… Hit ‘em Low… and if they get up, Hit ‘em Again*
If, as some analysts suggest, Iran could achieve a nuclear “breakout capability” in 2009, is there anything that the use of force can achieve to prevent this?
The answer to this question is multifaceted and contingent. It depends, in the first place, on how the question is posed. It also depends on who is undertaking the use of force, and what the precise objectives are. Ultimately, the single, bottom-line answer is yes – but only if sufficient force is used, for the objectives it is suited for, and only if the will exists to pursue those objectives. Lesser objectives, and less force, will not achieve a satisfactory outcome. I believe that conundrum represents much of what stayed the hand of the Bush administration throughout his tenure in office.
Terms and Conditions
To frame the question, we have to consider what it is we want to achieve. There has been little to no public clarity on this subject. In the broadest sense, Iran’s nuclear programs are a classic targeting exercise, requiring answers on political objectives, strategic posture, and military goals. Most Westerners have thought solely in the simplest of terms: keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or at least from building an arsenal of them.
But that objective has to be broken down further. Do we want to delay the progress of Iran’s nuclear programs? Do we want to set back Iran’s nuclear programs – undo work already completed — so that she has to reconstitute them, over a period of months or years? Or do we want to ensure, for the foreseeable future, that Iran will be compelled to cease work, and not resume any element of a nuclear weapons program?
These are objectives of different scope, and we would use different forms of force to pursue them. I urge readers to think about what it is they imagine we want to do, and have such ideas clear in their minds as we proceed. This problem is not as simple as it looks. What we will discover is that the objective we select will dictate everything else we do – and will also, I argue, dictate whether we succeed or not. Picking an objective that cannot be achieved guarantees failure, regardless of the quality of one’s military or even national will.
The tools of force are a bit more straightforward. Military force can be organized for certain kinds of sanctions enforcement, air and naval blockade, counterforce attacks on ships and aircraft, air and missile attacks on targets on land, special operations attacks on different kinds of targets, and ground force invasion.
Alert readers will note at this point that ideally, we would decide on our political objective before going any further. The process unfolds this way surprisingly seldom: more often, presidents and Secretaries of Defense look at military capabilities and build political objectives around them. The shortcomings of this method are a topic for another post; my point here is that it mirrors the typical process pretty well to throw some options against the wall and look at them in the natural packages they tend to form.
We need not reduce this to a matter of picking options from Column A and Column B – but the military tools do sort themselves out somewhat when tried against the potential objectives. Ground invasion, we can be pretty sure, is neither required for nor suited to merely delaying Iran’s progress with nuclear programs. Nor would counterforce attacks necessarily be involved in pursuing that objective; although they could be, if, for example, we used Navy ships to enforce limited sanctions on Iran, and Iran chose to fight back with live attacks on our forces. Picking Option 1 would require us to at least be prepared for such combat, even though it would not be the focus of our use of force – the goal of our main effort.
The combinations here settle out into three baseline approaches, approximately pertaining to the three potential objectives discussed above. For ease of discussion, I will refer to those objectives from now on as “delay,” “reverse,” and “prevent.” The last objective has its own subcategories, which have significance in themselves as decision criteria. But for now, we can consider the objectives, and their related force packages, as follows:
1. Delay. Slowing down Iran’s progress with her nuclear programs would involve interfering with her access to funds, materials, and technology. While we would hope to achieve much of this with diplomacy and pressure on Iran’s trading partners and suppliers, a comprehensive approach could also entail the use of military force to impose some forms of sanction on Iran, most likely the air and/or maritime prevention of weapons components and dual-use materials deliveries, and an embargo or restriction of Iran’s oil and gas trade.
2. Reverse. Undoing Iran’s progress with nuclear programs to date is what most people are thinking of when they propose air strikes on Iran’s nuclear-related facilities. “Undo” is, of course, an imprecise term, and could involve as little as destroying the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz, or as much as reducing several dozen nuclear-facility targets to rubble, and eliminating a list of key personnel. This approach would entail air and missile strikes, and probably a limited set of special forces operations.
3. Prevent. Preventing, for the long term, Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would almost certainly require accomplishment of the “reverse” objective, at a minimum. (The alternative – extremely improbable – would be a peaceful but transformative change of regime in Iran, and hence a change of political will in Tehran.) Prevention would, however, also involve further operations to guarantee against resumption of Iran’s programs. Here the likely courses that might be considered include the same measures we would use to delay Iran’s progress: sanctions enforcement, embargo. They also, however, include the crippling of Iran as a nation capable of power projection and self-defense; and forcible regime-change. Some ongoing combination of most of the military force outlined above would be needed to pursue this objective – at least until Iran demonstrated a change of will.
