Yes, we Can!
In DESERT STORM, we talked about how many aircraft sorties it took per target to achieve our objectives. In ENDURING FREEDOM (Afghanistan), we are talking about how many target objectives we can achieve per sortie.
US Navy Carrier Air Wing Commander briefing his peers in 2002
Israel can do a little to set back Iran’s nuclear programs. The US can do a lot.
In the last installment of our examination of options versus Iran, we looked at the “reverse” option: setting Iran’s programs back by some amount of time. Israel, given her various operational constraints, would be capable of setting Iran back by at least six months, and probably more (my assessment: a minimum of 12 months). She could do this by attacking at least two, but fewer than 10, key target complexes.
US forces, by contrast, have the ability to inflict much greater damage in the service of a “reverse” option objective. The most important factor in this from any standpoint is that the US is able to establish air superiority over Iran, and perform continuous strikes in sequence, at dozens of target complexes, and over a period of days or weeks.
American forces are certainly more than capable of conducting limited, surgical strikes on the order of what we have previously discussed regarding Israel. When commentators point out that such strikes would not be guaranteed to destroy everything related to Iran’s programs, or set Iran back for very long, they are quite correct. However, such strikes represent nothing even remotely close to the limit of what US forces could achieve. It is this latter point that is rarely, if ever, acknowledged. Limited strikes would be a political choice, not an operational constraint, for the US. If America chose to, she could set Iran’s nuclear programs back by a factor of years, and force her to rebuild everything: factories, conversion and enrichment facilities, reactors, R&D centers for both missile/rocket and nuclear programs, even uranium mining facilities. Inflicting this level of damage is well within the capabilities of the US Department of Defense, using only airpower, cruise missiles, and possibly special forces for a very limited set of targets.
This option has been little considered in the public realm, but a few with expertise and access have addressed it. Retired Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerney, a fighter pilot and sometime Fox News commentator, outlined a basic concept for this “longer-reverse” option as long ago as 2006, assigning over 600 bomber and support aircraft, and 500 cruise missiles, to attack a minimum of 1500 aimpoints throughout Iran. He suggests completing the strike package in 48 hours, although my own guess is that we would take a bit longer to accomplish something of this scope (4-5 days). (And that said, we may understand that McInerney was not pulling his numbers out of thin air, but was aware of the general figures that would be used in actual defense planning for this operation. I am factoring in the “friction” inevitable with military operations, and requirements for restrike identified after battle damage assessment on the first strikes.) With additional construction having been completed, and further progress made in rocketry and uranium enrichment since 2006, there would be some new aimpoints in an updated target set, probably on the order of three dozen or fewer.
The US would have the advantage of the most updated bombs in our inventory, including the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator integrated with the B-2 bomber fleet in 2007-8. American forces would be able to get dozens of bombers to their targets in the first wave, and hundreds in the first 24 hours: a great advantage for catching Iran unalerted, and destroying stockpiles and high-value equipment before they can be moved. The US would also be able to launch an unprecedented amount of the ordnance for this strike option directly from North America, or from Tomahawk-equipped ships and submarines, meaning Iran’s alertment would be even less than if a prior, high-profile US force build-up in-theater were a military necessity.
As the quote at the beginning implies, not only is it not 1945 any more: it’s not 1991 any more. Claims from recent years that US forces could destroy “10,000” Iranian targets in “a few hours” are wildly overblown; but targeting objectives that took days or weeks of restrikes to achieve in DESERT STORM can, in fact, be achieved today within hours, and very often with only one strike. Such perennial defense commentators as Anthony Cordesman acknowledge this, in analyses of US options versus Iran – and a September 2008 assessment from the Washington, DC-based Bipartisan Policy Center (led by former Senators Dan Coats and Charles Robb) assumes it as a premise.
