I’d like to discuss the risk of war – the chance that international confrontation with Iranover its nuclear program will end in military attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
On one hand, there is a strong consensus in the U.S. (and even more so in Israel) that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an unacceptable threat to Israel’s security, regional stability and the long term survival of the NPT regime, which implies willingness to use force if other means fail. As you all know, theU.S.has refused to rule out the use of force and the professional military in the U.S.and Israelhave done extensive planning, with several different targeting options.
On the other hand, these military options are seen as undesirable for three main reasons:
First, the utility of military strikes, in terms of how much damage it would inflict on Iran’s nuclear capabilities and on how long it would take for Iranto rebuild in the aftermath of an attack, is uncertain. How much time would military attacks buy? Ten years? Five years? Two years? It’s very hard to estimate, especially because Iran has halted IAEA access to facilities for the production of nuclear-related components since January 2006. Even if you assume that Iran’s known nuclear facilities could be destroyed by air strikes and that Iran does not have significant secret facilities for the production of fissile material (both of which I believe is true), Iran has probably taken the precaution of stockpiling material and equipment so it could recover from military attack as quickly as possible. Moreover,Iran would probably withdraw from the NPT after an attack, which would allow it to rebuild without international inspection and therefore be more able to hide the facilities from a second wave of attacks in the future. In short, very few people believe that air strikes can stop Iran’s program; at best, it can delayIran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capacity for some uncertain period of time.
Second, against this uncertain value of air strikes, Iranis likely to retaliate in some way, which would threaten U.S.interests and allies in the region and possibly escalate into a broader conflict. Most experts think that Iran’s retaliation would be measured and indirect, such as encouraging attacks by Shia militias against U.S. forces in Iraq or Hezbollah attacks against Israel, rather than launching missiles at Israel or attacking shipping in the Persian Gulf, which would invite certain escalation. Nonetheless, even indirect retaliation could get out of hand – another round in southern Lebanonor direct clashes between U.S.and Iranian forces along the border withIraqand in the Gulf. In the worst case, oil supplies and transportation could be disrupted, with significant economic repercussions.
Finally, an attack on Iranwould provoke a strong political reaction, both in the region and internationally. In the Arab street, Washington’s efforts to pull together a Sunni axis to counter Iranian influence in the region and restart the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians could be fatally wounded. More broadly, U.S.efforts - along with the Europeans - to build a P-5 consensus in the Security Council against Iran’s nuclear program would be shattered, unless Irantook some action that would be seen as justifying a military response. Most likely, the U.S.or Israelwould be acting alone, with no public support from any other country.
For all these disadvantages and risks, military force is truly seen as an option of last resort. Moreover, Washingtonand the key European countries are growing more confident that their diplomatic strategy of pressuringIranto suspend its enrichment program as a condition for holding multilateral negotiations with the P-5 plusGermany is beginning to gain traction inTehran. Last fall, Iran’s position looked impregnable. Iranwas flush with oil money and reflected glory for supporting Hezbollah against Israel. The big powers were squabbling over UN sanctions, with Moscowseemingly opposed to even symbolic sanctions. InIraq, the U.S. position was in free fall, which gaveTehranconfidence that Washingtoncould not afford to risk another conflict.
Since the passage of UNSCR 1737 in December, however, the balance has begun to shift. To Tehran’s dismay, Moscowand Beijingdecided to support the Western strategy of incremental economic sanctions to pressure Iranto suspend its enrichment program. Although 1737 did not impose significant sanctions against Iran, a number of private businesses have decided to limit their financial exposure in Iran. The new draft resolution – which was agreed to in record time by the P-5 – expands the existing sanctions (e.g. targeting financial sanctions against Bank Sepah and Revolutionary Guard Commanders) and hints at additional mandatory sanctions (e.g. arms embargo and ban on export credits) if Iran continues to defy the Security Council. At the same time, the resolution endorses the P-5 plus Germanyoffer to begin negotiations withIranand implicitly offers to suspend sanctions during the talks if Iranagrees to suspend enrichment during the same period. According to press reports, Russiahas decided to suspend support for Bushehr until Irancomplies with the UNSC demands.
Within the region, Iran’s rising power has stimulated a counter reaction among the Sunni Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, for example, has embarked on diplomatic efforts to limit Iran’s influence (e.g. the Meccaaccords) and is maintaining high oil production, thereby lowering world oil prices and contributing to economic pressure on Iran. In Iraq, the U.S. has pursued a more aggressive strategy against Iranian influence, and the surge appears to have improved the security situation in Baghdad, at least driving Shia militias to ground for the time being. At the same time, Washingtonhas stepped up diplomatic efforts, making clear its willingness to engage with Iran.
Of course, it remains unclear whether this strategy of increased pressure on one hand and increased offers of engagement on the other will be sufficient to convinceIran to accept a temporary suspension of its enrichment program as a basis for international negotiations. One theory is that Irancontinues to be confident that it can press ahead with its enrichment program despite international pressure, although it might take a less confrontational tone. Another theory is thatIran is waiting until it achieves a technical threshold – such as completing a pilot scale enrichment plant – before deciding to go back to the bargaining table. Most likely, Iranis divided and undecided and it may take several more rounds of UNSC resolutions before Irandecides whether Irandecides to seek a face saving arrangement to return to the bargaining table.
In any event, Washingtonfeels it has time to play out the diplomatic hand because Iranis having trouble solving technical problems with its centrifuge machines. On paper, Iran has installed 4 of the 18 cascades (164 machines per cascade) planned for its pilot scale enrichment plant and plans to complete the remaining 14 cascades by May 2007, for a total of nearly 3,000 machines. Even if Iran meets this schedule, the belief in Western intelligence circles is that a large portion of these machines are likely to break if Iran attempts to operate them at high speeds necessary for efficient enrichment.
So, to conclude, a military strike againstIranis not in cards for the time being. Washington believes that its diplomatic strategy is beginning to wear down Iran’s resistance, and the U.S.is willing to be patient because it believes Iranis not making rapid progress towards acquiring a credible nuclear weapons capability. However, if Iranbegins to overcome these technical problems, and diplomatic pressures and inducements fail to persuadeIranto suspend its enrichment program, the military option will come into play, despite all the risks and downsides.
Finally, Washington’s willingness to seriously consider military force is not peculiar to President Bush. Of course, to some extent,Washington’s threats are intended as psychological warfare, to pressure Iranand to convince the other P-5 to support muscular multilateral diplomacy, backed by sanctions, as the best alternative to avoid war. But I think it goes deeper than that. Given America’s special friendship with Israel and its special tensions with Iran – combined with the fact that the military option is available in terms of raw military power – I expect that the next U.S. administration – whether Democratic or Republican - will also be prepared to seriously consider military options if diplomacy fails.