Nov. 14 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential candidates are trying to paint President Barack Obama, who ordered the killing of Osama bin Laden and helped bring down Muammar Qaddafi, as weak on foreign policy for failing to halt Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon.
The main solutions they prescribe -- economic sanctions, covert operations, military coordination with allies and the threat of military action as a last resort -- are the same policies adopted by the U.S. and its allies under Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, and none of those measures have stopped Iran’s suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney led the charge in a Nov. 12 debate, seizing on Iran as “President Obama’s greatest failing from a foreign policy standpoint.”
Both Romney and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said they’d use military force if needed to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. Businessman Herman Cain and Texas Governor Rick Perry said they’d make economic sanctions tougher. Gingrich called for covert operations and coordination with Israel.
Over the last decade, Obama and Bush and allies of the U.S. have tried incentives, pressure and coercion for a diplomatic resolution. Iran asserts its nuclear program is for non-military purposes, such as electricity generation and fuel for medical reactors.
Sanctions have hobbled Iran’s economy, an assassination campaign which Iran blames on Israel has targeted Iranian nuclear scientists, sabotage such as the Stuxnet software virus damaged its uranium-enrichment centrifuges, and military coordination has increased between the U.S. and its anti-Iran Persian Gulf allies.
UN Agency Report
The result: a Nov. 8 report by the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency found that Iran’s nuclear weapons work has continued. The IAEA said Iran was designing a warhead to place atop a missile with the range to reach Israel and concluded that the host of international efforts have only slowed the program.
“When it comes to policy options, we’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel for about 15 years,” Michael Rubin, an Iran specialist at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington who also instructs U.S. military officers on Iranian strategy and decision-making, said in an interview.
As for the military option, “no one wants to go down the Iraq road again,” Rubin said, referring to the 2003 invasion that found no weapons of mass destruction and saddled the U.S. with a long and costly entanglement. Politicians and officials from both parties are just arguing “about accelerating strategies which haven’t worked,” he said.
Romney said in the debate that the president should make clear the U.S. is willing “to take military action.”
Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have said military force is never off the table. Carrying out such a threat is not as simple as Romney made it sound. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta last week said air strikes would only delay, not halt, Iran’s program. Already, many of Iran’s nuclear facilities, like North Korea’s, are buried deep underground.
Sanctions have tightened under Obama. Stuart Eizenstat, a former Undersecretary of State and Deputy Secretary of Treasury under President Bill Clinton, praised them as the “strongest ever,” foreclosing Iran “from any dollar or Euro transactions.”
The program has “clearly hurt the Iranian economy,” Eizenstat said in an interview. What it hasn’t done is halt the nuclear program.
Nothing Obama, or Bush before him, has tried has “accomplished its critical objective - rolling back Iran’s nuclear program,” Michael Singh, who served as Bush’s National Security Council director for Iran, said in an interview.
Steps Not Taken
Obama said yesterday, at a news conference in Honolulu, that the U.S. is examining possible additional sanctions. Steps not yet taken include international sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and imports of refined gasoline, and sanctioning its Central Bank, which would block foreign companies that do business with Iran from doing business in the U.S.
Cain and Perry called for such action. Eizenstat, who is co-chairing the Iran Task Force at the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy institute, said it may be time.
“We’re at a critical inflection point where we should be willing to take a risk of what it would do to Iran’s economy and the international economy,” to avert the need for military action, he said.
Iran is the second-largest oil producer in the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries after Saudi Arabia. About 15.5 million barrels of oil a day, about a sixth of global consumption, flows through the Strait of Hormuz between Iran and Oman, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Japan, China, India and South Korea are the top four importers of Iranian oil, according to the U.S. Energy Department.
Successive U.S. administrations haven’t targeted Iran’s Central Bank, which handles oil revenue, because of the pain it would inflict on Iranian citizens -- and on world oil markets. Sanctions on the Central Bank might have an effect similar to an oil embargo, causing an explosion in prices.
After years of sanctions, “we’ve reached a point where almost all of our ability to impose new ones is exhausted,” said Peter Beutel, president of trading advisory company Cameron Hanover Inc. in New Canaan, Connecticut.
Even Central Bank sanctions might not have much impact because Iran has become expert at evading them, Beutel said. “It’s not a dollar-denominated world like it once was,” he said. “They could trade in Chinese and Russian currencies, which wouldn’t be ideal, but would work.”
“There’s nothing left we can take from Iran that will hurt them, short of the military option,” he said.
Advocates of a military strike point to Israel’s successful air attacks to wipe out nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, as candidate and former Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania did in the debate.
Colin Powell, a retired four-star general and secretary of state during President George W. Bush’s administration, decried such talk. “This kind of discussion seems to me just raises the temperature and makes it that much more difficult to try to find a solution to the problem,” he said yesterday on ABC News’ “This Week with Christiane Amanpour.”
At the Pentagon Nov. 10, Panetta warned of “unintended consequences” from military action, which might include retaliatory attacks on U.S. and Israeli targets by Iran and terrorist groups it supports, including Hezbollah and Hamas.
‘Mowing the Grass’
“It’s a really bad idea,” said Joshua Rovner, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, in a telephone interview. Virtually every war game that’s explored the military option for Iran concluded it would be ineffective and too costly, he and other military planners said.
Aaron David Miller, who worked on Mideast policy for six U.S. administrations, likens striking Iranian nuclear sites to “mowing the grass.”
“Unless a strike succeeded in permanently crippling the Iranian capacity to produce and weaponize fissile material, the grass would only grow back again. And no strike -- or even series of strikes -- can accomplish this,” Miller, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine Nov. 8.
Retired officials who’ve participated in simulations said Iranian torpedo boats or anti-ship missiles might sink U.S. aircraft carriers, target an oil tanker or mine the Strait of Hormuz, sending shipping insurance rates and oil prices rocketing. Iran might retaliate against the U.S., Israel, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as Bahrain and Qatar, both home to U.S. military facilities.
“The price of oil would spike exponentially, further undermining and sabotaging world markets,” wrote Miller, a result that would be “truly global and catastrophic.”
The Obama administration has begun installing missile defenses around Iran and bolstering the deterrent capability of Iran’s neighbors.
In September, the Obama administration notified Congress of a four-year, $123 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates.
The White House also wants to sell the UAE advanced munitions that can penetrate reinforced targets such as bunkers hiding Iran’s nuclear facilities, according to a diplomatic official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the unannounced proposal.
Elliott Abrams, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush and assistant secretary of State for Ronald Reagan, said the choice might come down to whether it’s better to bomb Iran or let Iran have the bomb.
“That is the right debate to have,” said Abrams, now a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “Not because we want a candidate to declare war during a TV debate, but because we’ve reached the stage now -- and this report by the IAEA is a turning point -- when there ought to be a serious discussion of what the options are.”
--with assistance from Mark Shenk in New York and Anthony Capaccio in Washington. Editors: Steven Komarow, Terry Atlas
To contact the reporters on this story: Indira Lakshmanan in Washington at email@example.com, and John Walcott in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Silva at email@example.com