These points do not by any means imply that air attacks on Iran, at the level required to pursue the Longer-Reverse option, would be easy. They would not. Although the US is capable of establishing air superiority within 24-48 hours, doing that is a supplemental effort that would demand substantial resources. As in all forms of combat, there would be no guarantees of finishing the job without own-force losses (although the mismatch between Iran’s current air defense capabilities, and the capabilities of US forces, keeps that likelihood low at the outset). However, in terms of inflicting the level of damage required to meet the Longer-Reverse option objective – to set Iran’s nuclear weapons program back by years – US forces have more than the capability to do it.
The level of effort required to achieve this objective – as well as the advantages of catching Iran unprepared to disperse at least some of her high-value assets – changes dramatically with implementation of the S-300P-series air defense system in Iran. The US can still do everything outlined here, if we have to fight through the S-300P missile to get to the targets. But it will require more overwhelming effort, and a substantial increase in the potential for own-force losses. An operation that we might reasonably, today, hope to execute without any loss of American lives would be transformed into one in which we would have to assume some loss of life up front. This puts any attack on Iran, from the smallest to the largest, in a new political category. It also changes the military calculus, in that more missiles, aircraft, and bombs would be required at the starting line, to ensure that the same number get through the improved air defenses, and deliver the same “thump” on the target set. This requirement need not be overstated, but mitigating it involves a tradeoff in terms of sequentiality in the plan. The faster and more simultaneously we want to make the initial strikes, the more assets we will need. Choosing instead to take down the air defense system first, to ensure the bombers can achieve the best effects against their targets in a more permissive environment, would inevitably alert Iran, and give her time to try to move at least some of her highest-value inventory and equipment.
Given all these factors, Americans might ask: If we can execute this operation with what we have, and if a window is closing for executing it with the best chance of few or no own-force losses – why haven’t we done it yet?
The answer, I believe, is the same one that answers the question why Israel has not launched a strike yet, and it is an old and tested aphorism of military operations: The enemy has a vote.
Up to this point, we have discussed only the capabilities of Israel and the US to attack the Iranian targets, and to deal with Iran’s air defense. What we have not discussed – until now – is how Iran would react to strikes that sought to impose setbacks on her nuclear weapons program. It was important to walk through the actual strike problem, and compare its scope with the capabilities of the two forces (Israel’s and America’s), so that we all understand there is no issue of inadequate airstrike capabilities here. Capabilities against Iran’s targets are not a controlling issue; they are, rather, a given that affords us options. Israel’s forces are sufficient for the Shorter-Reverse option, and America’s for the Longer-Reverse option. I will reiterate again that in no case is it necessary to use a nuclear weapon to achieve the desired level of damage to a target, or to ensure a great enough level of overall destruction that Iran is decisively set back, even if not everything she has is incinerated, or rendered non-functional.
No, the question is not whether our capabilities are sufficient for the Reverse options. The question is what Iran will do, and how that affects the political decision to strike.
Most people would get this question right in their sleep: Iran will seek to retaliate with terror attacks abroad. In Iraq, in Lebanon and Israel, in Pakistan, in the nations that border the Persian Gulf and give US forces bases there. And of course, in the United States. Iran would probably leverage the greatest payoff from supporting terrorism in Iraq – and the size of that payoff increases with each passing day, as Americans generally count Iraq a “done deal,” and assume a mindset either complacent or uneasy; but in neither case expectant of another operational ramp-up there.
Reports from journalists and pundits, like this one from Victor Davis Hanson when he visited US forces in Iraq in early 2008, reflected a real and persistent concern by our military there that an airstrike on Iran would throw Iraq into chaos. George W. Bush’s political opponents might undermine their own credibility by arguing that Iran was not then involved in supporting insurgents in Iraq – which was untrue, and was a line of argument designed to foster the idea that if Bush attacked Iran, that action would launch an Iranian terror campaign in Iraq that was not already underway. But the military on the ground was well aware of Iran’s ongoing involvement in destabilizing Iraq, and in the end, I believe, had Bush’s ear regarding the wisdom of jeopardizing the “surge,” and the pacification of Iraq, with untimely attacks on Iran.
