It appears increasingly likely that the Bush Administration’sdiplomatic approach to Iran will fail to preventthat country from going nuclear, and that the U.S. willhave to decide whether to use military force to attempt todelay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability. Someanalysts already have been promoting air strikes against Iran,and the Bush Administration has pointed out repeatedly that themilitary option is "on the table."
Evaluating the two ultimate options in the face of a prospectivefinal diplomatic collapse--military action on the one handand acceptance and deterrence on the other--reveals that neithercourse is appetizing. However, the evidence strongly suggeststhat the difficulties with military action would outweighthe downsides of acceptance and deterrence. A strategy of attackingIran’s nuclear program has several problems with it:U.S. intelligence seems likely to be poorer on Iran than it wason Iraq; Iran has hardened and buried many nuclear facilities ina way that would make them hard to destroy; Iran could respondin such a way that the U.S. would feel forced to escalateto full-blown regime change; and attacking would have a hostof 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 intoan already bleak prospect for peace between the Israelis andPalestinians. Still, given the costs of the military option, the onlycompelling rationale for starting a war with Iran would be ifthere is good reason to believe that the Iranian leadership fundamentallyis undeterrable. However, available evidence indicatesthat Iran is deterrable, and would be particularly so when facedwith the devastating repercussions that would result from theuse of a nuclear weapon.
On May 31, 2006, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice helda press conference to announce that the U.S. would be open tojoining the European Union Three (EU3) negotiations on Iran’snuclear program. This new approach represented a significantshift away from Washington’s previous attempts to pressure andisolate Iran, and increased the chances for a peaceful solution tothe conflict over Iran’s nuclear program.
Still, even Washington’s fresh tact to the Iran issue has agood chance of failing. Pres. George W. Bush added a potential"poison pill" precondition--that the Iranians suspend uraniumenrichment before talks could take place. For its part, Iran irritatedWashington and the international community by stallingits response, offering to reply months, rather than weeks, afterhaving received the offer. Iran eventually said it was willing toenter talks, but not under any preconditions. The U.S. then triedpressuring its allies into signing on to a restrictive sanctionspackage against Iran with little--especially in Europe--success.More broadly, unless Washington offers to put securityguarantees and overall diplomatic and economic normalizationon the negotiating table--a so-called grand bargain approach--it is unlikely that Iran will decide that the benefits of a diplomaticdeal will outweigh the costs.
It is important to emphasize that the option of starting a wardoes not involve eliminating Iran’s potential to develop a nuclearweapon. Experts agree that Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is far toodiffuse to make that feasible, and even optimistic scenarios offeredby pro-war commentators have estimated that militarystrikes could delay Iran’s nuclear program by roughly threeyears--a timeframe within which some have argued that wecould work to overthrow the government in Tehran. Others contendthat air strikes should be coupled with a campaign of internaldestabilization, utilizing dissident groups, in order to disruptthe nuclear program and change the regime at the same time.
Iran’s strategy of defense against a U.S. attack could involvefurther destabilizing Iraq, in particular the southern Shi’a region;conventional or possibly chemical or biological attacks againsteither U.S. personnel in the region or against Israel; the use ofmines or civilian boats to attack oil tankers covertly in the Straitof Hormuz, similar to the attack against the USS Cole; and along, protracted guerrilla war, should the conflict escalate toregime change and involve U.S. personnel on the ground in Iran.These possibilities must be factored into any decision aboutwhether to start a war with Iran. So, it is worth looking systematicallyat the possible costs and benefits of the military option.
Worse intelligence than in Iraq? The U.S. government appearsto know very little about Iran’s nuclear program. It is quite difficult to gather worthwhile intelligence on acountry with which America has not had commercialor diplomatic relations for almostthree decades, and a successful attack against anuclear program as dispersed and effectivelyhidden as Iran’s apparently is would requirevery good intelligence. In 2002, the U.S.learned of startling advances in Iran’s nuclearprogram after revelations regarding the Natanzenrichment facility and the Arak heavy waterreactor were made very publicly by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq’s (MEK’s) political arm, theNational Council of Resistance in Iran(NCRI). Given that these facilities obviouslywould rank highly on any list of potential targets,we must understand that the Iranian leadershipknows that we know about them. It islikely that the leadership in Tehran has takeninto account that those locations would be firston a list of American aim points, and have adjustedtheir programs accordingly, either by diversifyingthe locations even further than theywere, or by relocating nuclear activity.
