Washington (CNSNews.com) - If Iran obtains a nuclear weapon it would likely set off a dangerous arms race in the Middle East and increase the probability that terrorists will acquire weapons of mass destruction, speakers argued at a forum sponsored by the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C.
"Iran poses the single largest foreign policy challenge," said Ilan Berman. "They pose a direct challenge to our goals in the war on terrorism."
Berman is the vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council and an expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation.
Americans can expect a number of things to happen soon, Berman warned. First, countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, who are "very nervous" over Iran's alleged goal to obtain nuclear weapons, will escalate an arms race in the region.
"Iran's radical president has said he would spread this technology as far as he can," said Berman, warning of proliferation to states and terrorists. Strategic blackmail would ensue with the country making good on its threat to shut the Strait of Hormuz, Berman said. An estimated 13 million barrels of oil or 80 percent of the world's supply transit the Strait on a daily basis, earning the waterway the nickname of "jugular vein" of the world's economy.
"It would be a tragedy if we prolonged the life of this regime unnecessarily. Iran acquiring a nuclear bomb would do that," Berman added.
Van D. Hipp, Jr., former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Army, said that the discovery by U.S. intelligence officers of an Iranian laptop provided one of the most critical pieces of analyzing the Iranian threat. "The laptop revealed blueprints for atomic test facilities," said Hipp. Other documents gave proof that "they've been tinkering with the nose cones of missiles to accommodate nukes."
In 1990 Hipp was sworn in as deputy assistant secretary of the Army. He was later named by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney to be the principal deputy general counsel of the Navy. He currently serves as chairman of American Defense International.
Of particular concern to Hipp is the ongoing cooperation between Iran and North Korea, especially in the areas of weapons design and funding. Their relationship with Russia also raises serious concerns," Hipp said.
"The Soviet Union employed 60,000 scientists working at 100 bio-weapon facilities across the country," he said. "They were working on the plague, smallpox, hemorrhagic fevers. Where are those folks today and who are they working for?" asked Hipp.
Former C.I.A. staff officer Phil Giraldi disagreed with much of the analysis delivered by Berman and Hipp. Iran poses a threat to the world, he said, "but I do not believe it constitutes a major threat to the U.S. specifically.
"Last year, undoubtedly, speakers here (at the Conservative Political Action Conference) promoted the war in Iraq," Giraldi said. "All were wrong. Iraq was no threat ... Now we're hearing the same things about Iran."
Giraldi served 16 years as staff officer. Prior to becoming the chief of base in Barcelona, Spain, he was involved in intelligence collection and counter-terrorism operations across the Middle East and Europe. Giraldi writes for The American Conservative, a print magazine that contends the conservative movement has been "hijacked" by dangerous "Neocons."
"If Iran used the bomb, they would face hundreds of Israeli nuclear warheads, and thousands in the U.S.," Giraldi said. "Iran would be annihilated and would cease to exist. They know this."
Giraldi said he had "no illusions" about Iraq or its "dangerous and delusional" president. However, he warned that a military strike against the country was neither realistic nor practical, and could unleash a chain of unintended consequences.
Iran could make the situation in Iraq "untenable" by increasing its support of Shiite insurgents already linked to Iran, Giraldi said. They also could load cruise missiles obtained from Ukraine and Shahab missiles with biological and chemical payloads, he added. The likely targets would be U.S. military bases and strategic sites in Iraq, Israel, Qatar, Bahrain and elsewhere, according to Giraldi, who also warned that a shutdown of the Strait of Hormuz could send oil skyrocketing to as much as $300 a barrel.
The "scariest" scenario, Giraldi said, was that Iran would assassinate Pakistan's President Pervez Musharraf and Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai. Fundamentalist Islamic governments would spread, he asserted, adding that Pakistan's nuclear weapons would fall into the hands of radicals.
"Is this all worth it? No," said Giraldi. "It's not good policy to go to war on a basis of a 'what if' situation."
Giraldi said, "The Soviet Union was contained for 40 years."
"Ronald Reagan was able to destroy it without firing a single shot." Giraldi said of Reagan's strategies, which included economic inducements, political pressure and broad-based support for programs that encouraged political evolution. Those programs will work to resolve the Iranian threat, Giraldi said. "We also shouldn't hesitate to use sanctions," he added.
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