It is shortsighted, however, to be satisfied that airstrikes on Iran were not considered possible, between 2006 and the end of Bush’s second term, because of the consequences for Iraq. A number of pundits and bloggers have used that as the premise to argue that Iraq was the wrong target to begin with, and we should have focused all along on Iran. While the larger historical argument, in terms of what the War on Terror means, is not necessarily clear-cut as between Iraq and Iran, that is actually a separate argument from one more salient to our topic here, relating to whether – given the choice we did make — we still had, or have, options against Iran.
The answer to this, while it is “Yes,” expands the political risk and difficulty of the project of keeping Iran “nuclearly” disarmed. The price of this “Yes” is asymmetry and high cost. The price of it is, in effect, going all the way for the “prevent” option against Iran: waging a campaign against her designed to eliminate her national defenses, scramble her command and control, separate the Revolutionary Guard forces from the national leadership, and leave her unable to mount coherent action of any kind outside her borders – or defend herself against retaliation if she did.
Before proceeding, we must review the bidding on our options against Iran. We have, so far, discussed Delay and Reverse. Neither of those options was intended to absolutely prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Even the Longer-Reverse option accepts that it will be effective for a matter of several years, at most. There is nothing inherent in these options, which are to strike only at the nuclear facilities and some of Iran’s key defenses, that would induce Iran to have a change of heart about developing nuclear weapons. Indeed, many observers assess that Iran’s determination to pursue nuclearization would only increase with limited strikes: strikes that crippled one capability, but did not change the political reality in Tehran at all. There would be a measurable impact on the nuclear programs, but the cost of affecting them, without crippling the regime itself as well, would be very high.
This cost in terrorism, and regional stability, was almost certainly considered too high in the years since Rumsfeld stepped down, and the major US commitment in the Middle East became the surge strategy in Iraq. I note also that the prospective cost from an Iranian reaction is a key factor in the reluctance, to date, to attempt an embargo of Iran. As I outlined in “Hit ‘em Hard,” an embargo would leak like a sieve anyway, and be of little use in and of itself – and under those circumstances, the cost of imposing it, in terms of the Iranian reaction, has consistently been regarded as too high.
To ensure that our thinking is comprehensive and clear, however, we need to perform a mental exercise, and consider this problem from an asymmetric point of view. I have an axiom that paraphrases Mark Twain as follows: “A foolish symmetry is the hobgoblin of losing minds.” Those who remember the scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones watches an Arabian swordsman brandish a scimitar with fearsome skill, and then draws his pistol and dispatches the attacker with a cynical grimace, will quickly grasp the meaning here. Asymmetry is an option we should always look over; and if we choose symmetry, it should be by a conscious process, and not because we simply failed to consider asymmetric possibilities.
Does Iran, therefore, have us over a barrel, with her potential to retaliate for airstrikes with terrorism? There certainly do not seem to be symmetrical – or, for that matter, obviously “proportionate” – methods of decisively countering retaliation through terrorism. It is impossible to be 100% prepared to avert terrorist attacks against civilian populations. If we infringe as little as possible on civil life, and focus on intercepting plots in the planning stages, or at national borders, we simply cannot prevent all attacks – as nations from the Philippines to India to Iraq, Israel, and Somalia will attest. It is a valid question whether the infrastructure even exists in nations like Kuwait and Bahrain to effectively fight off determined and organized jihadists supplied from Iran.
We may also note that Iran’s options are not limited to sponsoring terrorist bombings. Hostage-taking has long been a popular method for Iran and her terror clients; and one Iran would not hesitate to wield against the terrified civilians of third-party nations, as well as US and local soldiers. Another option is unconventional maritime warfare: harassing commercial shipping and the navies of local nations, using mines, small boats, swimmers, shoulder-fired missiles. Interfering with small-scale commercial fishing and coastal cargo transport may not seem like warfare worthy of our steel, but as a form of gradualism it would be far more effective than anything we tried in Vietnam. It would stymie us, create growing discontent in the populations of our Gulf partners, tie up our forces trying to counter it, function as a perfect method of masking unconventional attacks on our own forces – and Iran can keep it up, on the cheap, for as long as she needs to.
