It appears increasingly likely that the Bush Administration’s diplomatic approach to Iran will fail to prevent that country from going nuclear, and that the U.S. will have to decide whether to use military force to attempt to delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. Some analysts already have been promoting air strikes against Iran, and the Bush Administration has pointed out repeatedly that the military option is “on the table.”
Evaluating the two ultimate options in the face of a prospective final diplomatic collapse—military action on the one hand and acceptance and deterrence on the other—reveals that neither course is appetizing. However, the evidence strongly suggests that the difficulties with military action would outweigh the downsides of acceptance and deterrence. A strategy of attacking Iran’s nuclear program has several problems with it: U.S. intelligence seems likely to be poorer on Iran than it was on Iraq; Iran has hardened and buried many nuclear facilities in a way that would make them hard to destroy; Iran could respond in such a way that the U.S. would feel forced to escalate to full-blown regime change; and attacking would have a host of unintended consequences inside and outside Iran.
Acceptance and deterrence also is an unattractive prospect. Iran likely would be emboldened by the acquisition of a bomb, and could destabilize the region and inject more problems into an already bleak prospect for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Still, given the costs of the military option, the only compelling rationale for starting a war with Iran would be if there is good reason to believe that the Iranian leadership fundamentally is undeterrable. However, available evidence indicates that Iran is deterrable, and would be particularly so when faced with the devastating repercussions that would result from the use of a nuclear weapon.
On May 31, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice held a press conference to announce that the U.S. would be open to joining the European Union Three (EU3) negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. This new approach represented a significant shift away from Washington’s previous attempts to pressure and isolate Iran, and increased the chances for a peaceful solution to the conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.
Still, even Washington’s fresh tact to the Iran issue has a good chance of failing. Pres. George W. Bush added a potential “poison pill” precondition—that the Iranians suspend uranium enrichment before talks could take place. For its part, Iran irritated Washington and the international community by stalling its response, offering to reply months, rather than weeks, after having received the offer. Iran eventually said it was willing to enter talks, but not under any preconditions. The U.S. then tried pressuring its allies into signing on to a restrictive sanctions package against Iran with little—especially in Europe—success. More broadly, unless Washington offers to put security guarantees and overall diplomatic and economic normalization on the negotiating table—a so-called grand bargain approach— it is unlikely that Iran will decide that the benefits of a diplomatic deal will outweigh the costs.
It is important to emphasize that the option of starting a war does not involve eliminating Iran’s potential to develop a nuclear weapon. Experts agree that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is far too diffuse to make that feasible, and even optimistic scenarios offered by pro-war commentators have estimated that military strikes could delay Iran’s nuclear program by roughly three years—a timeframe within which some have argued that we could work to overthrow the government in Tehran. Others contend that air strikes should be coupled with a campaign of internal destabilization, utilizing dissident groups, in order to disrupt the nuclear program and change the regime at the same time.
Iran’s strategy of defense against a U.S. attack could involve further destabilizing Iraq, in particular the southern Shi’a region; conventional or possibly chemical or biological attacks against either U.S. personnel in the region or against Israel; the use of mines or civilian boats to attack oil tankers covertly in the Strait of Hormuz, similar to the attack against the USS Cole; and a long, protracted guerrilla war, should the conflict escalate to regime change and involve U.S. personnel on the ground in Iran. These possibilities must be factored into any decision about whether to start a war with Iran. So, it is worth looking systematically at the possible costs and benefits of the military option.
Worse intelligence than in Iraq? The U.S. government appears to know very little about Iran’s nuclear program. It is quite difficult to gather worthwhile intelligence on a country with which America has not had commercial or diplomatic relations for almost three decades, and a successful attack against a nuclear program as dispersed and effectively hidden as Iran’s apparently is would require very good intelligence. In 2002, the U.S. learned of startling advances in Iran’s nuclear program after revelations regarding the Natanz enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor were made very publicly by the Mujahedeen- e-Khalq’s (MEK’s) political arm, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI). Given that these facilities obviously would rank highly on any list of potential targets, we must understand that the Iranian leadership knows that we know about them. It is likely that the leadership in Tehran has taken into account that those locations would be first on a list of American aim points, and have adjusted their programs accordingly, either by diversifying the locations even further than they were, or by relocating nuclear activity.
