Attacking Iran: The Last Resort

June 18, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in Asia Times Online on June 18, 2008.

Conventional wisdom about the drawbacks of striking Iran to prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons is wrong, or at least greatly exaggerated, according to a new report.

The report says the wrong questions are being asked in the debate over whether to undertake “preventive” military action against Iran’s nuclear program. Instead of asking whether US intelligence is good enough to hit the right targets or whether the United States has the means to hit hardened targets is not as important as whether Iran decides to rebuild after an attack.

The report, by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) says that accepted wisdom ignores context. For example, preventive action that follows steps deemed provocative, such as Iran leaving the nuclear Non‐​Proliferation Treaty, could have a much different effect than action not linked to a perceived Iranian provocation.

Although WINEP is a relatively conservative group, the report does not say that military action should be undertaken; at least not any time soon. The authors, Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, write, “This study does not advocate military action against Iran’s nuclear program. The time is not right for such a decision, and diplomacy continues to offer at least a modest course of success.”

In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, trying to build world support for any attack on Iran has assumed a higher priority. The report states that the US cannot count on its friends and allies unquestioningly to accept its intelligence evaluations concerning Iran’s nuclear capabilities and intentions — a problem exacerbated by the publication of the key judgments of the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate in the US. This concluded that Iran had ceased efforts to build a nuclear weapon several years ago.

Nor, in light of the widespread perception that the US bungled Iraq, can Washington count on its friends and allies to accept its assessments about what needs to be done about Iran’s nuclear problem.

Yet the report notes that how the world would assess blame for any crisis over Iran’s nuclear program would depend on many factors. These include whether the nations dealing with Iran — the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus Germany — are united in their stance regarding Iran. Have the “Iran Six” proposed compromises that go far enough toward meeting Iranian objections? Are inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s watchdog, going well?

The international community’s perception of US and Iranian leaders would also be important. Is the US administration respected for its judgment and commitment to multilateral diplomacy? Is Tehran bullying or threatening other regional states?

At a time when world oil prices continue to rise, one of the report’s points, regarding attacking Iranian infrastructure, is notable. The report states that the most effective strikes may not necessarily be against nuclear facilities. Iran is extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks on its oil export infrastructure. Oil revenue provides at least three‐​fourths of government income and at least 80% of export revenues.

Nearly all of Iran’s oil goes through a small number of pumping stations and loading points that are along the Persian Gulf coast, readily accessible for attack from sea or air. If forced to cope without oil export revenues, Iran has sufficient foreign exchange reserves to get by for more than a year, but the political shock of losing the oil income could cause Iran to rethink its nuclear stance — in ways that attacks on its nuclear infrastructure might not.

The authors note:

To be sure, in a tight world oil market, attacking Iran’s oil infrastructure carries an obvious risk of causing world oil prices to soar and hurting consumers in the United States and other oil‐​importing countries. That result, however, need not be the case if sufficient excess capacity existed in countries ready to increase output to compensate for the loss of Iran’s exports.

Moreover, if the choice is between higher oil prices and a Middle East with several nuclear powers, higher oil prices and reduced economic growth are not clearly the greater evil.

Ironically, any attempt to strike at Iran’s oil infrastructure directly would likely produce a bigger shock than Iranian attempts to disrupt the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf. The report notes that Iran could not block the Gulf for long. Large tankers are very difficult to sink; their large size and the strength and compartmentalization of their hulls reduce their vulnerability to attack. Mines can be swept and sea lanes cleared. In addition, the Strait of Hormuz is sufficiently broad and deep to enable tankers to bypass the hulks of wrecked or sunken ships.

And Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates) could be encouraged to expand the capacity of pipelines that bypass the Strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia’s Petroline has the capacity to carry 5 million barrels per day (b/​d) to the Red Sea coast — a capacity that could be increased quickly to more than 8 million b/​d through use of drag reduction agents. The United Arab Emirates is building a pipeline to carry 1.5 million b/​d to the Gulf of Oman coast past the strait; with drag reduction agents, that pipeline’s capacity could be increased to over 2.5 million b/​d.

These two pipelines alone could carry more than 60% of the 17 million b/​d flowing through the strait.

Interestingly, contrary to the beliefs of many neo‐​conservatives, the report is not optimistic that any strike on Iran would spark a popular uprising. In fact, predicting with any degree of confidence whether the political consequences would be favorable or unfavorable from the viewpoint of the US or Israel is impossible.

In the best case, Iranian public reaction would likely be a function of the context and nature of the attack. In that light, any military action would most likely be planned with an explicit aim of preventing such a reaction.

A raid that destroys nuclear facilities but inflames nationalist passions, engenders bitter anti‐​Americanism among ordinary Iranians and consolidates popular support for an otherwise unpopular regime would come at a very high price.

The report’s bottom line is that force can only be effective if its legitimacy is widely acknowledged. It concludes:

Central to its success must be a considerable measure of acceptance — by the American public, by key US allies, by the international community at large, and even by important political currents inside Iran. These key publics must believe that the Islamic Republic is refusing reasonable diplomatic proposals; that no good prospects exist for stopping Iran’s nuclear program short of military force; and that a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable threat to its people, the region and international peace and stability — if not the global non‐​proliferation regime.

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