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Iran’s Nuclear Program: Policy Options for the United States

Panel Discusses Iran's Nuclear Program and U.S. Policy Options at the June 3, 2007 JINSA Board Meeting

Marnina Cowan

National Defense University Professor of Security Policy John Sigler, began the discussion by explaining that the problem with choosing one policy option over t e other is that there are “two clocks ticking [with regards to Iran]. One is the nuclear clock, which is ticking very quickly and the other is the reform clock which is ticki g at a more glacial pace. These two clocks are not synchronized and the problem for our policy makers is, how do you deal with that?” Reform is the more desired optio , but the nuclear threat is increasing at a much more rapid rate than the amount of reform taking place in Iran. Due to these circumstances, Sigler, a retired U.S. Navy re r admiral, indicated that a military response using the “Joint Operations Planning System (JOPS),” might be safer. However, before initiating the strike, the military a d political impact of the strike should be assessed, Sigler explaine

Before discussing the U.S. military options and planning considerations towards Iran, Sigler described the current relationship between the both countries. He explained that the U.S. has not had diplomatic relations with Iran since the 1979 American embassy take over. Current U.S policy towards Iran is based on four principles—Iran’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist, its state sponsored terrorism, its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and, of late, its involvement in Iraq.

R. Adm. John Sigler, USN (ret.)
Sigler described different levels of violence that are presented to the president when deciding to organize a military strike. These include a show of force, coercive diplomacy, demonstration attacks, actual strikes against targets within the country, counter proliferation operations against nuclear targets and regime replacement. He also stressed the importance of remembering to consider what will happen if any of these plans fail.

What would a potential military strike in Iran look like? According to Sigler, in the first 24 hours, 200-300 sorties and secret operations missions (both direct and indirect) would take place. Hundreds of different kinds of aircraft, long-range air bombers, unmanned drones and electronic warfare would be used. The army would target nuclear laboratories, milling and mining facilities, processing and production plants and other storage and transportation units. Iran’s hard and deeply buried targets would make intelligence a key issue in this campaign. According to Sigler, a military strike would “degrade their nuclear capability for about five years,” and may lead to “asymmetric attacks (terrorism) towards the U.S. and further interference in Iraq.”

Kenneth Timmerman
The second panelist, investigative journalist Kenneth Timmerman, addressed the Iranian point of view and potential Iranian response to a U.S. military strike. For the past 20 years, Timmerman has closely followed the Iranian government’ support for terrorism, its production and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. He has testified in government courts and appeared on numerous television and radio shows.

According to Timmerman, the Iranians have “crossed the red line.” The IAEA has shown that “they have mastered the technologies of making nuclear fuel” and are enriching the product to five percent. “They have gone beyond the point of no return.” Nothing will prevent the Iranian government from achieving its goals of creating “nuclear weapons and long-range missiles to put Israel at risk and to drive America from the Persian Gulf,” Timmerman said.

The “second half of the equation, what we don’t know” about the Iranian nuclear production is also very important, Timmerman stressed. “We don’t know whether or where they have clandestine facilities.” There is a shared international belief that Iran does have secret enrichment plants where they take the nuclear product that has been enriched to four or five percent to other hidden facilities where the product is enriched to bombs grade and then made into nuclear weapons.

After an Iranian strike, Timmerman claimed that the Iranian and Russian foreign ministers would fly to New York for an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council. At the council, they would both argue that Iran’s sovereignty had been violated, and that there had been an unprovoked military strike on their territory. As sovereign members of the UN they have their right to self-protection and therefore will have already launched their nuclear missiles. The clandestine facilities could serve as launching points for missiles in response to a U.S. attack. Timmerman warned that the Iranians could currently be storing nuclear weapons there that are ready to launch. This explains why the U.S. government is currently reluctant to organize a military strike.

Instead of choosing a military strike, America could, Timmerman explained, “help the pro-freedom movements inside of Iran, the democracy clock.” For example, the U.S. could support Solidarity Iran, a new pro-freedom movement in Iran that has realized the need to fight against the regime. They will call for regime change, freedom of expression, equal rights and ability to negotiate with the government (civil society demands). Solidarity Iran is not fighting alone, according to Timmerman. The women’s rights movement, the student movement, the labor movement and the ethnic minorities movement are considered the four most active movements working against the regime. Timmerman explained that the regime is terrified of having civil society develop in Iran and therefore working together with the various pro-freedom movements (that create civil society) might be the best way for the U.S. to deal with Iran. In addition, if a war were to take place between the U.S. and Iran (while the U.S. is helping the pro-freedom movements), the Iranians would be very supportive of the Americans. Timmerman warned, however, that if the America continues to do nothing to help the pro-freedom movements, they would not receive Iranian support during a war.

