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March 07, 2006

Now The Hard Part
Posted by The Editors

Guest Blogger: Jon B. Wolfsthal, Nonproliferation Fellow -- International Security Program, CSIS.

For three years the United States has been trying to bring Iran’s violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons to the UN Security Council. The International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors reported Iran’s behavior to the UN in early February and gave Iran one month to clear up lingering concerns about its program, after having previously found Iran in violation of its inspection obligations. Nobel Laureate and IAEA Director General reported to the IAEA Board last week that Iran is still obstructing inspection requests by the Agency, and advancing its uranium enrichment program and despite last minute diplomatic efforts by the EU and Russia, the matter is now headed directly for New York and the UN Security Council.

This victory for American efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring the ability to produce nuclear weapons may be short lived. Iran continues to pursue its uranium enrichment program and the White House has not yet laid out a clear strategy for how the UN or key states convincing Iran to change its behavior. Far from a destination in itself, the members of the UN Security Council must now decide whether to take up the issue of Iran’s illegal nuclear activities and, if so, how far they are willing to go collectively to reinforce international law and the principal of nuclear nonproliferation. All available options, including diplomatic and economic sanctions, to say nothing of military options, have serious drawback and are not guaranteed to succeed What is desperately needed is a clear strategy for how the United States, working in lock step with Europe, Russia and China can convince Iran to suspend its enrichment program and come into full compliance with its inspection obligations. Only such steps can stop the clock on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Unfortunately, it is not clear what leverage the other states can have over Iran with oil prices hovering at $60 per barrel and with the US military stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if the US or Israel had the military flexibility to target what is known about Iran’s nuclear complex, it is by no means clear than military strikes could end or significantly delay Iran’s nuclear progress. Such attacks would clear bring an Iranian response, and rally the Iranian population around the currently unpopular regime in Tehran, setting back US efforts to promote democratic change and destabilize the current regime.


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Though counter-programme air-strikes have limits, and problems re. Iranian reactions, to to say it is uncertain that "strikes could end or significantly delay Iran’s nuclear progress" is incorrect.
Never mind experimental facilities, laboratories design and fabrication sites. They can be dispersed, sure. But the crucial piece in the chain is the fissionable weapons material production.
These are inherently massive fixed-site operations, with specific tell-tales and requirements, and with definite and unavoidable vulnerabilies.
Disable/destroy these, and it doesn't matter what else Iran has or can build. No fission weapons fuel = no nukes.

Re: the utility of an airstrike against Iran: Sure they could delay, but to what end? Iran is today many years away from a weapon anyway.

Below is an excerpt from James Fallow's "Will Iran Be Next?" ... air strike option doesn't seem promising at all: ( )


"What about a pre-emptive strike of our own, like the Osirak raid? The problem is that Iran's nuclear program is now much more advanced than Iraq's was at the time of the raid. Already the U.S. government has no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran has, or how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would buy in doing so. Worse, it would have no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of such a strike. A strike might delay by three years Iran's attainment of its goal—but at the cost of further embittering the regime and its people. Iran's intentions when it did get the bomb would be all the more hostile.

Here the United States faces what the military refers to as a "branches and sequels" decision—that is, an assessment of best and second-best outcomes. It would prefer that Iran never obtain nuclear weapons. But if Iran does, America would like Iran to see itself more or less as India does—as a regional power whose nuclear status symbolizes its strength relative to regional rivals, but whose very attainment of this position makes it more committed to defending the status quo. The United States would prefer, of course, that Iran not reach a new level of power with a vendetta against America. One of our panelists thought that a strike would help the United States, simply by buying time. The rest disagreed. Iran would rebuild after a strike, and from that point on it would be much more reluctant to be talked or bargained out of pursuing its goals—and it would have far more reason, once armed, to use nuclear weapons to America's detriment.

Most of our panelists felt that the case against a U.S. strike was all the more powerful against an Israeli strike. With its much smaller air force and much more limited freedom to use airspace, Israel would probably do even less "helpful" damage to Iranian sites. The hostile reaction—against both Israel and the United States—would be potentially more lethal to both Israel and its strongest backer.

A realistic awareness of these constraints will put the next President in an awkward position. In the end, according to our panelists, he should understand that he cannot prudently order an attack on Iran... [Marine Corps Colonel Thomas X ] Hammes agreed: "The threat is always an important part of the negotiating process. But you want to fool the enemy, not fool yourself. You can't delude yourself into thinking you can do something you can't." "

Suppose the estimates are correct and iran is 10 years from a bomb.