The intelligence gap
Another problem, according to The New York Times’ James Risen, is that the entire CIA intelligence network inside Iran was “rolled up” in 2004 when a CIA operative accidentally sent a full roster of U.S. assets inside Iran to an Iranian double agent. This left the CIA “virtually blind in Iran.” Even before the “roll-up,” a presidential commission concluded in 2004 that the U.S. intelligence community has “disturbingly little” information on Iran’s nuclear activities.
Some neoconservatives loudly criticize the CIA for its pre-Iraqi war failings, and disdain its capability to assess the Iranian program. At the same time, though, they seem to assume that the intelligence we—or they—possess on the Iranian nuclear program is good enough to make striking munitions sites remarkably easy. On March 5, 2006, during a presentation to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Pentagon advisor Richard Perle presented the option thus: “I trust we know where [the Iranian nuclear facilities] are. If we don’t know where they are, what should we think about a diplomatic solution? So, either we know where they are, or we don’t, and if we know where they are, let me tell you that with six or eight B-2 aircraft … those facilities could be eliminated in a single evening.”
In reality, the difficulty of preventive strikes against Iran’s nuclear program is closer to that described by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan: “To be effective, a military strike against Iran’s nuclear efforts would virtually have to attack all probable and possible Iranian facilities to have maximum impact in denying Iran the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon or ensuring that its efforts would be delayed for some years… . The problem for anyone who starts a shell game is that some players either will insist that all shells be made transparent or else will proceed to smash all the shells.”
Site dispersal and burial and the question of escalation dominance. Perle’s suggestion simplifies a complex situation with the assumption that we know where the relevant Iranian nuclear facilities are. Some Iran hawks explicitly point to Israel’s 1981 strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor as a model. This analogy is strained at best. The attack against Osirak was a targeted hit at one above-ground facility located roughly 10 miles outside of Baghdad in open desert terrain. By contrast, Iran’s known and suspected (as well as its unknown and unsuspected) nuclear facilities number as many as 70, some of which are in or around civilian population centers such as Tehran. Unlike the Osirak reactor, Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed widely and, as Cordesman and al-Rodhan emphasize, “Many of Iran’s research, development, and production activities are almost certainly modular and can be rapidly moved to new sites, including tunnels, caves, and other underground facilities.”
There are other uncertainties about Iran’s program as well. Iran has alleged, for example, that the facilities at Natanz are buried 18 meters underground, whereas retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner contends that they are 15 meters underground. Either way, this would raise questions about how air strikes could destroy the facility. The most effective conventional bunker-busting bomb in the U.S. arsenal, the GBU-28, can penetrate approximately six meters of rock and hardened concrete. That depth would be insufficient to destroy some Iranian targets.
The U.S. always could go a step further and decide to use low-yield Earth-penetrating nuclear weapons against such a target, but it would be extremely difficult to limit civilian casualties in the event of such an attack. Since many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located close to civilian populations, significant numbers of noncombatants could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation. It is the uncertainty about the scope of the Iranian program, coupled with a question of Iran’s willingness to escalate the conflict, that is likely to lead to a full-blown war. Put another way, if the U.S. initiated air strikes against Iran’s known nuclear facilities, would it stop there, or would it carry on to suspected nuclear as well as chemical and biological weapons sites? If not, Iran presumably could retaliate by using any unscathed weapons it may have. Would a campaign attempt to eliminate Iranian air defenses, which have been piled up around the known nuclear sites? If not, American aircraft would be exposed to antiaircraft fire. What about Iranian command and control nodes and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)? Also, once Iran responded to a U.S. attack, would Washington target the Iranian leadership in Tehran?
Iranian counterstrategies and responses. One of the more commonly acknowledged difficulties for a preventive war strategy for Iran is that the country holds a number of cards to play against the U.S. in response. First among them is the prospect that Iran’s political and military penetration of Iraq could lead to a rapid escalation of violence in that country, and might well plunge the entire Persian Gulf region into chaos.
In early 2006, U.S. intelligence warned of the most likely tactics Iran could employ: long-range missiles, secret commando units, and “terrorist allies planted around the globe.” In particular, the political and security situations in Iraq could become nightmarish if the U.S. were to attack Iran. In January 2006, powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced that, if Iran were attacked, Sadr would throw his support behind Iran. Sadr’s large militia, the Mahdi Army, has clashed repeatedly with U.S. troops, and Sadr has become a major player in Iraq’s national politics.