The intelligence gap
Another problem, according to The NewYork Times’ James Risen, is that the entireCIA intelligence network inside Iran was"rolled up" in 2004 when a CIA operative accidentallysent a full roster of U.S. assets insideIran to an Iranian double agent. This leftthe CIA "virtually blind in Iran." Even beforethe "roll-up," a presidential commission concludedin 2004 that the U.S. intelligence communityhas "disturbingly little" information onIran’s nuclear activities.
Some neoconservatives loudly criticize theCIA for its pre-Iraqi war failings, and disdainits capability to assess the Iranian program. Atthe same time, though, they seem to assumethat the intelligence we--or they--possess onthe Iranian nuclear program is good enough tomake striking munitions sites remarkably easy.On March 5, 2006, during a presentation tothe American Israel Public Affairs Committee,Pentagon advisor Richard Perle presented theoption thus: "I trust we know where [the Iraniannuclear facilities] are. If we don’t knowwhere they are, what should we think about adiplomatic solution? So, either we knowwhere they are, or we don’t, and if we knowwhere they are, let me tell you that with six oreight B-2 aircraft . . . those facilities could beeliminated in a single evening."
In reality, the difficulty of preventive strikesagainst Iran’s nuclear program is closer to thatdescribed by the Center for Strategic and InternationalStudies’ Anthony Cordesman andKhalid al-Rodhan: "To be effective, a militarystrike against Iran’s nuclear efforts would virtuallyhave to attack all probable and possibleIranian facilities to have maximum impact indenying Iran the capability to acquire a nuclearweapon or ensuring that its efforts wouldbe delayed for some years. . . . The problemfor anyone who starts a shell game is thatsome players either will insist that all shells bemade transparent or else will proceed to smashall the shells."
Site dispersal and burial and the questionof escalation dominance. Perle’s suggestionsimplifies a complex situation with the assumptionthat we know where the relevantIranian nuclear facilities are. Some Iran hawksexplicitly point to Israel’s 1981 strike againstIraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor as a model. Thisanalogy is strained at best. The attack againstOsirak was a targeted hit at one above-groundfacility located roughly 10 miles outside ofBaghdad in open desert terrain. By contrast,Iran’s known and suspected (as well as its unknownand unsuspected) nuclear facilitiesnumber as many as 70, some of which are inor around civilian population centers such asTehran. Unlike the Osirak reactor, Iran’s nuclearfacilities are dispersed widely and, asCordesman and al-Rodhan emphasize, "Manyof Iran’s research, development, and productionactivities are almost certainly modular andcan be rapidly moved to new sites, includingtunnels, caves, and other underground facilities."
There are other uncertainties about Iran’sprogram as well. Iran has alleged, for example,that the facilities at Natanz are buried 18meters underground, whereas retired AirForce Col. Sam Gardiner contends that theyare 15 meters underground. Either way, thiswould raise questions about how air strikescould destroy the facility. The most effectiveconventional bunker-busting bomb in the U.S.arsenal, the GBU-28, can penetrate approximatelysix meters of rock and hardened concrete.That depth would be insufficient to destroysome Iranian targets.