If we think only in terms of countering Iran’s methods of attack, we will be stymied and on the defensive in perpetuum. But it is also possible to think in terms of what would defeat Iran’s will to launch such attacks – to think preemptively and offensively, rather than reactively and defensively. And in this regard, Iran has a key vulnerability that does not pertain to guerrilla and terrorist forces per se: she is a nation-state.
Guerrilla forces rarely have disruptable – “bomb-able” — centers of gravity. Their leverage of power does not depend directly on the resources of a state, or its measures of control and order. Their will and purpose cannot be directly affected by the disabling or destruction of state resources. But the will and purpose of a nation’s leadership can be so affected – as can their ability to leverage resources for action. Iran’s Islamic revolutionary leadership is a national leadership, in these terms: not a guerrilla leadership. Without maintaining their civil control of the nation, Iran’s leaders have no resources or options for action. They are not organized for guerrilla operation, and have never been guerrillas: they did not achieve control of Iran in 1979 through a guerrilla war. It is also worth noting that “working” transnational jihadists – the setters of bombs, the kidnappers, the suicides — are very seldom Iranian. Terrorist operatives – for al Qaeda, Hizballah, and other organizations – are generally Arabs, Pakistanis, or non-Arab Africans. Random martyr-making terrorism has been something Iran is willing to sponsor, and directly support, even through operational liaison with Iran’s paramilitary “Qods” force. But it is not a working specialty of Iranians themselves – not, ultimately, a characteristically Iranian political paradigm.
The orientation of Iran’s Islamic revolutionary leaders is toward a nation-state model, and that is reinforced by Iran’s long, distinctive Persian history. It is a mistake to see “the mullahs” as insane religious nutjobs, with a guerrilla or terrorist mentality, in terms of their overall motivation and objectives. They are Persian, first and foremost, and see Persia and themselves both as a force of destiny, and as a natural equal to the nation-states of the West, the barbarian Russian state, and the ancient civilization of China. Their raison d’être is to have political control of Persia, and to wield that control as geography, Persian greatness, and Persia’s favored position with Allah imply. They have no intention of immolating themselves or Persia as the price of destroying either of the “Satans,” Little or Great. They will, rather, employ the Persian methods of indirection, political maneuver, and persistence to change the regional balance of power, and ultimately obtain the option of dealing death blows where they desire, with little danger to themselves.
For this reason, their coherence of purpose and will is very disruptable by destruction of the resources of the state – as is their control of Iran. It is an error to imagine that Iran’s leaders, with their national defenses gone and their control of the country disrupted, could switch seamlessly to an alternative form of governance, and mount “power projection” operations through terrorism in any systematic or dangerous way. Their first task would be to restore their own control of the country, which would not be a given. We need not incorrectly suppose that Iranians are ripe – organized and prepared — for revolt, to nevertheless recognize that they would be capable of seizing the opportunity presented by disruption of the Islamic revolutionary government, to change their own regime.
No outcome in this regard is certain, and it would be dishonest to suggest otherwise. However, in the strict terms of the main objective — denying Iran nuclear weapons, while preventing her from retaliating with terrorism for the methods used against her — a comprehensive destruction of all her national defenses, and her internal command and control, would get the job done. Readers will understandably recoil from the prospect of an attack of this scope, and its uncertain outcome for Iran’s current government. I doubt that it needs any explanation, that we have not taken this course so far, and are not likely to. However, it is important to understand that it would achieve the objective of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, for some time to come – and that it is, in fact, militarily feasible.
The latter point has been alluded to in the Cordesman paper linked above, and in the Bipartisan Policy Center piece. Neither of those publications treats the military difference between striking only the nuclear and air defense sites, and a more comprehensively disabling strike campaign, but there is a significant one: for the comprehensive approach, it would be necessary to build up forces in theater, beyond what we have there now. A campaign of 48 to 120 hours, as outlined by LtGen McInerney, would not be sufficient for the more comprehensive attack. It would be likely to last at least 10 days, and possibly more, and require, in particular, the presence of a minimum of three carrier strike groups in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea – not just to provide strike and fighter aircraft for the campaign over land, but to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, and rapidly eliminate the Iranian navy. This latter effort could not be ramped up over time; it would have to operate at its maximum effectiveness within the first hours of the campaign. The build-up would have to occur before the first strike wave.
The number of bomber and fighter aircraft, and even the number of cruise missiles required, need not change substantially over the figures suggest by LtGen McInerney. The cruise missiles would be used primarily for taking down air defense and command/control targets in the first day of the operation; and once those facilities were out of commission, and the attack force had achieved air superiority, manned bombers could be used for the remaining missions. Operating the same number of aircraft over 10 days instead of 4-5 would be a matter of maintenance, logistics, and scheduling. Air asset managers might indeed want 10-20% more aircraft for the comprehensive campaign; but the US military can supply them without a prohibitive strain.
As with the Longer-Reverse option, special forces might well be used for some targets ashore – or even afloat (e.g., sinking Iran’s Kilo-class attack submarines at the pier). If US planners considered it advisable to seize Iran’s islands in the southern Persian Gulf – Abu Musa, and the Ton’b Islands, which have military installations on them – this would be a job for the Navy and Marine Corps. Today, however, this amphibious task would not necessarily entail the large footprint of ships and Marines that readers may envision from their memories of DESERT STORM. The entire US military has modernized substantially since DESERT STORM in terms of “task-organizing,” and the sea services have learned much from task-organizing for Afghanistan, and for War on Terror operations in the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.
The comprehensive attack option against Iran is, thus, feasible from an execution standpoint. I doubt I am far off in guessing that, for most people, it is nearly unthinkable, if not absolutely so, from a political one. This is the point on which everything turns – because critical thinking about all the options against Iran, each in its turn, leads inexorably to the need for something like the comprehensive attack option. It has been necessary up to now to look at each option in isolation, and assess its feasibility and probable effectiveness. But the inescapable truth is that each option is likely to provoke Iran into retaliation at some level. That retaliation could not be contained or countered, short of eliminating the means and will of Iran’s current leadership.
An armed embargo of Iran would provoke retaliation from Tehran – and without being very effective against her nuclear programs. A limited strike on her nuclear facilities would also provoke retaliation, while only setting her programs back by a matter of months. A larger strike on her nuclear facilities would, of course, provoke retaliation, while setting back her programs on the order of a handful of years. Even limited retaliatory strikes, in response to Iranian-promoted terrorism, would succeed mainly in provoking further terrorism, as long as the current government’s hold on Iran, and the nation’s defenses, were not seriously disrupted.
The price of every limited option is thus too high. We must also recognize that none of these options would unfold in a geostrategic vacuum. I do not anticipate a “backlash” from the Islamic world as a whole after US attacks on Iran (jidahist terrorism would, of course, be another story). Indeed, nations like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, and even further afield would be relieved, by military action that actually disabled Iran’s ability to pursue nuclear weapons. Attacks that were too limited, and exposed them to Iran’s retaliation, would be regarded with great disfavor, however. They would be justified in disgust with us if we did only enough to guarantee retaliation from Tehran, but not enough to eliminate the long-term threat.
Meanwhile, Russia and China remain inevitable variables. Neither can afford to refrain from courting Iran, because the other will. This is a dynamic that Americans have little feel for, and that America cannot affect with peripheral incentives and diplomacy. The only way to prevent Iran from being the client of either Russia or China (or, by Tehran’s preference, from playing them against each other) is to put down our own stakes, and make Iran our client. There is no third way.