According to former National Security Council official Kenneth Pollack, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has “allowed the [Iranian] intelligence services to deploy to Iraq in force and position themselves to fight a war there if necessary.” Pollack concludes that, if Iran decided to ratchet up its activity inside Iraq, U.S. troubles in that country would “increase dramatically, perhaps even insurmountably.” U.S. officials confirm this account, noting that Iranian agents have poured money and personnel into southern Iraq in an effort to create a “greater Iran.”
Another worry is the potential for Iran to lash out against Israel. Mohammad-Ebrahim Dehqani, commander of the IRCG’s 300,000 troops, stated in May 2006 that “wherever America does something evil, the first place that we will target will be Israel.” In August, a mid-ranking Iranian cleric warned that Israel would be in danger if it “makes an iota of aggression against Iran.” It is no secret that the Iranian leadership and public see Israel and the U.S. as close allies, and would look upon an attack by one of them as an act of war by both.
The recent violence in Lebanon and northern Israel has underscored another potential Iranian tactic: the use of proxies such as Hezbollah to attack Israel. Even in the limited conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, the Arab force was able to achieve surprising tactical successes even against tough Israeli targets. Israeli tanks were struck by anti-tank missiles, completely destroying more than a dozen. More notably, Hezbollah’s ability to use a radar-guided missile to disable an Israeli warship on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea indicated a new level of sophistication in its attacks. Hezbollah killed 119 Israeli soldiers throughout the conflict, including many members of the elite Golani brigade. Despite the deaths of 1,140 Lebanese civilians, Hezbollah was able to avoid defeat against the elite Israeli military.
Presumably, if Iran were under attack, Hezbollah would be deployed more fully against Israel, inflicting much more damage than did its recent tactics. If Iran were to assault Israel directly, the U.S. could find itself in a similar situation to the predicament during the first Gulf War, attempting to keep Israel out of a conflict for fear that its involvement could cause the war to escalate and spread throughout the region. Although it is uncertain whether Iran possesses large quantities of chemical and biological weapons, if they do have usable chemical or biological weapons, they may decide to employ them against Israel or against American troops in Iraq, or possibly even against U.S. territory. This prospect would become far more likely if a conflict escalated and threatened the survival of the Iranian regime. A cornered government in Tehran that felt it had nothing to lose likely would act far more recklessly than a government that felt confident of its survival.
Paradoxically, the American emphasis on “force protection”—stationing U.S. troops on remote bases with a secure perimeter—could make our military personnel more vulnerable to targeted strikes by Iran. These secure and remote locations would provide relatively easy targets for focused attacks by conventional forces like Iran’s. Keep in mind, too, that it is not just the troops themselves that are vulnerable. As the old military adage holds, “Amateurs talk strategy. Professionals talk logistics.” U.S. supply lines through southern Iraq would be quite vulnerable to sabotage and attack, which quickly could imperil the entire U.S. occupation. Nearly all of the supplies that come into Iraq are transported from Kuwait through southern Iraq, in supply trucks driven by foreign civilians. As Patrick Lang, former head of the Near East bureau at the Defense Intelligence Agency, observes: “If the route is indeed turned into a shooting gallery, these civilian truck drivers would not persist or would require a heavier escort by the U.S. military. It might then be necessary to ‘fight’ the trucks through ambushes on the roads.”
Another concern is that Iran could employ mines or small skiffs armed with anti-ship weapons or rigged for suicide attacks to shut down or constrict oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 40% of the world’s oil flows. An attempt to close off the Strait would be a risky gambit. Doing so would invite wide opprobrium from the international community, since it would cause oil prices to skyrocket, and would expose Iran’s limited naval capabilities to the vastly superior U.S. Navy. When Iran attempted to cause trouble in the Strait in 1988, during the so-called “tanker war,” U.S. naval forces showed near-total dominance. Still, Iran could deploy a decidedly low-tech approach to the Strait, attempting at the least to raise insurance premiums on tankers traveling through it to prohibitively high levels. To raise insurance premiums—and, accordingly, the cost of petroleum products—would not require the infliction of much damage on ships, per se. It only would be necessary for insurers to become nervous that there is enough potential danger ahead to raise rates precipitously.