The U.S. always could go a step further anddecide to use low-yield Earth-penetrating nuclearweapons against such a target, but itwould be extremely difficult to limit civiliancasualties in the event of such an attack. Sincemany of Iran’s nuclear facilities are locatedclose to civilian populations, significant numbersof noncombatants could be exposed todangerous levels of radiation.It is the uncertainty about the scope of theIranian program, coupled with a question ofIran’s willingness to escalate the conflict, thatis likely to lead to a full-blown war. Put anotherway, if the U.S. initiated air strikes againstIran’s known nuclear facilities, would it stopthere, or would it carry on to suspected nuclearas well as chemical and biological weaponssites? If not, Iran presumably could retaliateby using any unscathed weapons it may have. Would a campaign attempt to eliminate Iranianair defenses, which have been piled uparound the known nuclear sites? If not, Americanaircraft would be exposed to antiaircraftfire. What about Iranian command and controlnodes and the Iranian Revolutionary GuardCorps (IRGC)? Also, once Iran responded to aU.S. attack, would Washington target the Iranianleadership in Tehran?
Iranian counterstrategies and responses.One of the more commonly acknowledgeddifficulties for a preventive war strategy forIran is that the country holds a number ofcards to play against the U.S. in response. Firstamong them is the prospect that Iran’s politicaland military penetration of Iraq could lead to arapid escalation of violence in that country,and might well plunge the entire Persian Gulfregion into chaos.
In early 2006, U.S. intelligence warned ofthe 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 situationsin Iraq could become nightmarish if theU.S. were to attack Iran. In January 2006,powerful Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announcedthat, if Iran were attacked, Sadrwould throw his support behind Iran. Sadr’slarge militia, the Mahdi Army, has clashed repeatedlywith U.S. troops, and Sadr has becomea major player in Iraq’s national politics.
According to former National SecurityCouncil official Kenneth Pollack, Iran’s AyatollahAli Khamenei has "allowed the [Iranian]intelligence services to deploy to Iraq inforce and position themselves to fight a warthere if necessary." Pollack concludes that, ifIran decided to ratchet up its activity insideIraq, U.S. troubles in that country would "increasedramatically, perhaps even insurmountably."U.S. officials confirm this account, notingthat Iranian agents have poured moneyand personnel into southern Iraq in an effort tocreate a "greater Iran."
Another worry is the potential for Iran tolash out against Israel. Mohammad-EbrahimDehqani, commander of the IRCG’s 300,000troops, stated in May 2006 that "whereverAmerica does something evil, the first placethat we will target will be Israel." In August, amid-ranking Iranian cleric warned that Israelwould be in danger if it "makes an iota of aggressionagainst Iran." It is no secret that theIranian leadership and public see Israel and theU.S. as close allies, and would look upon anattack by one of them as an act of war by both.
The recent violence in Lebanon and northernIsrael has underscored another potentialIranian tactic: the use of proxies such asHezbollah to attack Israel. Even in the limitedconflict between Hezbollah and Israel, theArab force was able to achieve surprising tacticalsuccesses even against tough Israeli targets.Israeli tanks were struck by anti-tankmissiles, completely destroying more than adozen. More notably, Hezbollah’s ability touse a radar-guided missile to disable an Israeli warship on patrol in the Mediterranean Sea indicateda new level of sophistication in its attacks.Hezbollah killed 119 Israeli soldiersthroughout the conflict, including many membersof the elite Golani brigade. Despite thedeaths of 1,140 Lebanese civilians, Hezbollahwas able to avoid defeat against the elite Israelimilitary.
Presumably, if Iran were under attack,Hezbollah would be deployed more fullyagainst Israel, inflicting much more damagethan did its recent tactics. If Iran were to assaultIsrael directly, the U.S. could find itselfin a similar situation to the predicament duringthe first Gulf War, attempting to keep Israelout of a conflict for fear that its involvementcould cause the war to escalate and spreadthroughout the region. Although it is uncertainwhether Iran possesses large quantities ofchemical and biological weapons, if they dohave usable chemical or biological weapons,they may decide to employ them against Israelor against American troops in Iraq, or possiblyeven against U.S. territory. This prospectwould become far more likely if a conflict escalatedand threatened the survival of the Iranianregime. A cornered government in Tehranthat felt it had nothing to lose likely would actfar more recklessly than a government that feltconfident of its survival.
