 Iranian Revolution, in dealing with all the variations of 21st century Islamism?
Does the United States realize that Israel’s Begin Doctrine, never to allow an enemy to acquire nuclear weapons, is still very much in force? This is an existential issue, and Israel will act alone to enforce its own redline.
A few years ago, a senior Middle East military intelligence expert told me that Iran was interested in doing work on weapons of mass destruction in Syria that would be undetected because the IAEA and the West were solely focused on Iranian territory.
According to Ronen Bergman’s The Secret War with Iran, in 2007, an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Ali Reza Askari, who defected or was kidnapped from Turkey, confirmed that Iran had paid for a Syrian nuclear program built by North Korea.
In 2007, two American foreign policy redlines were crossed. The Israelis had shared intelligence with the US proving with a high level of certainty that the Syrian regime under future genocidal dictator Bashar Assad was close to completing a nuclear reactor.
The first American redline crossed was nuclear proliferation. The North Koreans, a rogue nation who had repeatedly lied to the United States over many administrations, had now built a nearly identical plutonium reactor to its own in Deir Al Zour, Syria. This was the ultimate challenge to the United States regarding nuclear weapons proliferation, which violated every American national security interest imperative.
The second redline was that the proliferation consisted of transactions we forbade between two of the worst state sponsors of terrorism in the world. Yaakov Katz, editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post, tells the story in all of its compelling details in Shadow Strike, which is essential reading for all Middle East watchers.
So what did the United States do?
It deliberated, and in the end was so hand-tied by the 2003 nuclear intelligence failure that claimed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein had a nuclear weapons program that it decided not to strike the Syrian reactor even with compelling evidence that it existed, was unprotected and was not yet hot. All Condoleezza Rice and the Bush administration could see – with the exception of US vice president Dick Cheney – was a third Middle East War, and the best they could offer was bringing it to the UN.
The message heard in Tehran and Pyongyang was that the Americans speak loudly, but will not act to stop nuclear proliferation. In fact, the US went right back to talking to the North Koreans, and tried to help shepherd an Israeli-Syrian deal that would give the Golan Heights back to Syria.
Fast-forward eight years to 2015 and the JCPOA (Iran Deal). The US decided to give Iran – a US State Department-designated state sponsor of terrorism – the right to enrich uranium, something not given to any other nation. All other countries that wanted nuclear power were provided at most with heavily regulated peaceful nuclear programs that couldn’t ever turn their reactors into producing nuclear weapons grade material.
Iran knew from the American decision not to attack the Syrian reactor in 2007 or the Iraqi reactor in 1981, and from the post-traumatic damage Americans experience to this day regarding its two never-ending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, that the US would not attack Iran over its nuclear program, despite lots of bluster and sanctions. The Iranians had all the leverage, and they knew it. Economic sanctions – unless exercised to the max – are not likely to get results when dealing with an Islamist totalitarian regime.
WHAT HAS Israel learned?
For 71 years, Israel has learned to never trust its existential security to anyone but itself. Israel took out the Syrian nuclear reactor itself. If it hadn’t, either ISIS or Hezbollah would be nuclear today! If Hezbollah were nuclear, that would mean Iran would already be a nuclear power. Where are the thanks to Israel for saving the West from calamity in 2007 or 1981?
The US has little recourse with North Korea, as they already possess an unknown number of nuclear weapons. They do not need a ballistic missile to hit South Korea, Japan or the US; they can fly it on a plane and release it like the US did in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or detonate it on an American coastline, paralyzing the electrical grid for months.
But unlike the North Koreans, the Iranians can still be stopped before they get to that point. Rejoining the JCPOA would guarantee that Iran has a clear path to nuclear bombs. It will also guarantee nuclear proliferation in response to a nuclear Iran in all the Sunni authoritarian states whose stability is not guaranteed, making the possibility of Sunni jihadists becoming nuclear a real threat in the future, if there is another Arab Winter.
The answer is to stop Iran now with sanctions that are fully enforced, including secondary sanctions on China and European companies. US President Donald Trump needs to allocate more financial and manpower resources to all of his government agencies to implement the full force of sanctions. According to some of my Congressional friends, this is not the case; only more money is needed now.
Unless the regime collapses, it will be a growing and increasingly dangerous menace, because its underlying fundamental goal is for a Shi’ite revolution to change the face of the Middle East from Sunni to Shi’ite. Possessing nuclear weapons and the destruction of Israel are an integral part of that strategy.
Imagine a US president looking back in the year 2028, having to deal at that time with an expansionist nuclear Iran that is threatening a nuclear Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and the UAE, with the world on edge, and saying “What were they thinking, that they allowed this to happen?”
The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA and The Forward.