Iran could attempt to use a naval version of the asymmetric warfare that the Iraqi insurgents are employing—and history indicates that, if they were creative, the Iranians could cause notable damage. Minesweeping and detection are particularly difficult tasks, and a strategy that deployed an irregular pattern of mines would not need the use of high-tech vessels or submarines. Mines could be dropped off the back of commercial vessels, potentially to strike oil tankers or naval ships attempting to transit the Strait specifically or the Persian Gulf more generally.
The prospect of some attempt to disrupt oil shipments—or even assault U.S. naval vessels— in the Strait of Hormuz cannot be discounted, although it is relatively unlikely that Iran would attempt to sustain a cutoff of its own oil to world markets. As Secretary Rice has noted, “I think something like 80% of Iran’s budget comes from oil revenue, and so obviously it would be a very serious problem for Iran if oil were disrupted on the market.” Although the figure is closer to 60%, the Secretary’s logic stands.
While Rice’s recognition that Iran would be unlikely to disrupt its oil flows is convincing, it calls into question a fundamental assumption about U.S. security policy in the Middle East. Since the Reagan Administration, one of the cornerstones of U.S. policy has been to maintain a presence of American troops in the region in order to ensure that oil would make it out of the ground and to market. (Originally, this deployment was spawned by fears that the Soviet Union would attempt to take over Iranian oil fields.) However, Rice’s recognition that Iran—and, by logical extension, other countries in the Persian Gulf—has every incentive to get its own oil to market seems to remove the argument that the U.S. military must be in place to secure the oil.
However, doubts that Iran could close the Strait of Hormuz or take its oil offline should not remove fears about either the security of the Strait or skyrocketing oil prices. Iran could calculate that doing limited damage would be worth the trouble, in that it would raise the price of oil, which would increase Iranian revenues. According to Great Britain’s Cambridge Energy Research Associates, a five dollar increase in oil prices would put an additional $85,000,000 per week into Iran’s coffers.
Unintended consequences inside and outside Iran. These include encouraging even more nuclear proliferation, as Washington’s adversaries conclude that nuclear weapons are the only way of deterring U.S.-led regime change; causing large-scale civilian casualties, which would further pollute America’s image in the world; and damaging the limited prospects for political and economic liberalization inside Iran.
Since the Cold War ended, the U.S. has embraced a transformative foreign policy that has focused on fundamentally altering the international order. This approach is seen as inherently dangerous to many countries, given U.S. military action against Serbia and Iraq, among other nations, as well as loose talk about “regime change” against certain target states, and support for regime-changing “color revolutions” in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. In addition, after the Sept. 11 attacks, Pres. Bush identified a list of enemy states, and explicitly put them on notice in the infamous “axis of evil” speech. Of the axis, the one country the U.S. suspected had nuclear weapons, North Korea, essentially has been untouched. The one country we were certain did not have nuclear weapons, Iraq, was invaded.
A dangerous neighborhood
In addition, Iran lives in a notoriously rough neighborhood. India and Pakistan possess nuclear weapons, as does Russia, just to the region’s north. Turkey rests under the NATO umbrella, and Israel owns nuclear weapons of its own. In the end, attacking Iran only would underscore further the dilemma faced by states that find themselves on Washington’s hit list. Without nuclear weapons, there is no assurance that the U.S. will not attack—other than supine acquiescence to Washington’s various demands. As Nobel laureate Thomas Schelling explains, the perverse fact is that America’s counterproliferation policy is a prime driver of proliferation.
The next unintended consequence would be the effect Iranian civilian casualties would have on American diplomatic standing and the hatred of the U.S. that it would generate in Islamic countries. While concern for civilian casualties should not be a debate-stopper in terms of policy decisions, any decision to attack Iran should be evaluated in terms of how it would affect the war on terror. Even the vastly more limited attack against Lebanon by Israel in the summer of 2006, which produced, in the low estimate, casualties in the high hundreds, resulted in an extremely detrimental political blowback against Israel. Civilian casualties in Iran would be aired again and again in Arab and Muslim media, and the political consequences almost certainly would be worse for America than the consequences Israel suffered in the Lebanon war. The fact is, starting a war with a third Islamic country in the span of several years surely would be used as evidence that Osama bin Laden’s predictions about U.S. intentions were correct.