Paradoxically, the American emphasis on"force protection"--stationing U.S. troops onremote bases with a secure perimeter--couldmake our military personnel more vulnerableto targeted strikes by Iran. These secure andremote locations would provide relatively easytargets for focused attacks by conventionalforces like Iran’s. Keep in mind, too, that it isnot just the troops themselves that are vulnerable.As the old military adage holds, "Amateurstalk strategy. Professionals talk logistics."U.S. supply lines through southern Iraq wouldbe quite vulnerable to sabotage and attack,which quickly could imperil the entire U.S.occupation. Nearly all of the supplies thatcome into Iraq are transported from Kuwaitthrough southern Iraq, in supply trucks drivenby foreign civilians. As Patrick Lang, formerhead of the Near East bureau at the DefenseIntelligence Agency, observes: "If the route isindeed turned into a shooting gallery, thesecivilian truck drivers would not persist orwould require a heavier escort by the U.S. military.It might then be necessary to ‘fight’ thetrucks through ambushes on the roads."
Another concern is that Iran could employmines or small skiffs armed with anti-shipweapons or rigged for suicide attacks to shutdown or constrict oil shipments through theStrait of Hormuz, through which roughly 40%of the world’s oil flows. An attempt to closeoff the Strait would be a risky gambit. Doingso would invite wide opprobrium from the internationalcommunity, since it would causeoil prices to skyrocket, and would exposeIran’s limited naval capabilities to the vastlysuperior U.S. Navy. When Iran attempted tocause trouble in the Strait in 1988, during theso-called "tanker war," U.S. naval forcesshowed near-total dominance. Still, Iran coulddeploy a decidedly low-tech approach to theStrait, attempting at the least to raise insurancepremiums on tankers traveling through it toprohibitively high levels. To raise insurancepremiums--and, accordingly, the cost of petroleumproducts--would not require the inflictionof much damage on ships, per se. Itonly would be necessary for insurers to becomenervous that there is enough potentialdanger ahead to raise rates precipitously.
Iran could attempt to use a naval version ofthe asymmetric warfare that the Iraqi insurgentsare employing--and history indicatesthat, if they were creative, the Iranians couldcause notable damage. Minesweeping and detectionare particularly difficult tasks, and astrategy that deployed an irregular pattern ofmines would not need the use of high-techvessels or submarines. Mines could bedropped off the back of commercial vessels,potentially to strike oil tankers or naval shipsattempting to transit the Strait specifically orthe Persian Gulf more generally.
The prospect of some attempt to disrupt oilshipments--or even assault U.S. naval vessels--in the Strait of Hormuz cannot be discounted,although it is relatively unlikely thatIran would attempt to sustain a cutoff of itsown oil to world markets. As Secretary Ricehas noted, "I think something like 80% ofIran’s budget comes from oil revenue, and soobviously it would be a very serious problemfor Iran if oil were disrupted on the market."Although the figure is closer to 60%, the Secretary’slogic stands.
While Rice’s recognition that Iran would beunlikely to disrupt its oil flows is convincing,it calls into question a fundamental assumptionabout U.S. security policy in the MiddleEast. Since the Reagan Administration, one ofthe cornerstones of U.S. policy has been tomaintain a presence of American troops in theregion in order to ensure that oil would makeit out of the ground and to market. (Originally,this deployment was spawned by fears that theSoviet Union would attempt to take over Iranianoil fields.) However, Rice’s recognitionthat Iran--and, by logical extension, othercountries in the Persian Gulf--has every incentiveto get its own oil to market seems toremove the argument that the U.S. militarymust be in place to secure the oil.
However, doubts that Iran could close theStrait of Hormuz or take its oil offline shouldnot remove fears about either the security ofthe Strait or skyrocketing oil prices. Iran couldcalculate that doing limited damage would beworth the trouble, in that it would raise theprice of oil, which would increase Iranian revenues.According to Great Britain’s CambridgeEnergy Research Associates, a five dollar increasein oil prices would put an additional$85,000,000 per week into Iran’s coffers.