This last point is a good one to apply to all the objective packages above. The ultimate objective implied here should, we hope, be inducing Iran to change her will about acquiring nuclear weapons. We have not stated that, however, and readers should ask themselves here if they believe it to be essential. This is a very important self-check interlude – because not all of our objective packages will produce that effect.
Evaluating the Options
With these options defined, we can now consider the issue at the heart of this post, which is how well they will work, and whether their level of efficacy will make them worthwhile.
We begin with the Delay option. I note at the outset that many people who consider “sanctions,” and perhaps an embargo, appropriate levels of force, vaguely associate their imposition with inducing a change of will on Iran’s part – but have no definite concept of how that would unfold. The general concept of planners and diplomats entails the delay itself being an important feature of the plan, because it would give the UN, and united great powers (e.g., the “P5+1”), more time to find the “right” combination of sanctions and incentives to obtain Iran’s change of heart, and cooperation.
In the simplest terms, the Delay option is about preventing things from getting into, and probably out of, Iran. The approaches of force would include maritime sanctions enforcement, air and maritime sanctions enforcement, and maritime, or air and maritime, embargo. At the extreme, there might be some effort at sanctions enforcement or embargo on land as well.
Note: “sanctions” and “embargo” are often used interchangeably, but they have different meanings. Sanctions comprise a broader set of measures that might include, for example, boycotts, and punishments like freezing a nation’s foreign bank accounts. Sanctions may – as UN sanctions often do – entail prohibiting the delivery of a specific list of goods to the sanctioned nation (e.g, weapons, or fuel), and may allow a normal, or at least authorized, flow of other kinds of goods into and out of the country. Such sanctions use measures like intercepting and inspecting cargo to prevent deliveries in violation of them. An embargo, by contrast, is more generally an absolute prohibition on trade.
A full embargo would put naval ships off Iran’s coast, guarding her ports to prevent maritime departures and arrivals. It would be necessary to blockade Iran’s outlets on the Caspian Sea as well as her southern ports. An embargo would also require preventing air traffic into and out of Iran. If it hoped to be comprehensively effective, an embargo would further require preventing cargo movement over land, along Iran’s extensive borders with Iraq, Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. At, again, the extreme, Iranian ports could be mined as well.
The specific sanctions tool can also be used to achieve a hybrid form of prohibition like that of the Oil-for-Food program. Saddam was prohibited by UNSCR 661, imposed in 1990, from virtually all trade, including the export of Iraqi oil. He was, however, allowed by the later UNSCR 986, adopted in 1995, to export oil for its equivalent in food, as a humanitarian concession to the citizens of Iraq.
Alert readers will immediately recall that the Oil-for-Food program degenerated into a source of kickbacks for UN officials, and ultimately became a method for Saddam to keep his weapons programs alive. This development highlights one of the dimensions of the Delay approach that militate against its success: lack of unified purpose in the international community. The other major dimensions are geography — the size and geographic situation of Iran – and the certainty of sanctions or embargo evasion by small actors. We will consider these in turn, beginning with geography.
A coalition of Western navies would be able to blockade Iran’s southern ports – Bushehr, Bandar Abbas, Chah Bahar — against the entry or exit of ocean-going shipping. Indeed, the US Navy by itself has the capacity to perform this task, although sustainability issues would arise within months, if the embargo were an extended one. However, out of all the potential traffic points into and out of Iran, her southern ports are the only ones that could be reliably blockaded – and such a blockade would be effective against major shipping, but much less so against small ship traffic, like the speedboats and dhows that are ubiquitous in the Persian Gulf.
Iran’s Caspian Sea ports would be substantially more difficult to enforce an embargo against, in part because of access problems. Western navies would have considerable difficulty getting maritime craft adequate to the task into the Caspian Sea. The most basic necessity of a cooperative Caspian Sea nation is not a given. We might postulate naval enforcement performed by Khazakhstan or Azerbaijan, but even if we did secure their honest cooperation, we would have to accept the big holes in the “fence” inherent in relying on their lesser capabilities. Ultimately, the integrity of Caspian Sea enforcement relies on its border nations – including Russia — honestly supporting the embargo, and blocking Iran’s access to major transit routes. However, anyone with experience of Central Asia recognizes how porous even an honestly-enforced embargo would be, given the numerous options for small-footprint traffic.
