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: