There has been much rhetoric suggesting that the United States, Israel, or both could become embroiled in a military conflict with Iran. While Jeffrey Goldberg has suggested in The Atlantic that Iran may be able to breathe easy for up to a year, former US ambassador to the UN John Bolton gave the country only days. Whether driven by fear or excitement, it is easy to get caught up in the march to war. But it is crucial to take a step back and evaluate before sounding the drums.
It won't work. Barry Rubin, Director of Global Research for the International Affairs Center, writes that in the case of an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, "There's simply too much that could go wrong."
Like Iraq after the first Gulf War, an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities now will simply set the stage for a full-scale war later. Even if all of Iran's nuclear facilities can be located and destroyed, ruling hardliners would begin rebuilding these facilities immediately. This time, though, it would be without the constraints of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Safeguards Agreement. In no more than a few years, Iran's program would be back on track and more likely to succeed without the prying eyes of weapons inspectors.
Joshua Pollack, a US government consultant, and blogger for Arms Control Wonk and columnist for the Bulletin, aptly notes that "The name of the game today isn't bombing, it's intelligence." Even if the US were to develop the perfect plan of attack on one or many of Iran's current nuclear facilities, recent developments in Iran have proven that the regime would be unlikely to use a well-known facility, such as the one at Natanz, to make highly enriched uranium for a bomb. In a more likely scenario, Iran would develop one or more facilities like the one near the city of Qom, exposed in September 2009. In the end, if Iran plans to enrich uranium to weapons grade at a secret facility similar to Qom, bombing "the uranium-enrichment facility at Natanz, the formerly secret enrichment site at Qom, the nuclear-research center at Esfahan, and possibly even the Bushehr reactor, along with the other main sites of the Iranian nuclear program," which Goldberg writes are the most likely targets, would achieve little to nothing.
"To play for time, we try to catch Iran at building [a hidden facility]," says Pollack, naming such facility "Son of Qom." "But when that happens, if we are clever, we won't bomb Son of Qom … Instead, we'll shut that sucker down with a press conference." As it turns out, US intelligence began picking up signs that someone was tunneling into the side of a mountain in the desert three years before the facility was revealed to the world. When Iran realized its endeavor was exposed, it rushed to declare the facility's existence to the IAEA, hoping to pre-empt other reports. Instead, the joint announcement by President Barack Obama, French President Nicholas Sarkozy and then-British Prime Minister Gordon Brown at the opening of the 2009 Group of 20 (G-20) summit in Pittsburgh shattered any image of Iran's openness and cooperation and led to the opening of Iran's Qom facility to IAEA inspections, making it much less likely that the facility will be used to build a bomb. For Iran, it was on to Plan C.
An Israeli attack. Israel has attacked and destroyed an enemy's nuclear reactor twice. In 1981, Israeli warplanes successfully bombed the Iraqi reactor at Osirak. Likewise, in 2007 Israel destroyed a North Korean-built reactor in Syria. Iran is different. Cognizant of those previous attacks, Iranian leaders have hardened and dispersed their nuclear installations, and several important facilities are located in Tehran or near other population centers. The Qom facility, for example, is built inside a mountain for maximum protection from a possible aerial attack.
Two separate analyses conducted in 2009 and 2010 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies concluded that the US is "the only country that can launch a successful military solution" in Iran. Authors Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman argue that an Israeli attack "would be complex and high risk at the operational level and would lack any assurances of a high mission success rate."
A war game conducted in December 2009 by the Brookings Institution posited a unilateral Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. In the scenario, Iran launched ballistic missiles at Israel's air bases and its Dimona nuclear facility. While Hezbollah and Hamas began new rocket campaigns, drawing Israel back into Lebanon, Iran began a campaign of international terrorism in Europe designed to undermine Western support for Israel. In the game, America hoped to remain on the sidelines. However, when Iran began to mine the Strait of Hormuz, a key choke point for global oil trade, it crossed a US "red line." The game ended with a massive US buildup in the region and the prospect of a major conventional war between the United States and Iran.
Iran has threatened to close the Strait. While this threat concerns American military planners, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in July 2008 that the Iranians "have capabilities that could certainly hazard the Straits of Hormuz, but … I believe the ability to sustain that is not there." Regardless, the price of oil would spike immediately in the event of a closure.
In April 2010, Admiral Mullen told an audience at Columbia University that, "Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome … In an area that's so unstable right now, we just don't need more of that."
Alternatively, a preemptive nuclear attack is highly unlikely. The consequences of a nuclear attack on Iran would be devastating for the entire region, a fact Israel is not unaware of. To assume that domestic politics would support a preemptive attack is ingenuous.
Iran's response to an attack. In the wake of an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, Iran will almost certainly assume the implicit involvement of the US. According to retired Army Col. Sam Gardiner, Iran could face three options:
1) Iran could decide not to respond immediately and to accept a period of 'victim status,' gaining support within the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world.
2) Iran could respond with low-DNA attacks (not attributable to itself) against Israeli and U.S. interests.
3) Iran could respond with full and open military attacks.
Gardiner also points out, however, that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard will push for a hard-line against the US and Israel, making it difficult to control escalation. For this reason and others, the first option can be seen as highly unlikely.
During remarks at the New America Foundation in September 2009, retired Gen. Anthony Zinni pointed to just a few of the consequences that could result from a military strike on Iran. Zinni noted that he often responds to advocates of such strikes with "And then what?"
"After you've dropped those bombs on those hardened facilities, what happens next? What happens if they decide, in their hardened shelters with their mobile missiles, to start launching those? What happens if they launch them into U.S. bases on the other side of the gulf? What happens if they launch into Israel, or somewhere else? Into a Saudi oil field? Into Ras Laffan, with all the natural gas? What happens if they now flush their fast patrol boats, their cruise missiles, the [unclear] full of mines, and they sink a tanker, an oil tanker? And of course the economy of the world goes absolutely nuts. What happens if they activate sleeper cells? The MOIS, the intelligence service -- what happens if another preemptive attack by the West, the U.S. and Israel, they fire up the streets and now we got problems. Just tell me how to deal with all that, okay? Because, eventually, if you follow this all the way down, eventually I'm putting boots on the ground somewhere."
A reaction might also be expected from Hezbollah and Hamas. In April, Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned of the "ever increasing capability" of Hezbollah's weapons, which have ballooned to a point where, according to Gates, "Hezbollah has far more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world." Whatever Iran's initial reaction, it is easy to see how escalation can occur.
Retired Army Col. David E. Johnson has noted that Iran's response may not even have to be so drastic to have an effect. There is a much simpler option available to Iran: dramatically step up its support of insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. "This response is far more likely and, consequently, more worrisome," says Johnson.
Iran already provides financial and military support to Shiite militias in Iraq. In 2005, Iran began arming Moqtada al-Sadr's "Mahdi Army" (Jaysh al-Mahdi, or JAM) militia through the Revolutionary Guard's "Quds (Jerusalem) Force," the unit that assists Iranian protégé forces abroad. Sadr's political faction held 30 total seats in the 2006-2010 parliament and garnered a significant, dedicated following among lower-class Iraqi Shiites. Between 2004 and 2008, al-Sadr alternately unleashed and reined in the JAM in response to what he deemed a US "occupation" of Iraq.
Most likely, Tehran has weapons caches that include improvised explosive devices (IED), mortars, short-range rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and a variety of small arms and ammunition.
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On July 2, 2007, Brig. Kevin Bergner said that Hezbollah was involved in assisting the Quds Force in aiding Iraqi Shiite militias. He added that Iran gives about $3 million per month to these Iraqi militias. He based his statement on the March 2007 capture of former al-Sadr aide Qais Khazali and Lebanese Hezbollah operative Ali Musa Daqduq, who were allegedly involved in the January 2007 killing of five US personnel in Karbala.
Moreover, Iran has a history of supplying surrogates to do its fighting, including its arming in 2006, along with Syria, of Hezbollah in the second Lebanon war against Israel. In 2006, Hezbollah employed a variety of rockets with ranges of 20 to 100 kilometers, high-end antitank guided missiles, anti-ship missiles and even unmanned aerial vehicles. As of yet, none of these weapons has shown up in significant numbers in Iraq or Afghanistan. If Iran did introduce them, the level of violence could escalate significantly.