An alternative for Caspian Sea maritime enforcement is, of course, mining the ports. This would be effective against larger, iron-hulled ships, but significantly less so against small craft. Mining might divert concentrated, bulk traffic away from the ports, but would not permanently shut down all maritime traffic, and would have no effect on air or land transit options.
An air traffic embargo would be difficult but not impossible to enforce, under certain conditions. It would require a unified effort, with full and honest cooperation by all the nations of the earth, to be achieved without the threat or execution of shootdowns. The level of cooperation from regional nations would, in the likely event of a non-unified world, dictate the number of axes on which an air coalition would have to intercept and/or shoot down aircraft entering or leaving Iran.
Given Iran’s geographic situation, any attempt to enforce an air embargo, without some cooperation from a neighbor at both the northern and southern reaches of the country, would very quickly present sustainability issues. A Western coalition could, in the sense of physical feasibility, mount an air embargo without using air bases in a neighboring country; but the requirements for extended flight profiles for fighter jets, air refueling stations, and extended flight profiles for support aircraft (early warning, reconnaissance, electronic countermeasures) would rapidly dig into everyone’s force readiness. The impact of these factors would be felt most in any attempt to enforce the embargo northeast of Iran (in the heart of Central Asia), without some local basing. Additionally, some level of hostility would always have to be a concern in the airspace over Iran, and if it were a factor in air operations over other nations, the compounding of the overall problem would come perilously close to being prohibitive. (Or, at least, make the effort not cost-effective.)
An additional issue for an air embargo would be small aircraft operating on short flight profiles, basically from one side of Iran’s border to the other. Many of such short flights are likely to be detectable by radar, but too short in duration to be intercepted by fighter jets from combat air patrol (CAP) stations. As with maritime enforcement, small-footprint actors present a serious problem for comprehensiveness.
Land traffic, in its turn, would be by far the most difficult to interdict, either for the purpose of applying targeted sanctions, or for imposing a full embargo. Iran has hundreds of miles of land border, with seven nations, and much of it is mountainous and difficult to patrol or keep under effective surveillance. It would not be that hard to station forces at the border crossings of the major lines of communication (LOCs) in Iraq, Turkey, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, but neither is it especially hard for Iran to arrange for materials to be transported across her borders elsewhere, on less developed roads and paths. As long as the US maintains a presence in Iraq, goods are unlikely to flow effectively across that border. But Iran could well exploit — to take only a couple of examples — cross-border Kurdish networks in Turkey, or the difficult and poorly-policed terrain of her northeastern border with Turkmenistan, by the simple expedient of bribery.
If it seems like I am very focused on small-footprint actors evading embargo measures, this is because I am. The average American has little awareness of how big an industry embargo- or sanctions-evasion becomes, whenever enforcement measures are inaugurated. But both of the major UN sanctions efforts of the 1990s demonstrated this clearly: the sanctions on Serbia (or “rump Yugoslavia”), and the sanctions on Saddam’s Iraq.
People are ingenious. If the routine pathways for their commerce are not available to them, they will find others. What military force is typically suited to interdicting is the bulk transport or delivery: large, ocean-going cargo ships, airliners, freight trains and transport trucks. The expeditionary fighting forces of modern nations are not, however, suited to interdicting hundreds of small speedboats each day, traveling in packs to guarantee that most will get through to their destination. Our ground forces are not numerous enough to interdict hundreds of single vehicles – most of them decrepit, and perhaps festooned with livestock – carrying cans or small barrels of gasoline, or small shipments of rifles and ammunition, and driving on rocky, pitted back roads. Our forces cannot be ubiquitous enough to intercept every small aircraft that takes a 20-minute flight across a border. Nor are we looking for the components of a WMD program packed in pieces on a donkey train, moving toward their destination on ancient goat paths through remote mountain redoubts.
When the UN imposed economic sanctions on Serbia, after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, sanctions evasion was rampant, assisted by every entity from organized crime in Italy to the alert rural communities of Albania and northwestern Greece, which took advantage of the opportunity to sell – at a mark-up — whatever gasoline, and other commodities, they could ferry to the border in their personal vehicles (sometimes no more than a teenage boy on a moped, clutching a 20-liter container). So-called “cigarette boats” – speedboats – plied the Adriatic daily from the heel of the Italian boot to the coast of Serbia’s Montenegrin province, carrying contraband in both directions — for a price. Newly independent – and poorly policed – Macedonia became a favorite transit point for the evasion of NATO enforcement forces in supplying the Balkan opponents, to the enrichment of a new class of local authorities. Decrepit coastal freighters loaded rusting barrels of diesel fuel at small wharfs in Albania, and transited a few miles up the coast to Montenegro, never further from the coastline than one or two miles, to disgorge them. Such vessels loaded and unloaded unmarked (often homemade) crates as well, and were almost certainly a path for the small arms trade – because if people can do it, believe me, twenty years as an intelligence officer has taught me that they are doing it.