Unintended consequences inside andoutside Iran. These include encouraging evenmore nuclear proliferation, as Washington’sadversaries conclude that nuclear weapons arethe only way of deterring U.S.-led regimechange; causing large-scale civilian casualties,which would further pollute America’s imagein the world; and damaging the limitedprospects for political and economic liberalizationinside Iran.
Since the Cold War ended, the U.S. has embraceda transformative foreign policy that hasfocused on fundamentally altering the internationalorder. This approach is seen as inherentlydangerous to many countries, given U.S.military action against Serbia and Iraq, amongother 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 explicitlyput them on notice in the infamous "axisof evil" speech. Of the axis, the one countrythe U.S. suspected had nuclear weapons, NorthKorea, essentially has been untouched. Theone country we were certain did not have nuclearweapons, Iraq, was invaded.
A dangerous neighborhood
In addition, Iran lives in a notoriously roughneighborhood. India and Pakistan possess nuclearweapons, as does Russia, just to the region’snorth. Turkey rests under the NATOumbrella, and Israel owns nuclear weapons ofits own. In the end, attacking Iran only wouldunderscore further the dilemma faced by statesthat find themselves on Washington’s hit list.Without nuclear weapons, there is no assurancethat the U.S. will not attack--other than supineacquiescence to Washington’s various demands.As Nobel laureate Thomas Schellingexplains, the perverse fact is that America’scounterproliferation policy is a prime driver ofproliferation.
The next unintended consequence wouldbe the effect Iranian civilian casualties wouldhave on American diplomatic standing and thehatred of the U.S. that it would generate in Islamiccountries. While concern for civilian casualtiesshould not be a debate-stopper interms of policy decisions, any decision to attackIran should be evaluated in terms of howit would affect the war on terror. Even thevastly more limited attack against Lebanon byIsrael in the summer of 2006, which produced,in the low estimate, casualties in the high hundreds,resulted in an extremely detrimental politicalblowback against Israel. Civilian casualties in Iran would be aired again and again inArab and Muslim media, and the political consequencesalmost certainly would be worse forAmerica than the consequences Israel sufferedin the Lebanon war. The fact is, starting a warwith a third Islamic country in the span of severalyears surely would be used as evidencethat Osama bin Laden’s predictions about U.S.intentions were correct.
Finally, the implications that a U.S.-Iranwar would have on the prospect of gradualIranian political and economic liberalization--the factors most relevant to the eventual erosionof the clerical regime in Tehran--wouldbe dire. It is quite difficult to find an Iraniandissident who supports an American attack onthe Iranian nuclear program; even the hardlineNCRI and MEK oppose military action. Nobellaureate and Iranian dissident Shirin Ebadihas warned that "any attack on Iran will begood for the government and will actuallydamage the democratic movement."
The people misleading the Bush Administrationare American neoconservatives, whohave argued alternatively that bombing Iranwould be good for democracy, or that the effecton liberalization is irrelevant. Some claimthat bombing Iran could lead the Iranian oppositionto overthrow the government as it wouldcause the Iranian people to reconsider whetherthey really want to have this regime in power.
The American Enterprise Institute’s ReuelMarc Gerecht, meanwhile, while agreeing thatstarting a war with Iran "would actually accelerateinternal debate and soul-searching," believesthat that factor is largely beside thepoint. In Gerecht’s view, the nuclear clock, underthe best circumstances, still is movingfaster than the regime-change clock, so there islittle point in worrying about what a warwould do for Iranian liberalization.
The hope also has been voiced that the U.S.could tolerate a subsequent, less confrontationalIranian regime’s acquisition of nuclearweapons. However, if attacking in the firstplace delays or disrupts the prospect of a differentregime taking power, this entire line of reasoningcollapses. To the extent that setting backthe date that Iran acquires a nuclear capabilityalso strengthens the current regime’s hold onpower, the goal of preventing the currentregime from getting a bomb is not furthered.