The more limited our approach to suppressing a nuclear Iran, the more assistance Iran can expect to extract from Russia or China. A military embargo would simply divert the transit route of material assistance from Russia, and probably increase the monetary cost to Iran (and the profit to Russia). Limited strikes on the nuclear facilities, if not followed up by more decisive action against the regime in Tehran, would put Russia and China in better positions to bargain with Iran, because Iran would be in greater need. Either of the great Asian powers might well extract more from Tehran in exchange for emergency assistance with her nuclear programs, after a strike that set those programs back. Russia acquiring naval basing privileges in the Persian Gulf, or China a bigger stake in Iran’s economy – from oil and gas to the infrastructure projects India and Japan have competed for – could not fail to alarm many of Iran’s neighbors.
A resort by Iran to her competing Asian patrons is inevitable, if the current regime remains intact after limited use of arms against her. There are too many reasons for all three nations to seek these relations – and those reasons are not dictated by the character of a given regime, but by political geography. A given type of regime can amplify the national perceptions of interest, and channel them into more urgent approaches. But the geography will not change: Iran sits on the Strait of Hormuz, at the west end of the Indian Ocean, owning strategically priceless frontage for an Asian continental power—particularly Russia – and lying athwart China’s path to the Middle East (and, not incidentally, on the other side of India). Both nations, thinking in terms of hemispheric hegemony, must sit first chair with Iran, and be able to leverage Iran not as an obstacle, but as a gateway.
The single means of separating Iran from the Asian competitors is making her a US client. Rather obviously, using limited force against Iran will do the opposite. If we do not have the will to turn Iran into a non-nuclear-weapon-seeking client, perhaps we at least have the prudence to avoid accelerating her progress into the arms of Moscow or Beijing with lesser measures.
Where does all this leave us? I hope it is now clearer to readers why the US has not taken armed action against Iran yet. It is not that no armed action is feasible. In fact, any level of armed action is feasible. It need not involve either ground invasion or the use of nuclear weapons. It is, rather, that our choice appears to be between, on the one hand, provoking a widespread terror campaign by Iran, with limited use of armed force (embargo or strikes), and on the other hand, attacking Iran in a summary and comprehensive way, for which there is nothing even close to a domestic political consensus. While I do not assess that it would be necessary to occupy and administer Iran after such an attack, on the Iraq model, it would be necessary to isolate her from Russia and China, and prevent other outside forces (e.g., wahhabist terrorists) from seeking to influence Iran’s reconstitution of herself. There would always be the possibility, moreover, in the absence of some form of occupation, that remnants of the current regime might reacquire power. Breaking Iran would mean buying her, for at least some period of time, if we wanted to ensure that the effort was ultimately meaningful.
One thing to keep in mind about international politics, and the use of force, is that they almost never proceed exactly along pre-analyzed lines. Iran’s retaliations, after a limited use of armed force against her, would probably be more insidious, and develop over a longer period, than the discussion here may induce readers to imagine. A portion of the liberal West would be satisfied to interpret the backlash as coming from enraged Islamic sympathizers, and to downplay Iranian involvement. Iran’s resort to Russia or China under those conditions would be cloaked in counterprotestations and secrecy, and many in the West would make a career of denying that it was happening. Inflicting catastrophic, regime-undermining damage on Iran’s military and command/control would not inevitably produce one outcome or another; the eventual outcome would be heavily influenced by the follow-on actions of the US. In every chain of events there would be ample opportunities for domestic political partisans to build competing narratives about the “truth,” and lob accusations and invective at each other, in service, not of the foreign policy issue itself, but of immediate electoral objectives.
Any action against Iran would have to be undertaken in the full expectation of this sort of political and geopolitical “friction.” As we saw with the 2003 invasion of Iraq, losing control of the public “narrative” about the project is a severe hindrance to a US administration, from the strategic down through the operational and even the tactical level. The foreign enemy will not assist America’s political leaders by putting up neon signs to clarify his situation and intentions to their domestic opponents. Indeed, he will encourage and exploit political divisions in America wherever he can. It becomes very difficult, under the pile-on of narratives and counternarratives, not just to make the right decisions, but to figure out what the real decision points are, and to correctly define the alternatives.
