Reports of the crash of the US ultra-secret unmanned stealth spy aircraft, the RQ-170 Sentinel, deep within Iran reflects a dangerous escalation between the adversaries at a time when neither can afford another confrontation, and underlines the urgent need to explore diplomatic options.
There is a dispute over what brought down the state-of-the-art spy plane near the Iranian city of Kashmar (some 225km from the Afghan border and over 800km from Kandahar, from where the drone was reportedly launched). The Iranians claim that they used cyber tools to take over the aircraft’s controls and forced it to crash, while the US maintains it lost control due to a technical malfunction.
There is, however, no disagreement over the mission: to provide real-time intelligence of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities and, possibly, identify potential targets for an impending military attack; a Sentinel was similarly deployed just before the successful raid to kill Osama bin Laden. The Sentinel operation over Iran is particularly ominous, given the recent International Atomic Energy Agency report on Tehran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and the simultaneous ratcheting up of the rhetoric, notably from Israel, for exercising the military option.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, President of Iran. Photo: Bloomberg
However, the capture of the sophisticated reconnaissance platform has not only provided Iran with access to closely guarded secrets, but has also taken away the element of surprise essential for any military action. Even if Tehran had been caught off guard, there is no guarantee that a military attack would have successfully disarmed Iran’s nuclear weapon capability. On the contrary, it might provide an impetus to launch a crash course programme, as was the case with Iraq, following the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor.
Similarly, the imposition of additional sanctions, particularly by the US and European countries, are reaching a point of diminishing returns. These sanctions, aimed at the oil and gas industry, are likely to adversely affect the imposers rather than Iran. This is a risk that the precarious Western economies can ill-afford at this juncture.
Against this backdrop it might be time to give diplomacy another chance. There are a least two possible options: the first is to revisit the so-called Tehran Agreement (among Iran, Turkey and Brazil) and seek ways to update and reactivate the deal, which might bring Iran back to the negotiation table (see “Iran: no place for cowboy diplomacy”, Mint, 31 May 2010). However, for this deal to be revived, it would need the unstinting support of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), particularly the US, Britain and France.
A second option worth exploring is an attempt to convene a conference in 2012 “on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction”. While this does not specifically deal with the Iranian case, it is a useful opportunity to engage Iran and other key actors in the region (notably Israel) with a view to establishing a security dialogue and security arrangement that would not be premised on nuclear weapons. This option will be effective only if military action is eschewed and the UNSC permanent members back the proposed Middle East conference by ensuring constructive engagement of the key allies in the region.
Finally, if neither of these diplomatic options are acceptable or successful in preventing the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran then it would be essential to initiate a dialogue on nuclear deterrence in the region. Such a dialogue would have to consider the implications of Israel and, possibly, Iran’s nuclear ambiguity posture. Here the Indo-Pakistan deliberations, which predated the two sides going overtly nuclear in 1998, would be illustrative and, perhaps, relevant.
Irrespective of the nature of the dialogue, it would be imperative to try and establish a working deterrence relationship in the Middle East. For the only thing worse than the emergence of new nuclear weapon states in the Middle East is the deliberate or inadvertent use of nuclear weapons.
W. Pal Sidhu is senior fellow, Centre on International Cooperation at New York University.
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