What would be the consequences of a U.S. military attack against Iran's nuclear program? Likely one of the first would be another blow to the international credibility of the United States. Absent authorization from the U.N. Security Council, such an attack would not only be a violation of international law, it would run counter to the Algiers Accords.
Negotiated at the end of the Carter administration, issued Jan. 19, 1981, and endorsed by every administration since, the accords declared, "It is now and will be the policy of the United States not to intervene, directly or indirectly, politically or militarily, in Iran's internal affairs."
Any Iranian military response would also likely have global repercussions -- including an upsurge in violence against the multinational forces in Iraq and Afghanistan -- either directly by Iranian forces or indirectly by Tehran's proxies.
Iran could attack U.S. naval forces and other shipping in the Gulf with anti-ship missiles. It could use its proxies like Hezbollah to attack Israel, or try to strike directly against the Jewish state with its Shahab-3 missiles, in the worst case scenario, armed with chemical or biological warheads.
It could also strike against energy targets in the Gulf and attack the flow of oil through the Straits of Hormuz, using, for instance, its influence among Shiite militias in neighboring Iraq. Sabotage of oil pipelines and facilities could cripple much of Iraq's oil exports, now at close to 2 million barrels a day.
The conflict could also reduce or cut off the flow of Iranian oil to the global economy. Currently Iran sells 2.5 million barrels of oil a day, making it OPEC's second-largest producer. Any reduction in that supply would likely propel prices steeply upward. And experts speak of up to $200 a barrel -- if the U.S. and Iran move toward open conflict.
Whether Iran would deliberately cut off its oil exports is arguable, given that the Iranian economy would be devastated by such disruptions, but an extended military conflict might interrupt supplies anyway -- from Iraq as well as Iran.
And, with the world already using close to all the oil being produced, an Iranian and Iraqi shortfall approaching 4 million barrels a day would leave global demand far outstripping supply.
Globally, a reduction, even a temporary one, in oil exports would likely have a mixed impact. Developed states are far better prepared to deal with such a contingency. A congressional joint economic committee study released earlier this year found that, "The immediate loss of oil from the disruption would be secondary. Due to the experience of six oil crises since World War II, most oil-importing nations have accumulated substantial oil stores already. While a blockage of the (Hormuz) Strait would have a much larger impact on the daily flow of oil than any prior interruption in supply, oil released from private and strategic inventories, in theory, could manage the physical loss of oil for many months."
Still, developing nations that have no stores of oil to draw on would likely suffer greatly.
And as former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski recently wrote in the Washington Post, a dramatic spike in oil prices would unleash a further wave of anti-American hostility. In that context, Europe might distance itself from America while both Europe and China would become more dependent on Russia's energy supplies.
Russia would clearly be the financial and geopolitical beneficiary. Such a shortage could cause a more dramatic shift in the global distribution of power than even the one that occurred after the Cold War ended.
Consider the recent rise in oil prices was driven mostly by the conflict between Turkey and the Kurds in northern Iraq, the weak U.S. economy and currency, and the U.S. government recently reporting another unexpected drop in crude oil inventories in this country.
Some neoconservatives argue that an attack against Iran will weaken the current regime and encourage the people to rise up and overthrow them. But there is precious little in the historical record to support such an assumption. Massive bombings of Germany and Japan, including use of two nuclear weapons in the case of the latter, did not cause the people to abandon their governments.
Massive U.S. bombing of Vietnam did not cause people to turn away from Ho Chi Minh, and NATO's bombing of Serbia actually caused Slobodan Milosevic's popularity to increase for a time.
Ultimately, absent an effort to overthrow the Iranian government and occupy the country for generations, an attack would likely fail to achieve its purpose -- preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. After all, the clock cannot be turned back, and Iran's cumulative gain in nuclear knowledge cannot be undone.
As International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei said in a Nov. 29 interview with the Argentinean newspaper Clarin: "The use of force would put pressure on Iran to manufacture nuclear weapons; while right now it does not have large industrial facilities in operation. What Iran has is a nascent and small nuclear enrichment plan. But when a country is threatened it generally ends up with a military system."
In the event of an unprovoked attack on its nuclear facilities, Iran could argue that it requires nuclear weapons to guard against aggression and protect its sovereignty, effectively announcing its intention to withdraw from the NPT and altering the current international order.