Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Cost-Benfit Analysis of Hitting Iran

It's received (relatively) little attention here in the U.S., but there's a growing consensus among our Persian Gulf allies that military force will be required to halt Iran's nuclear program.

That sobering assessment was echoed publicly last week, in remarks by the UAE's Ambassador to the U.S., Yousef al-Otaiba. Speaking to the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, Mr. al-Otaiba endorsed the idea of a military strike against Iran, to prevent that nation from obtaining nuclear weapons:

"I think it's a cost-benefit analysis," Mr. al-Otaiba said. "I think despite the large amount of trade we do with Iran, which is close to $12 billion … there will be consequences, there will be a backlash and there will be problems with people protesting and rioting and very unhappy that there is an outside force attacking a Muslim country; that is going to happen no matter what."

"If you are asking me, 'Am I willing to live with that versus living with a nuclear Iran?,' my answer is still the same: 'We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.' I am willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the U.A.E."

Al-Otaiba's comments were the most candid to date from a senior Arab official. While other diplomats from the region have expressed similar thoughts, they have been in private conversations with their U.S. counterparts.

Ambassador al-Otaiba's willingness to deliver his assessment publicly underscores growing regional concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions--and Washington's inability (or unwillingness) to counter them. In fact, he predicted that key governments in the region would dump their alliance with Washington--in favor of closer ties with Iran--if the U.S. is unwilling to take on Tehran:

[Mr. al-Otaiba] said that his country would be the last Arab country to cut a deal with Iran, if Tehran were to go nuclear. But he predicted other wealthy Arab states in the Gulf would dump their alliances with the U.S. in favor of ties with Tehran if President Obama does not stop the Islamic republic's quest to become a nuclear power.

"There are many countries in the region that if they lack assurance that the U.S. is willing to confront Iran, they will start running for cover with Iran," he said. "Small, rich, vulnerable countries do not want to stick their finger in the big boy's eye if they do not have the backing of the United States."

The ambassador also said that "talk of containment and deterrence really concerns me and makes me very nervous."

It's also rather obvious that Mr. al-Otaiba wasn't "freelancing" or speaking out of turn. In fact, it's almost certain that his remarks were approved (or coordinated) in advance, at the highest levels of the UAE government. And, quite clearly, they were aimed at the Obama Administration, reminding the White House that our regional allies are running out of patience with the sanctions game. If the U.S. isn't prepared to act--and soon--it risks not only a nuclear Iran, but the loss of key allies in the region. Any bets on how that would impact the price of oil?

In a separate interview with the Washington Times, former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton said al-Otaiba's comments "reflect the views of many Arab states in the Persian Gulf region." He said our regional allies "know and worry" at Obama Administration policies won't stop Iran. According to Mr. Bolton, the gulf states increasingly regard a pre-emptive strike "as the only option."

From our perspective, there were three remarkable elements in Ambassador al-Otaiba's speech. First, while he didn't exactly encourage it, the UAE official didn't rule out the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. Reading between the lines of his remarks, it's clear that the Emirates would prefer a U.S. campaign, but absent that, the gulf states are willing to tacitly support anyone going after Iran.

It's also worth noting that the Ambassador's speech came less than two months after a British report that Saudi Arabia would allow Israeli warplanes use its airspace for a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. While that account was subsequently denied, the Mr. al-Otaiba's remarks lend some credence to that original U.K. account. As Iran comes closer to getting the bomb, its neighbors are growing nervous, and willing to sign off on almost any plan to destroy Tehran's nuclear facilities.

We were also struck by the UAE's willingness (as expressed by Ambassador al-Otaiba) to absorb the blows that would come in a conflict between Iran and the U.S. As a key American partner in the region--and a beddown location for U.S. air assets--Abu Dhabi would almost certainly be subjected to Iranian missile strikes, carrying the high probability of civilian casualties. And, as the ambassador noted, his country also stands to lose economically, through the loss of trade with Iran, and the potential impact of UAE oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz.

Finally, Mr. al-Otaiba's Aspen speech is the clearest call yet (from the Arab world) for action against Iran. With a front-row seat for Tehran's nuclear drive, officials in the UAE understand that Iran will not stop until it acquires nuclear weapons. They also recognize U.S. policies towards Iran as a failure, dating back to the second Bush Administration and even earlier. In unusually blunt language, Ambassador al-Otaiba reminded his audience that the days of "kicking the Iran can" down the road are over, and it's time to begin planning for less palatable options. His candor is commendable. We only wonder if anyone in Washington is listening.


Rich said...

No coincidence that Brazil and Turkey have already placed one foot in the Iranian camp. The question is whether the Obama Administration even sees that such a "containment" strategy would represent the long-term disaster for the "moderate" Arab states as Yousef al-Otaiba describes - leaving them with little choice but accommodation. He was actually telling Obama that the prospect of relying on a US defensive umbrella just wouldn't cut it.
That said, Netanyahu did not exactly appear disappointed after his WH meeting late last week. Perhaps Gates was not just doing the bluffing on behalf of his boss two weeks ago when he said that all options are still on the table. Maybe they are.

scott.vance said...

I am always bothered by the willingness of the Arab states to press the US to the front of any conflict, while they remain quietly in the background - reaping the benefits while risking little. Certainly Iran should be dealt with; certainly eliminating Iranian nuclear capabilities is in the US interest; also as certainly however, is the fact that it is in the Arab states best interest to deal with Iran. Let them demonstrate the courage of their convictions and lead from the front for once. Form an Arab state coalition, seek US backing and support for action, and then go deal with the problem!