Finally, the implications that a U.S.-Iran war would have on the prospect of gradual Iranian political and economic liberalization— the factors most relevant to the eventual erosion of the clerical regime in Tehran—would be dire. It is quite difficult to find an Iranian dissident who supports an American attack on the Iranian nuclear program; even the hardline NCRI and MEK oppose military action. Nobel laureate and Iranian dissident Shirin Ebadi has warned that “any attack on Iran will be good for the government and will actually damage the democratic movement.”
The people misleading the Bush Administration are American neoconservatives, who have argued alternatively that bombing Iran would be good for democracy, or that the effect on liberalization is irrelevant. Some claim that bombing Iran could lead the Iranian opposition to overthrow the government as it would cause the Iranian people to reconsider whether they really want to have this regime in power.
The American Enterprise Institute’s Reuel Marc Gerecht, meanwhile, while agreeing that starting a war with Iran “would actually accelerate internal debate and soul-searching,” believes that that factor is largely beside the point. In Gerecht’s view, the nuclear clock, under the best circumstances, still is moving faster than the regime-change clock, so there is little point in worrying about what a war would do for Iranian liberalization.
The hope also has been voiced that the U.S. could tolerate a subsequent, less confrontational Iranian regime’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. However, if attacking in the first place delays or disrupts the prospect of a different regime taking power, this entire line of reasoning collapses. To the extent that setting back the date that Iran acquires a nuclear capability also strengthens the current regime’s hold on power, the goal of preventing the current regime from getting a bomb is not furthered.
Many of the leading proponents of “limited” military strikes against Iran’s nuclear program have regime change very much in mind as the ultimate strategy. However, what if the Iranian people did decide to overthrow their government under bombardment from the U.S.? What would Iran’s 70,000,000 people do then? America’s strategy of “creative destruction,” in the apt phrasing of the National Review’s Michael Ledeen, has led to much destruction and little creation in Iraq. Who would take power in Iran? Would the deep ethnic and sectarian fissures that are touted as such a source of weakness for the Iranian regime bubble up to the surface and create a low-level civil war similar to what is occurring in Iraq? What would be the medium- and long-term strategic implications? The prospect of targeted air strikes eventually escalating to regime change raises a whole host of questions about the postwar environment, and these questions have not been addressed by war proponents. Similar questions either were not asked or were answered with propaganda and wishful thinking before the Iraqi war, and America still is paying the price.
Although the preventive war option for dealing with Iran’s nuclear program is remarkably unappealing, the prospect of deterrence raises a host of undesirable consequences as well. The first concern must be the question of rationality. Some scholars have charged that strategic thinking in Iran is dominated not by the balance of power, or by dispassionate calculation of risk versus reward, but by theological and ideological imperatives. To these scholars, Iran would be prone to making strategically foolish decisions—potentially even a suicidal nuclear first strike—due to ideological or theological impulses. This argument deserves serious consideration, since accepting a view of the Iranian leadership as irrational would make all other concerns moot.
Are the Mullahs really crazy? The question of how to deal with the Islamic Republic would change dramatically if one were to accept the assumption that the regime in Tehran acts not according to rational calculations, but theological and ideological ones. The allegation that the Islamic Republic fundamentally is undeterrable has become common. Hawkish commentators seize upon Iranian Pres. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s many bizarre and reprehensible statements about the Holocaust, and the Iranian government’s desire to “wipe Israel off the map.” Although the comments have gotten new currency in the context of the nuclear dispute, it is important to recognize that these claims have been a part of Iranian boilerplate for years, and similar statements have been uttered by a broad swathe of political figures. Similarly, the repellent chants of “Death to America! Death to Israel!” that are shouted at Friday prayers in Tehran are a long-standing feature of Iranian society, and actually have been waning in fervor in recent years.
None of that consistency particularly is reassuring in itself, but it does demonstrate that there has not been a noticeable shift in policy in Tehran that has thrown the levers of power to a madman who acts outside the standard (admittedly poisonous) political rhetoric of Iran—and continuity in rhetoric does not suggest change in policy. Moreover, this regime probably can be deterred, either from using its nuclear arsenal or from taking other aggressive actions in the belief that its nuclear arsenal will itself deter countermoves by the U.S. or other states. Of course, it is impossible to prove that the Iranians will not act in a given way at some point in the future, but we can examine the track record of the Islamic Republic in search for any evidence that its leadership is irrational. Looking at the decisions Iran has made since the Iranian Revolution, its leadership looks more than rational—it appears to be quite savvy, and prone to quite pragmatic changes of course when confronted with overwhelming force.