With that in mind, we may address the final topic here, which is what, in the end, we might feasibly do to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for the foreseeable future. Going into this problem, two underlying assumptions are critical. First, we should assume that although we will not have overt support from very many nations, we would have tacit support from many, for a plan that decisively averted the near-term threat of Iran developing a usable nuclear weapon. Tentative approaches, for attenuated objectives, would not garner support, tacit or publicly avowed. We could not count on other nations to bolster our own confidence; we would have to carry the whole burden in that regard. But many other nations would stand by and avoid interfering, and some (like Great Britain and Australia) might even join us, if we mounted a credible and decisive effort.
Second, we should assume that our military options are feasible. They are not a non-credible threat; they could well be executed, and would achieve the main – limited, first-order – objectives for which they are suited. Even an embargo would slow Iran down to some extent, and make her nuclearization cost her more. Limited strikes would, in fact, enable us to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities to a meaningful level. Whatever other political factors affected our decision to employ these methods, their inherent effectiveness – again, for the purposes of first-order effects — need not be in question.
Given the likelihood of Iranian retaliation, even for an embargo, the key to achieving a decisive result is to be prepared to act faster than Iran can mount effective reactions. Delaying Iran’s progress with an embargo might be somewhat effective over a matter of weeks, or even months, but Iran is more likely to persist in her nuclear program through added cost and delay than we are to persist in an embargo, against an eruption of terrorist attacks in Iraq, the wider Middle East, and America. Indeed, Iran’s will would coagulate more firmly under an embargo, whereas ours would disintegrate with terror attacks on civilians, particularly in the absence of any progress in securing Iran’s compliance.
Addressing this dynamic would involve a staged plan to escalate the threat to Iran. The objective should be to get Iran to accept specific terms: complete access, for an inspection team of America’s choosing, to all of Iran’s known and suspected nuclear facilities, and missile development research centers; the monitored destruction of her plutonium reactor at Arak, her uranium processing facilities at Esfahan and Natanz, and other facilities designated after comprehensive inspection; and absolute compliance with the inspection and monitoring provisions of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, monitored by teams chosen by America until such time as we considered it appropriate to leave that task, again, in the hands of the IAEA. Iran need not be denied nuclear power production, but she should be denied a uranium enrichment capability until she has a regime with different political purposes. Iran could, like Taiwan, purchase low-enriched uranium from other nations, and return it for reprocessing and waste storage. Iran should also be able to profit from selling uranium mined from her own territory; it is the enrichment that would have to be prohibited. All of her nuclear-related activities would be monitored to the satisfaction of the United States, until such time as we considered it no longer necessary.
The sequencing of a threat escalation would unfold over a period of weeks, and could not be allowed to lose momentum. It would start with an embargo, work up to the threat of limited strikes, and conclude with the threat of comprehensive strikes. The force would be built up to execute each successive threat, ensuring that it could be executed, but giving Iran a chance to avoid it. That chance, however, would not be offered for an extended period. Failure to take it would result in relentless escalation.
Equally important, Iran would be warned of counterstrikes if she retaliated with terrorist attacks – and they would be conducted promptly, and for militarily useful purposes. Explosions in Baghdad or Manama (Bahrain)? — a disastrous 24-hour strike package executed against Iran’s Western defenses. Terror attack on an oil tanker in the Persian Gulf? — complete destruction of the military and commercial installations at Bushehr, and Iran’s oil platforms offshore from that port.
It is likely that Iran would agree to American terms before it came to a comprehensive attack – i.e., the final approach considered above. This should not be cause for disproportionate rejoicing, since Iran would then endeavor at every step to delay compliance measures through negotiation and maneuver. Administering Iran’s compliance would be as exhausting as any other stage of the operation, and would require the continued credible threat of force for some time. Critics would be justified in a concern that Iran might simply wait for the political winds to shift in the US, on the model of North Vietnam’s patience from 1972 to 1975. Others might complain of the requirement for extended supervision of the follow-on situation; but the truth is that any approach we take to averting Iran’s nuclearization will require costly and extended follow-through. There is simply no low-cost method of achieving this objective.
