Bracing for the next Cold War? A closer look at Iran

You will be hard pressed to find a commentator on Iran who thinks lines from a James Bond movie are insightful. But when M quips “Christ, I miss the Cold War,” in Casino Royale, she may not be too far off the mark, even if she wasn’t talking about Iran. Iran’s growing belligerence regarding the potential weaponization of their nuclear program should be considered real enough to produce real action.

What was so good about the Cold War? Not much really, but while few of us were old enough to remember, there was one thing that all analysts, even M, appreciated about it: it was predictable. Gone are the days when anything was as transparent as a leader repeatedly threatening other nations. Nor is it possible to find a leader who says he was fairly elected, but whose citizens clearly don’t want him, and have already tried to get rid of him but just need a bit more help.

Iraq was a new version of an old problem; unrest is still rampant there more than six years in and a clear end isn’t in view. Afghanistan is even more complex because the overthrow of its leadership was the original target, but now that they aren’t leading they seem to be more of a problem, not less. In both countries there are still major issues with convincing the public (of those countries, but also the ones supporting the wars abroad) that liberation is a virtue worth the costs.

The debate now between U.N. Security Council governments, as well as other European countries and Israel, is attempting to address how to handle the threat of Iran. Each country has different reasons to worry, and some may benefit from an increase in Iran’s power. The central debate, of course, is around anticipating Iran’s nuclear proliferation goals. So far Iran’s claim that their desire is to produce nuclear power, and not weapons, hasn’t done anything to appease skeptics. Then there are the different lengths each nation thinks are required in restricting Iran through sanctions and threats of military action, should it come to that.

Israel is the most threatened. Not only is it within reach of the mid-range missiles Iran tested this week, but Iranian president Ahmadinejad hasn’t given a single internationally-directed speech without expressing anti-Semitic sentiments and conspiracy theories.

Europe likely has the most to lose after Israel, should Iran develop nuclear weapons. While they aren’t within range yet, many in the intelligence community suggest Iran is already working on long-range capabilities. But if it did get to that point the U.S. would be equally threatened.

The biggest worry, and the reason why this is the most important foreign affairs issue of U.S. President Barack Obama’s term in office, is that some countries have a lot to gain should Iran become a bigger power. China is the clearest case. Beijing has an interest in not allowing anyone with such a desire to obtain nuclear weapons, but they have much to lose if tough economic sanctions are imposed on Iran. This potentially makes it difficult for the UNSC to pass sanctions because of China’s veto. Tougher still will be America and Europe getting through negotiations without isolating China.

What’s more, there are clear signs that Iran is taking steps to make agreements with other countries should tougher economic sanctions be enacted. Iran lacks the capacity to produce its own gasoline, and this would be the first supply restriction to place on them. This makes Venezuela, Iran’s latest ally, a concern deserving greater attention.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced at the start of September that Caracas would be supplying Iran with 20,000 barrels of gasoline a day. Further, the pact the two nations have made, which stipulates full military support for one another, is disconcerting. The benefit to Iran is clear: Venezuela reportedly has at least 50,000 tons of uranium ore on reserve; in exchange, Venezuela has sought help from Iran to become a nuclear power.

For a change we have a clear threat with a clear enemy, and although debate is possible about the required action, the threat is serious enough to know that tough action is a necessity.

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