Many of the leading proponents of "limited"military strikes against Iran’s nuclear programhave regime change very much in mindas the ultimate strategy. However, what if theIranian people did decide to overthrow theirgovernment under bombardment from theU.S.? What would Iran’s 70,000,000 peopledo then? America’s strategy of "creative destruction,"in the apt phrasing of the NationalReview’s Michael Ledeen, has led to much destructionand little creation in Iraq. Who wouldtake power in Iran? Would the deep ethnic andsectarian fissures that are touted as such asource of weakness for the Iranian regimebubble up to the surface and create a low-levelcivil war similar to what is occurring in Iraq?What would be the medium- and long-termstrategic implications? The prospect of targetedair strikes eventually escalating to regimechange raises a whole host of questions aboutthe postwar environment, and these questionshave not been addressed by war proponents.Similar questions either were not asked orwere answered with propaganda and wishfulthinking before the Iraqi war, and Americastill is paying the price.
Although the preventive war option fordealing with Iran’s nuclear program is remarkablyunappealing, the prospect of deterrenceraises a host of undesirable consequences aswell. The first concern must be the question ofrationality. Some scholars have charged thatstrategic thinking in Iran is dominated not bythe balance of power, or by dispassionate calculationof risk versus reward, but by theologicaland ideological imperatives. To thesescholars, Iran would be prone to makingstrategically foolish decisions--potentiallyeven a suicidal nuclear first strike--due to ideologicalor theological impulses. This argumentdeserves serious consideration, since acceptinga view of the Iranian leadership as irrationalwould make all other concerns moot.
Are the Mullahs really crazy? The questionof how to deal with the Islamic Republicwould change dramatically if one were to acceptthe assumption that the regime in Tehranacts not according to rational calculations, buttheological and ideological ones. The allegationthat the Islamic Republic fundamentally isundeterrable has become common. Hawkishcommentators seize upon Iranian Pres. MahmoudAhmadinejad’s many bizarre and reprehensiblestatements about the Holocaust, andthe Iranian government’s desire to "wipe Israeloff the map." Although the comments havegotten new currency in the context of the nucleardispute, it is important to recognize thatthese claims have been a part of Iranian boilerplatefor years, and similar statements havebeen uttered by a broad swathe of political figures.Similarly, the repellent chants of "Deathto America! Death to Israel!" that are shoutedat Friday prayers in Tehran are a long-standingfeature of Iranian society, and actually havebeen waning in fervor in recent years.
None of that consistency particularly is reassuringin itself, but it does demonstrate thatthere has not been a noticeable shift in policyin Tehran that has thrown the levers of powerto a madman who acts outside the standard(admittedly poisonous) political rhetoric ofIran--and continuity in rhetoric does not suggestchange in policy. Moreover, this regimeprobably can be deterred, either from using itsnuclear arsenal or from taking other aggressiveactions in the belief that its nuclear arsenalwill itself deter countermoves by the U.S.or other states. Of course, it is impossible toprove that the Iranians will not act in a givenway at some point in the future, but we can examinethe track record of the Islamic Republicin search for any evidence that its leadership isirrational. Looking at the decisions Iran hasmade since the Iranian Revolution, its leadershiplooks more than rational--it appears to bequite savvy, and prone to quite pragmaticchanges of course when confronted with overwhelmingforce.
Take, for instance, Iran’s behavior duringthe Iran-Iraq war. Early rhetoric from Iran wasuncompromising, including clear indicationsin November 1981 that the newly-minted Islamicgovernment in Tehran had no intentionof stopping the war as long as Saddam Husseinremained 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 duringthe conflict. The Iranians were taking gravelosses. When, by 1988, a long string of devastatingtactical routs made clear that outrightstrategic defeat was imminent, the Iranianleadership changed course. It sued for peace,jettisoning its original objective to depose Saddamand took a deal that left Iran on the lightside of the post-war balance of power.