“Why don’t we actually start doing the thing they fear the most? They are not afraid of economic sanctions or military strikes, they’re afraid that we will help the people of Iran to achieve their freedom,” Timmerman challenged the audience.

Jonathan Schanzer
The third panelist, Jonathan Schanzer, was former Senior Terrorist Finance Analyst for the Office of Intelligence and Analysis at the Treasury Department. Now the director of policy for the Jewish Policy Center, Schanzer addressed the role of the U.S treasury in Iran and the extent to which it has been effective.

Schanzer described Iran as the central banker of terrorism because it funds Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade received funds from Iran, on condition of attack. Iran’s nuclear proliferation is a growing International threat. Schanzer said, a “nuclear Iran is an unacceptable direct threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia and its oil fields as well as the European allies and the U.S., if Iran would do the unthinkable and provide nuclear weapons to the terrorist organizations it supports.” The Treasury Department has acknowledged the threat posed by Iran and has been looking for ways to weaken Iran economically—in Schanzer’s words, “to make Iran play ball.”

Recent Treasury Department actions have succeeded in forcing the closure of a number of banks and Hezbollah organizations (Iran’s proxies in Lebanon) that sustain terrorism, according to Schanzer. The first success was the freezing of Bank Saderat in September 2006, which Iran had been using to send money to branches of the bank in Beirut where the money was distributed to Hezbollah, Hamas and the Islamic Jihad. Over the past five years, $50 million has been transferred through Bank Saderat to fund terrorism. Schanzer pointed out that usually when a bank is frozen, nothing is done to alert the public except for posting a small description of the bank on the Department’s website. This time, however, when Saderat was frozen, the Treasury Department did more than just place a small description on their website—instead, they “went around the world explaining why.” By going out and publicizing the freezing of the bank, other banks became aware of Saderat’s actions and ended their relationships with it as well.

Bank Sepah represents another Treasury Department success. This Iranian bank was the top bank for Iran’s missile proliferation. The UN Security Council recognized the bank’s terrorist activities, Schanzer explained, and passed Resolution 1747, in March 2007, requiring every member state to break off relations with Bank Sepah. Schanzer also noted that the Treasury Department has made freezing out Hezbollah a top priority. It has already designated three different organizations as having been Hezbollah organizations funded by Iran, thus bringing them closer to completely eradicating another Iranian funded terrorist organization.

There are two problems with the Treasury Department’s process of identifying banks and organizations that sponsor terrorism—first, not enough banks have been designated (because of State Department over involvement) and second, the Department needs, as Schanzer put it, “better metrics.” Their current use of sanctions is ineffective. Instead, Schanzer believed that the government should be warning terrorists, “We’ve frozen X millions/billions of dollars” and then, perhaps the Iranian government would become afraid. Schanzer stressed the need for America to “get on board” and freeze these organizations. Unfortunately, Iranians are accustomed to economic depravation so they are not as aware of the Iranian banks and organizations that are using their money for terrorism.

Schanzer argued that the sanctions are also unsuccessful because the UN and other countries refuse to use them. These countries still have positive relationships with Iran and are not willing to lose their relationship by following America’s lead and imposing sanctions. Schanzer suggested offering short-term benefits such as oil benefits from Saudi Arabia, to those countries might make them more willing to use sanctions and forfeit their beneficial relationship with Iran. Ultimately, “we may have to pay out of our pockets, but it will be worth it.”

There have been many positive financial actions taken to show a growing divestment movement throughout the nation, Schanzer noted. Individuals and investors on the state and local level have begun to divest from Iran simply because they believe that it’s the best thing to do. Schanzer hopes to see a “trickle up” movement where individuals will create a movement to encourage congress to “tighten it’s strangle hold on Iran to show the government that it doesn’t matter about that humanitarian disaster that would take pace in the short term, as long as we are able to stop Iran from getting the nuclear weapons and from funding terrorism.”

Michael Shannon
The final panelist, pollster Michael Shannon, recently conducted a series of surveys addressing U.S. and European public opinion regarding Iran. Shannon pointed out that the majority of the public is supportive of American involvement in Iran and believes that Iran desires nuclear power to create nuclear weapons. The polls showed that the biggest U.S. concern is that the Iranian government has refused to allow international inspections of their nuclear facilities. Unlike the American public, Shannon’s polling revealed a pronounced lack of concern about Iran among Europeans. Shannon explained that Europeans are most focused on Israel’s safety and continued existence. Despite the European general disinterest in Iran there has been growing support for diplomatic sanctions on Iran.

Shannon said his surveys led him to conclude that Americans favor “diplomacy, divestment and dithering.” Questions that indicated public opinion on the desirability of the range of options for the U.S. and European Union revealed less support for a military strike in both America and Europe and stronger support for the use of sanctions.