Take, for instance, Iran’s behavior during the Iran-Iraq war. Early rhetoric from Iran was uncompromising, including clear indications in November 1981 that the newly-minted Islamic government in Tehran had no intention of stopping the war as long as Saddam Hussein remained in power in Iraq. Yet, over time, the Iraqis began to make clear and decisive advances, in part due to Western governments’ support for and arms sales to Saddam during the conflict. The Iranians were taking grave losses. When, by 1988, a long string of devastating tactical routs made clear that outright strategic defeat was imminent, the Iranian leadership changed course. It sued for peace, jettisoning its original objective to depose Saddam and took a deal that left Iran on the light side of the post-war balance of power.
Also, if Iran were to launch a nuclear first strike, it would be subject to the same sort of massive response as any other state. For the leadership in Tehran to enact such a policy, it would have to be suicidal. The somewhat more plausible prospect that Iran would give nuclear weapons to a terrorist proxy likewise is highly unlikely. Iran never has been known to have transferred chemical or biological weapons to Hezbollah, presumably for fear of Israeli retaliation if they were used. The transfer of weapons out of control of the Tehran government to a nonstate group would be viewed as an act of war by the U.S. and immediately bring an end to the ruling regime.
An emboldened Iran and the regional response. One of the other major concerns about Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability is that it could make a play for regional hegemony in the Persian Gulf. That, in turn, could cause neighboring countries to seek nuclear deterrents of their own. Some observers fear that this arms race could lead to growing fear and insecurity among governments in the region, leaving better-armed governments on hair-trigger alert from fear of their neighbors. This concern probably is real, but overstated. Those who fear the prospect of an arms race in the Middle East insist that it would increase the likelihood of war but, in fact, war becomes more likely if neighboring states do not arm themselves. If neighboring states maintain their current, anemic military efforts and allow Iran to build power based on its nuclear capability, that would increase the likelihood of war by lowering the perceived cost to Iran of provoking conflict. As it happens, there is evidence that neighboring states do recognize the threat of a nuclear Iran and are beginning to consider appropriate measures.
Still, some Arab countries hold fast to the idea that Iran’s potential nuclearization is foremost an issue between Iran and the U.S., and thereby of only secondary relevance to them. Richard Russell, a professor at the National Defense University, reports that there is a “fairly commonly held view” in Arab security circles that Iran’s acquisition of a bomb merely “would ‘balance’ Israeli and American nuclear weapons.” However, Arab states need to recognize that their ordering of the threats is backward— the first danger from an Iranian nuclear weapon would be to them, and the secondary danger would be to the U.S. Attempting to take the Arab countries under an American security umbrella would be incredibly risky, and further validate the claim that the U.S. is the protector of repressive Arab governments. Meanwhile, just as it was during the Cold War, extended deterrence would be a commitment of dubious credibility: Would America really risk a nuclear exchange over its currently enunciated interests in, say, Bahrain?
How to handle Iraq in the context of a nuclear Iran would be an even tougher problem. Depending on when an Iranian bomb came online, Iran easily could attempt to ratchet up its activities inside Iraq, raising the frightening prospect of open confrontation between Iran and the U.S. inside Iraq. Further, it is uncertain what kind of presence the U.S. would have in Iraq by the time Iran acquired a nuclear capability.
“Iran … can be destroyed”
Remember, too, however, as Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres mentioned last year, “When it comes to destruction, Iran, too, can be destroyed.” Israel is thought to possess roughly 200 nuclear weapons, dispersed throughout the (admittedly small) territory of its nation. Given that Israel reportedly possesses nuclear equipped Jericho-2 missiles in hardened silos and submarines armed with nuclear- tipped cruise missiles—both of which are extremely difficult to destroy, even with highly accurate weapons—it is clear that any conceivable Iranian first strike in the foreseeable future would not constrain Israel’s retaliatory capability. In addition, an Israeli second strike would have a devastating effect on Iran, as roughly two-thirds of its population is located in urban centers.