Also, if Iran were to launch a nuclear firststrike, it would be subject to the same sort ofmassive response as any other state. For theleadership in Tehran to enact such a policy, itwould have to be suicidal. The somewhatmore plausible prospect that Iran would givenuclear weapons to a terrorist proxy likewiseis highly unlikely. Iran never has been knownto have transferred chemical or biologicalweapons to Hezbollah, presumably for fear ofIsraeli retaliation if they were used. The transferof weapons out of control of the Tehrangovernment to a nonstate group would beviewed as an act of war by the U.S. and immediatelybring an end to the ruling regime.
An emboldened Iran and the regional response.One of the other major concerns aboutIran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapons capabilityis that it could make a play for regionalhegemony in the Persian Gulf. That, in turn,could cause neighboring countries to seek nucleardeterrents of their own. Some observersfear that this arms race could lead to growingfear and insecurity among governments in theregion, leaving better-armed governments onhair-trigger alert from fear of their neighbors.This concern probably is real, but overstated.Those who fear the prospect of an arms race inthe Middle East insist that it would increase thelikelihood of war but, in fact, war becomesmore likely if neighboring states do not arm themselves. If neighboring states maintain theircurrent, anemic military efforts and allow Iranto build power based on its nuclear capability,that would increase the likelihood of war bylowering the perceived cost to Iran of provokingconflict. As it happens, there is evidencethat neighboring states do recognize the threatof a nuclear Iran and are beginning to considerappropriate measures.
Still, some Arab countries hold fast to theidea that Iran’s potential nuclearization is foremostan issue between Iran and the U.S., andthereby of only secondary relevance to them.Richard Russell, a professor at the NationalDefense University, reports that there is a "fairlycommonly held view" in Arab security circlesthat Iran’s acquisition of a bomb merely"would ‘balance’ Israeli and American nuclearweapons." However, Arab states need to recognizethat their ordering of the threats is backward--the first danger from an Iranian nuclearweapon would be to them, and the secondarydanger would be to the U.S. Attempting to takethe Arab countries under an American securityumbrella would be incredibly risky, and furthervalidate the claim that the U.S. is the protectorof repressive Arab governments. Meanwhile,just as it was during the Cold War, extendeddeterrence would be a commitment of dubiouscredibility: Would America really risk a nuclearexchange over its currently enunciated interestsin, say, Bahrain?
How to handle Iraq in the context of a nuclearIran would be an even tougher problem.Depending on when an Iranian bomb came online,Iran easily could attempt to ratchet up itsactivities inside Iraq, raising the frighteningprospect of open confrontation between Iranand the U.S. inside Iraq. Further, it is uncertainwhat kind of presence the U.S. would have inIraq by the time Iran acquired a nuclear capability.
"Iran . . . can be destroyed"
Remember, too, however, as Israeli VicePremier Shimon Peres mentioned last year,"When it comes to destruction, Iran, too, canbe destroyed." Israel is thought to possessroughly 200 nuclear weapons, dispersedthroughout the (admittedly small) territory ofits nation. Given that Israel reportedly possessesnuclear equipped Jericho-2 missiles in hardenedsilos and submarines armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles--both of whichare extremely difficult to destroy, even withhighly accurate weapons--it is clear that anyconceivable Iranian first strike in the foreseeablefuture would not constrain Israel’s retaliatorycapability. In addition, an Israeli secondstrike would have a devastating effect on Iran,as roughly two-thirds of its population is locatedin urban centers.
A nuclear Iran will "cramp our style"--andIsrael’s. Another likely result of Iran’s acquisitionof a nuclear weapon is that Iran will use itsdeterrent to limit U.S. and Israeli policy optionsin the Middle East. While this is true, it becomesmuch less important if the U.S. revisesits grandiose and radical foreign policy posture.Many fear an Iranian bomb because they favora revolutionary American foreign policy that attemptsto use force to transform regimes Washingtondislikes. Although the Bush doctrine’sfailures are on display daily in Iraq, there remainsa chance that the Administration--or asubsequent administration--could decide onanother rash, excessive use of the U.S. military.An Iranian bomb would, in almost any foreseeablescenario, essentially eliminate the optionof forcible regime change in Iran.