Evasion of the sanctions on Saddam had become its own thriving industry by the time, 12 years after they were imposed, that the US-led Coalition invaded Iraq in March 2003. Coalition enforcement forces respected Iraq’s and Iran’s territorial waters, which was all the headstart the evasion industry needed, to get thousands of boats and small ships each year through the central Persian Gulf to its southern portion, where contraband was processed into commercial anonymity. The Coalition navies had impressive success in preventing sanctions evasion by larger ships, out in the international waters of the central Gulf. But the daily parade of ancient coastal freighters and dhows through Iran’s 12-mile wide swath of territorial waters could never be stopped. Iran, naturally, took a cut from this traffic (and was occasionally accused of sinking recalcitrant ships’ masters who refused to fork over). She also provided forged documentation on oil product exports. In the southern Gulf, armies of speedboats made runs in packs between Iran’s waters and those of Oman several times a day, moving cargo to agnostic shores from the larger, slower ships that had ferried it along Iran’s coast. On land, across Iraq’s thinly populated western border, Jordan and Syria turned a blind eye to vehicular traffic, and the poorly-monitored crossing points in this area were an even easier path for smuggling.
By the time sanctions were supplanted with regime-change, US intelligence estimated that the smuggling industry had netted its practitioners a combined profit in the billions of dollars. (The Volcker Committee’s findings from its investigation of the Oil-for-Food program supported this estimate.) Iran took in millions in fees for “safe transit” and forged documents on cargo origin. Some analysts suggested that the evasion forces organized to send decoys, or sacrificial freighters, out into the Coalition dragnet south of the Shatt-al-Arab, to preoccupy the Western navy ships while loaded dhows and small freighters made their way south along Iran’s coast. The evasion traffic never dried up – and it involved the smuggling of oil (mostly diesel fuel), but also of staple Iraqi exports like the homely date crop, which perennially produced the Persian Gulf phenomenon of the failed or delayed sanctions-runner bobbing at anchor with a malodorous cargo of spoiling dates. It also involved prohibited imports – traffic flowing the other way — with Iraqi favorites being computers, TVs, liquor, CD players, and pirated copies of new movies.
Sanctions and embargoes are never clean, antiseptic, or comprehensively effective affairs. The opportunities to profit from them exert a powerful tug on many players. Even when governments officially participate in the sanctions, some of their people may not. The methods by which sanctions can be evaded are too multifarious to be comprehensively policed, particularly when the potential for profit lends extra craft and guile to the evader.
The applications of this principle to enforcing sanctions on Iran should be obvious. Iran’s size, and the character of her geography, make much of her territory ideal for keeping such small-footprint forms of transport undetected, or very difficult to interdict. We need have no illusions about Iran’s probable initiative in employing them – or about the willingness of mountain tribes and small mariners to profit by participating in them.
We may also keep in mind that Westerners have frequently underestimated the ability of less modern polities, and their militaries, to reap benefits in other realms from the kinds of primitive methods that are so well-suited to the evasion of sanctions. Perhaps one of the best known examples of this principle was the success of the North Vietnamese Army in its logistic preparations to assault the French fortress at Dien Bien Phu, in 1954. The French had not imagined that the North Vietnamese could transport the heavy guns, and other bulky equipment required for such a task, over the undeveloped mountain paths they used to move pack animals, or men on foot — and hence were unprepared for the intensity and power of the assault. In any assessment of how effectively the Iranians could supply their nuclear programs using the methods of primitive sanctions evasion, we would do well to remember that we have been wrong before about what can and cannot be done, even on foot or on the back of a donkey.
What we can take away from all this, about the likely effectiveness of sanctions, or an embargo, is the following. First – as we have all already guessed – to be effective to any degree, sanctions must have the honest participation of most or all of the world’s nations. Some key ones are indispensable, if sanctions are to be imposed without the threat of a destabilizing level of military force — nations like Russia, China, India, Japan, and the members of the EU.