In Afghanistan, Iran has waged what former CIA officer Bob Baer calls a war by proxy, supplying and training what is today commonly known as the Northern Alliance. Politically, Iran's influence is also great. During the rule of the Taliban and since, Iran has pursued a strategy of supporting Afghan minorities, both Shia and Sunni. Iran commands significant influence over the Shia population, which accounts for 19 percent of the country's people. In addition, Iran has established a network of support among Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, who together make up 30 percent of the population.
If Iran wishes to escalate tensions in Iraq or Afghanistan, it could accomplish this task without directly engaging coalition personnel with its own military forces.
A strike will help -- not hurt -- the regime. The Carnegie Endowment's Karim Sadjadpour has written that he is convinced "Khamenei and Ahmadinejad would actually welcome a military strike it may be their only hope to silence popular dissent and heal internal political rifts." The country's right to nuclear power is widely supported by Iranians. The use of force against Iran is not likely to cultivate divisions among the Iranian leadership or strengthen the democracy movement.
Externally, if Iran were to play the victim, it might increase its chances for sympathy from countries that would otherwise be inclined to shun it. In the end, Iran's rulers could emerge far stronger than they currently are, giving Iran a convenient excuse to point a finger at the West.
This has happened before. In a discussion at the Cato Institute in May 2010, Iranian dissident journalist Akbar Ganji noted that by taking out the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, "the US inadvertently increased Iranian power and reach in the Middle East."
A 2008 Brookings report by Suzanne Maloney and Ray Takeyh reached a similar conclusion:
"Tehran now has acquired the means to influence all of the region's security dilemmas, and it appears unlikely that any of the Arab world's crises, from the persistent instability in Iraq and Lebanon to security of the Persian Gulf, can be resolved without Iran's acquiescence or assistance."
There is still time for a negotiated solution. The facts on Iran's nuclear program are often misconstrued. Multiple steps are involved in the construction of and ability to deliver a nuclear weapon that go far beyond the enrichment of uranium to 20 percent, which Iran achieved in February of this year.
First, Iran needs a stockpile of low enriched uranium (LEU), which it has. LEU can be used to power peaceful civilian reactors, or enriched further to build bombs. The most recent data indicates that Iran has enough LEU to construct two bombs, but only if that uranium is enriched. It is important to note that it is far more difficult and time-consuming to enrich uranium from less than 1 percent to 20 percent than from 20 percent to 90 percent. So, with this in mind, Iran isn't far off. In April 2010 Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Burgess and Gen. James Cartwright testified to Congress that Iran could potentially produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear bomb within one year.
In the same testimony, General Cartwright reported to Congress that it would take "another two to three, potentially out to five, years to move from the idea of having the material to… something that can actually create a detonation, an explosion that would be considered a nuclear weapon." Cartwright further clarified that, should the enrichment of uranium and the development of a weapon take place simultaneously, "experience says that it's gonna take you three to five years" before Iran is in possession of a capable nuclear weapon.
After three to five years, Iran still will still need a reliable means of delivery. Iran's current ballistic missiles could reach Israel, Turkey, and portions of southeastern Europe. They could not reach the United States.
An April 2009 report of the US Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated that "With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015." This exact wording would later appear in the Pentagon's April 2010 report submitted to Congress. The prospect does not, however, seem likely. Looking back at the past decade of intelligence estimates, the Arms Control Association's Greg Thielmann notes that, "the only significant change made in estimating Iran's ICBM timeline has been to lengthen it." In a more likely estimate, a May 2010 report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) found that an Iranian ICBM remains "more than a decade away from development."
Doing the math, this means that Iran will not possess a meaningful nuclear threat to Israel, Turkey, or southeastern Europe for a minimum of three years and could not threaten the US and Western Europe for at least a decade if Iran does not succeed in obtaining outside assistance. This is not to suggest that Iran should be allowed to achieve such capacity, but to be clear that a highly significant amount of time still exists to work toward a negotiated solution.
Moving forward. Dealing with Iran's nuclear program demands patience. The likelihood of a successful strike on Iran's nuclear facilities is small, but the consequences would be dire. Before such a crucial decision is made, it is important to step back and evaluate the many options still available. Iran's nuclear program is not yet at its tipping point, and sanctions have already begun to show an effect on Iran's leaders. The US should continue to work toward a negotiated solution.