If America intends to remain unconstrainedby anything other than its own will in terms ofits policy in the greater Middle East, then nuclearweapons indeed will give Iran influencethat it does not possess at present. However, toevaluate the extent to which Iranian acquisitionof a nuclear weapons capability wouldconstrain America’s options, it is necessary todetermine where Iranian and U.S. interests arelikely to clash, and to further evaluate them inthe context of nuclear deterrence.
The threat of nuclear retaliation is mostcredible when it is tied to core interests of astate, such as government survival and territorialintegrity. While a nuclear capability essentiallywould take "regime change" off the table,it would not give Iran carte blanche to act as itpleases with respect to all of its foreign policygoals, because threats to use nuclear weaponsto secure peripheral interests would be vastlyless credible. Still, Iran could intensify its fightagainst Kurdish elements in Iraq, or increase itssupport for anti-Israel terrorist groups, confidentthat should its proxies be discovered, Israelwould be afraid to retaliate.
The first way to limit the danger inherent insuch a scenario is to increase communicationamong Israel, the U.S., and Iran. As JudithYaphe and Charles Lutes of the National DefenseUniversity have noted, it is the lack ofcommunication over so-called "red lines" thatmakes the prospect of a nuclearized Iran sodangerous. Deterrence is contingent not juston capability, but on credibility, and opening achannel of communication among adversarieswould help limit the potential for miscalculation.Further, Israeli strategists have been consideringthe implications of proliferation in theMiddle East for decades. One of the clarifyingeffects that this thinking has had on Israelistrategy is the recognition that a nuclear counterpointin the Middle East would prompt Israelto define for itself what its vital interests are.
Actually, Iran--with or without a nuclearweapons capability--should be relativelypleased with the developments in its overallsecurity environment over the past five years.Washington removed two hostile regimes onIran’s borders--Taliban Afghanistan and SaddamHussein’s Iraq--and it has not replacedthem with effective, strong governments thatcould rival Tehran’s power or diminish its legitimacyby providing examples of stable, liberaldemocracy in the Muslim world. Soaringoil prices have generated significant revenues,propping up Iran’s otherwise sclerotic economyand making the country an increasinglyimportant economic power in Eurasia. GivenIran’s open hostility to Israel and its tensionswith Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and other neighboringstates with sizeable Shi’a communities,the Iranian regime might well be more conservativeand certainly much more at peace withthe status quo than Western commentatorshave taken to suggesting.
Closer to home, Washington’s perceptionof itself as omnipotent has led to excesses inits Middle East strategy, such as the Iraqi operation,as well as a strategic myopia in terms ofits diplomatic posture in the Middle East.Washington long has promoted and encouragedIsrael’s unrealistic approach to security. Ithas refused to stop the expansion of settlementsin the West Bank and backed the ill-advisedassault on Lebanon’s civilian infrastructurein July 2006. U.S. support for Israeli expansionhas damaged America’s reputation inthe world and done little to put Israel on a pathto long-term security.
Embracing a posture of deterrence wouldprevent the inevitable loss of American lifethat would result from a war. Moreover, hundredsof billions of dollars would be left in theproductive economy rather than being allocatedto attempting to destroy Iran’s nuclear program.The mullahs in Iran would remain unpopular,unable to use the American bogeymanto consolidate support internally.
In the end, it is difficult to avoid the conclusionthat, absent some very shaky assumptionsabout the Iranian leadership’s rationality, deterrenceis a preferable policy to preventivewar. The latter option opens so many uncertaintiesthat are out of the range of control ofthe American government that it should belooked on as a supremely undesirable policy.Deterrence is not "satisfying," in that it doesnot produce a decisive outcome quickly, butneither, in this case, would preventive war.
The U.S. should start preparing for a policyof deterrence--including the potential drawbacksand dangers. The consequences of a"nuclear" preventive war with Iran easilycould be worse than what has occurred afterthe "weapons of mass destruction" preventivewar in Iraq. Neither the Bush Administrationnor the country should seek to make the samemistake twice.