Second, however, even securing the participation of those nations, and applying the most effective military force, cannot guarantee that a determined Iran will not be able to continue building her nuclear and weapons programs. It is likely that a truly honest effort by the major nations to prevent the requisite materials from entering Iran would be largely successful – on a very limited timeline. There is a chance that, for a very brief period – perhaps six to eight weeks — it would be wholly successful. On the other hand, we cannot realistically assume that North Korea will refrain from supplying Iran’s nuclear program clandestinely, or assume that Iran can obtain no assistance from Syria, or private entities in Turkey or Central Asia (even Pakistan), for moving goods in and out of the country. We cannot assume away other potential actors either, like Cuba and Venezuela, which might serve as less-scrutinized waypoints.
No realistic evaluation of our prospects for a unified and honest imposition of international sanctions on Iran would reach a complacent conclusion. We would have to deem ourselves unteachable if we failed to learn the lesson of the Oil-for-Food graft scandal: that even the officials of our major Western allies might behave underhandedly. A useful lesson in that regard is that sanctions are more likely to be undermined by such means, the longer they go on. We must also acknowledge that Russia and China will not be more reliable than our European allies, and indeed, will probably be less.
Since the probability of evasion, whether we impose limited sanctions or a full embargo, cannot be wished away, the best we can hope for with the imposition of either – even with the improbable factors of unity and honesty on the part of the international community — is to slow Iran down and inflict inconvenience and economic pain on her. We can make her pay more to develop and produce a nuclear weapon, and we can make it take her longer – if the best possible circumstances prevail.
At this point, we must also consider that North Korea has been more economically deprived than Iran for decades, with fewer trading partners and resources, and has still managed to produce a nuclear weapon. She has also withstood fifteen years of negotiations, demands, incentives, and economic punishments, and has managed throughout to avoid giving up nuclear weapons, or any aspect of her nuclear program that could not be reconstituted relatively quickly. Her political leadership has been considered sclerotic and endangered for years, but has not toppled yet – nor have her people revolted.
The hope is often expressed that sanctions on Iran, or perhaps a complete embargo that prevented her from trading in oil and gas, would induce her inconvenienced people to riot, or otherwise threaten the government in Tehran. No individual situation is identical to another, but in surveying the effects of broad-scale sanctions on other nations, we would not project such an outcome in Iran. The decades-long sanctions imposed on Cuba by the United States – which would otherwise be Havana’s largest trading partner, and an extremely lucrative one – have not produced political change there. UN sanctions on Serbia did not produce it either, nor did twelve years’ worth of sanctions on Iraq.
We may say that the dictators of these other nations rule more absolutely, and with a greater use of force among the population, than the government of Iran – although this is a matter of degree, since the autocrat’s tools of a controlled press, intrusive police, and use of a quasi-military national force (the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) to maintain internal order are all features of the current Iranian regime. However, it can be argued that on the other side of the equation, the same Iranian characteristics that might make her people more likely to challenge the regime – e.g., a tradition of partly discretionary elections, and genuine political parties — also give them a patriotic stake in it. We should not take it as a given that Iran’s people will turn against their leaders in any organized way as they suffer under sanctions. Nor should we dismiss the state’s ability to quash incipient rebellion using the IRGC, even hamstrung by commodity shortages. The last segment of Iran to feel the impact of sanctions will be the IRGC.
It is possible, if everything lines up in an ideal fashion, for sanctions, or an embargo, to achieve the objective of delaying Iran’s progress toward a nuclear weapon. The hour is late, however, and the time is very short to try to have such an effect. There are several good reasons why we should not expect all the requisite factors to line up, for sanctions to have the effect we desire, on a timeline that will matter.
We must also not expect to achieve more, with sanctions or an embargo, than a delay – for a limited time — of Iran’s nuclear program. Our experience with embargoing nations economically indicates that the existing regime is likely to retain power, and an evasion – smuggling — industry will grow up and achieve a life of its own. The paths such an industry might cut through Central Asia could even, over time, transform the political landscape, creating – through patterns of communication and profit – links between peoples that did not previously exist. The most accomplished exploiters of such emerging links, in the past two decades, have been syndicate crime, and transnational wahhabi Islamism.
Part II of this segment on Iran’s nuclear programs will be posted shortly, covering the Reverse and Prevent options.
* Football philosophy of “’Jarring Jack’ Jackson” (Eddie Mayehoff), the father of Jerry Lewis’ character Junior Jackson, in the 1951 Martin-Lewis film That’s My Boy.