That last observation is probably the most important one. The high cost of any approach outlined here appears in effective isolation from other factors and possibilities, and is hard, especially for Americans, to put in perspective. Very often, the attempt to do so has prompted commentators to reminisce fondly about the nuclear deterrence dynamic of the Cold War – a perspective I consider erroneous, and addressed previously at the “Deterrence and the Superpower” post. I am convinced we will pay a higher price for letting Iran acquire nuclear weapons than we would pay to stop her. But the conundrum we face is that America, the only nation that can act decisively, is also the hardest to persuade that deterrence did not work nearly as well against our enemy in the Cold War as it worked against us.
I think it is clear why we have not acted so far. I also regard it as clear that our military options are feasible, and could be leveraged to support a strategy of escalated negotiation and threat. Such a strategy, executed firmly, might well have more political support than a more disjointed approach, in which the absence of preparatory escalation left stringent military options to appear exotic and unthinkable. There is one more question we may want to consider, and that is what options Israel might still see herself having, beyond the Shorter-Reverse strike.
Other than simply executing such a limited strike at slightly different levels of effort, the option most often mentioned by pundits is using nuclear weapons to attack Iran preemptively. The point at which this might be done – what development(s) would suggest optimum timing for it – has not, as far as I am aware, been addressed in any systematic way. It is obviously an extremely escalatory action, and it is hard to see a situation in which Israeli leaders would consider it a good idea, short of a perception of imminent attack from Iran. Israel would gain nothing, and incur a very high cost, by incorporating a nuclear attack into preemption of Iran’s initial nuclear capability, and we must assess it as extremely unlikely that she will.
Another option floated by pundits has been a campaign of assassinations against Iran’s top leadership (and perhaps key scientists in her nuclear and missile programs). This measure, however, would not produce a payoff that could even come close to justifying the retaliation. (Iran would certainly assume such a campaign was mounted by Israel.) Eliminating individuals in national leadership has no power to undermine Iran’s internal stability, or change her course; only dividing the leadership from its means of wielding power – the military, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, national command and control – could make headway in achieving that effect. As regards the scientists, Iran’s programs are too far advanced to be defeated, or even set back for very long, by the loss of individuals. There would also remain options for importing scientists from abroad. We may assume the Israelis know these things, and will make their decisions accordingly. It is also understandable that Israeli decisionmakers would see assassinating political leaders and scientists in a moral light different from that in which they see terrorist leaders who have killed their people.
Limited strike options (augmented by special forces) remain Israel’s most likely course, if she takes action. Israeli leaders may, however, count on an effect beyond simply imposing a setback on Iran’s programs. Fully expecting an Iranian backlash, Israelis may hope – not unjustifiably – that Iran’s reaction would necessitate a US armed response, to restore stability, at the very least to the maritime environment of the Persian Gulf. All the nations that trade through the Gulf, except Iran, would certainly rather have a stable environment restored there through US might than not; but it would be a hassle for America, an unplanned eruption with an uncertain outcome — and a forcing of our hand. Beyond the waters of the Persian Gulf, we would expect to have to respond militarily in Iraq, and very possibly with some level of increased armed vigilance in the other Gulf nations – all the while laboring to prevent destabilizing Iranian-backed terrorism from reverberating across Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A consequence of this kind has no doubt been in the minds of the US officials denying updated weapon systems to Israel over the past few years. Our national leaders and strategic planners are usually well aware of the kinds of possibilities and factors I have outlined in this post, and their tendency is almost invariably to favor what looks like prudence in the short run: building up a defensive stance, and waiting. Preemption, like the 2003 invasion of Iran, is quite rare. America, like other nations, has spent most of her time across history in this defensive posture; and so, in fact, has Israel. Israel knows she cannot contain or control the regional backlash Iran has the ability to promote, after limited strikes on Iranian targets – a backlash that could have severe consequences for Israel. She must, instead, hope that America will perform that task. Up to now, the cost of forcing America’s hand has probably appeared too high, relative to the gain. In the end, however, it may be the only option Israel has left.