A nuclear Iran will “cramp our style”—and Israel’s. Another likely result of Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon is that Iran will use its deterrent to limit U.S. and Israeli policy options in the Middle East. While this is true, it becomes much less important if the U.S. revises its grandiose and radical foreign policy posture. Many fear an Iranian bomb because they favor a revolutionary American foreign policy that attempts to use force to transform regimes Washington dislikes. Although the Bush doctrine’s failures are on display daily in Iraq, there remains a chance that the Administration—or a subsequent administration—could decide on another rash, excessive use of the U.S. military. An Iranian bomb would, in almost any foreseeable scenario, essentially eliminate the option of forcible regime change in Iran.
If America intends to remain unconstrained by anything other than its own will in terms of its policy in the greater Middle East, then nuclear weapons indeed will give Iran influence that it does not possess at present. However, to evaluate the extent to which Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability would constrain America’s options, it is necessary to determine where Iranian and U.S. interests are likely to clash, and to further evaluate them in the context of nuclear deterrence.
The threat of nuclear retaliation is most credible when it is tied to core interests of a state, such as government survival and territorial integrity. While a nuclear capability essentially would take “regime change” off the table, it would not give Iran carte blanche to act as it pleases with respect to all of its foreign policy goals, because threats to use nuclear weapons to secure peripheral interests would be vastly less credible. Still, Iran could intensify its fight against Kurdish elements in Iraq, or increase its support for anti-Israel terrorist groups, confident that should its proxies be discovered, Israel would be afraid to retaliate.
The first way to limit the danger inherent in such a scenario is to increase communication among Israel, the U.S., and Iran. As Judith Yaphe and Charles Lutes of the National Defense University have noted, it is the lack of communication over so-called “red lines” that makes the prospect of a nuclearized Iran so dangerous. Deterrence is contingent not just on capability, but on credibility, and opening a channel of communication among adversaries would help limit the potential for miscalculation. Further, Israeli strategists have been considering the implications of proliferation in the Middle East for decades. One of the clarifying effects that this thinking has had on Israeli strategy is the recognition that a nuclear counterpoint in the Middle East would prompt Israel to define for itself what its vital interests are.
Actually, Iran—with or without a nuclear weapons capability—should be relatively pleased with the developments in its overall security environment over the past five years. Washington removed two hostile regimes on Iran’s borders—Taliban Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—and it has not replaced them with effective, strong governments that could rival Tehran’s power or diminish its legitimacy by providing examples of stable, liberal democracy in the Muslim world. Soaring oil prices have generated significant revenues, propping up Iran’s otherwise sclerotic economy and making the country an increasingly important economic power in Eurasia. Given Iran’s open hostility to Israel and its tensions with Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other neighboring states with sizeable Shi’a communities, the Iranian regime might well be more conservative and certainly much more at peace with the status quo than Western commentators have taken to suggesting.
Closer to home, Washington’s perception of itself as omnipotent has led to excesses in its Middle East strategy, such as the Iraqi operation, as well as a strategic myopia in terms of its diplomatic posture in the Middle East. Washington long has promoted and encouraged Israel’s unrealistic approach to security. It has refused to stop the expansion of settlements in the West Bank and backed the ill-advised assault on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure in July 2006. U.S. support for Israeli expansion has damaged America’s reputation in the world and done little to put Israel on a path to long-term security.
Embracing a posture of deterrence would prevent the inevitable loss of American life that would result from a war. Moreover, hundreds of billions of dollars would be left in the productive economy rather than being allocated to attempting to destroy Iran’s nuclear program. The mullahs in Iran would remain unpopular, unable to use the American bogeyman to consolidate support internally.
In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that, absent some very shaky assumptions about the Iranian leadership’s rationality, deterrence is a preferable policy to preventive war. The latter option opens so many uncertainties that are out of the range of control of the American government that it should be looked on as a supremely undesirable policy. Deterrence is not “satisfying,” in that it does not produce a decisive outcome quickly, but neither, in this case, would preventive war.
The U.S. should start preparing for a policy of deterrence—including the potential drawbacks and dangers. The consequences of a “nuclear” preventive war with Iran easily could be worse than what has occurred after the “weapons of mass destruction” preventive war in Iraq. Neither the Bush Administration nor the country should seek to make the same mistake twice.