The publication Monday of the key judgments from the U.S. intelligence assessment of Iran's nuclear program has reignited the debate about how the United States should seek to deal with the potential threat from an Iranian bomb. Over the past few months there has been growing speculation about the possibility of military action by the United States or its ally, Israel, targeting Iran's nuclear program.
But missing from the almost frenzied parsing of the latest official statements is any serious assessment of how the U.S. military has been preparing for a potential attack on Iran; how it might conduct it; and what the consequences might be.
The confrontation between the United States and allied Western states and Iran has ground to a diplomatic stalemate. Almost a year ago the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1737 calling for sanctions against Iran because of its refusal to stop its uranium enrichment program. With a deadline of last Feb. 21, 1737 requires a suspension of "all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development, to be verified by the IAEA."
If Iran continues to not comply with the resolution and Russia, China and other states refuse to back harsh sanctions, it was thought the United States might use the U.N. failure as a pretext for attacking. Obviously that has not happened.
Of course, once could say that current military preparations are just another attempt at psychological pressure, or what academics call coercive diplomacy, on Iran to pressure it to agree to give up its nuclear program. The downside is that once you start mobilizing for war, it becomes harder to stop as time goes by, and conversely, it becomes easier to keep going.
But now that the Security Council has issued its resolution calling for sanctions, U.S. officials seem to be making the argument they have gone the extra diplomatic mile and gotten nowhere. This is, of course, exactly the sort of rhetoric one might expect before an attack, and recalls similar Bush administration statements back in late 2002 prior to attacking Iraq.
But Iran is willing to negotiate. It has gone largely unnoticed that on Aug. 22 last year, Tehran made a confidential response to the so-called P5 plus 1, that is the five permanent, veto-wielding members of the Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- plus Germany.
That offer followed Security Council resolution 1696 of July 31, 2006, calling on Iran to suspend uranium enrichment by Aug. 31.
According to the offer, made public the following month, "The Islamic Republic of Iran does not intend to reject the whole issue unilaterally, and is ready to provide an opportunity for both sides to share their viewpoints on this issue and try to convince each other and reach a mutual understanding."
While Iran's proposal suggested that ending enrichment should not be a prerequisite for negotiations, as demanded by the United States and other countries, it did offer to temporarily suspend enrichment.
It is also generally overlooked that Iran had offered as early as 1997 (the year that the reformist Mohammad Khatami was elected as president, after Hashemi Rafsanjani's eight years in power) to open its nuclear facilities to inspection; and that in spring 2003, Iran -- led by Khatami, but with the full support of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei -- made a general offer to negotiate all outstanding issues with the United States: among them, the question of Iran's nuclear development and a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.
The Bush administration rejected the offer out of hand and excoriated the Swiss diplomatic officer who acted as intermediary.
Of course, whether Iran's nuclear program is anywhere close to being a significant danger is unclear. Monday's National Intelligence Estimate, representing the consensus assessment of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, says Tehran halted its weapons program in 2003, and, even if they resumed it, are several years away from having enough weapons-grade material for a bomb.
The arguments in favor of military action, if not terribly convincing, are at least simple and straightforward, i.e., Iran is a terrorist regime that has sponsored attacks on Americans and its president has used language that calls for Israel to be wiped off the map.
And Israel remains a wild card in trying to assess whether the United States will go to war with Iran. It is conceivable that, if Israel were to attack Iran, even without U.S. approval, the United States might be forced to join in -- assessing that since it is going to be blamed and subject to retaliation from Iran and its supporters anyway, it may as well help take out Iran's conventional military assets. This would be a classic tail wagging the dog scenario.
But in reality, it is highly unlikely that Israel would attack Iran.
To carry off a successful attack, Israel would have several important challenges with which to contend. The same would apply to any U.S. action, but its military has far more resources than Israel to meet them.
First is the issue of distance from target. Israel does not have any airplanes that can fly to Iranian targets and return without refueling. That would be true even if its F15I fighter aircraft doubled its 800-or-so-kilometer range with auxiliary tanks.
Second, it is doubtful that even bunker-buster bombs would completely destroy hardened installations like the ones housing Iran's nuclear program, even if they could be delivered.
Third, intelligence is lacking. Israel's intelligence establishment would have to be certain that they knew the location of every significant nuclear development installation in Iran. Mossad, Aman (Israel's military intelligence agency), the CIA and the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency are not certain that all the important targets have been located.
Fourth, Israel is vulnerable to counterattack. Hezbollah demonstrated in the war last year that it has an effective rocket threat against Israel. Iran also has long-range missiles and has threatened that it would use them in the event of an Israeli or American attack. Without much better defenses the potential loses from such an attack would be unacceptable.
Ironically, a military action against Iran might be just what some of its hard-line clerics are hoping for, because only an external attack can shore up national support for what is an increasingly unpopular regime. In fact, Khamenei has made known his displeasure with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's politics through an editorial in the newspaper Jomhuri Eslami, which has called on the president to stay out of the nuclear issue.