Then if we do airstrikes on them now, they'll still be at least 10 years from a bomb. The Bush administration can then claim that the strikes were both necessary and effective, and iran won't quickly produce a bomb to prove them wrong.

This is an ideal outcome for the Bush administration. They get to do something controversial where it's impossible to prove they did absolutely the wrong thing. The serious bad consequences come far enough down the line that it isn't their problem. And the more that american citizens argue about it after the event, the less mindspace citizens have left to argue about all the other scandals. This is as good as it gets for Bush.

There are surgical patients who look carefully at the track records of their prospective surgeons. And as a result, there are surgeons who try hard to improve their stats by doing surgery only on people who are completely healthy. The healthier the victim is before surgery, the more likely he is to survive the surgery.

It's the same way with surgical strikes -- if the other side isn't actually going to produce a weapon any time soon, then the surgical strike will be a success.

Anybody hear a rumor when the attack is planned for? Back in October they were saying it was scheduled for late March. But in February I was hearing July. Maybe instead of listening to rumors about when it will be, we'd do better to guess when it would do the most good for the November elections. Would that put it in mid-October?


The problem with an air strike on Iran is that it would have non-nuclear consequences right away. Whether the United States would want those consequences (especially before an election) is far from clear.

The problem now is whether we let events take their course or give some last-minute thought to fringe options. Those I have seen are as follows:

1) A "Nixon to China" approach to Iran.
2) A revived Baghdad Pact.
3) An American pullout from the Persian Gulf.
4) An American war with Iran.
5) A regional strategic defense.
6) A global strategic defense.

Let's look at each one of these briefly:

1) A "Nixon to China" strategy of normalizing relations with a nuclear Iran might stabilize the situation if Iran is really only interested in acquiring a nuclear deterrent and not in trying to expand under its umbrella. But such a strategy might exacerbate tensions between Sunnis and Shias in the broader Islamic world and would probably entail Pakistan giving nuclear weapons and technology to Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. A nuclear war in the Middle East would be more likely a decade from now.

2) A revived Baghdad Pact (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, United States, Great Britain) would open the door to NATO expansion into the Middle East, which if it were to occur might help stabilize every state in the region. A variant of this option would be a regional missile defense including Iran. The problem is that Iran might not want to join an alliance with the Western powers that could undermine its theocracy and require abandoning its ambition to lead the Islamic world against the West.

3) Once Iran gets nuclear weapons, American influence in the Persian Gulf will diminish and the US will probably withdraw. But withdrawal may take another decade to happen, unless events in Iraq prompt it sooner, and the region and the world would have time to adjust to America's absence. If they don't adjust, however, the result will be the same as in (1).

4) If America launches an air strike against Iran, the US might also try to instigate an uprising in the country to head off Iranian retaliation and the risk of a conventional war. But if this fails, the result would be a disaster if we still have forces in Iraq.

5) If the UN Security Council won't impose sanctions, the US could ask it to authorize a global strategic missile defense (including all of the permanent members plus India and Pakistan) so that an Iranian nuclear capability is rendered useless when it finally becomes operational. Alternatively, America and its allies could accelerate work on such a defense. The problem would be getting a missile defense to work technically, avoiding a larger arms race if China and other nuclear powers don't join, and living with the threat that would still exist of suitcase nukes.

I agree that we are facing the probability of (3) with a small chance of (4). But perhaps there are other better options than the ones outlined above. Bad outcomes are likeliest when the only options are cramped or impractical.

In the explanation of the six options, (4) got merged with (2). Sorry not to correct that before posting.

Really losing it here. (5), not (4), is merged with (2).

David Billington, (I'd call you David if you didn't mind the informality, I don't intend to be pompous or overbearing with the whole name),

"Whether the United States would want those consequences (especially before an election) is far from clear."

You are presenting rational ideas about the consequences we are likely to face in ten years.

But the choice is likely to be given to Rove, who is interested mainly in the next election. If we get bad consequences ten years from now, and if Rove hasn't retired by then, he will know how to keep whoever he's working for from being blamed for those consequences. There is no point for him in looking that far ahead.

If we do wake up one morning and find out that we've bombed iran, what happens? Iran presumably declares war. We start a national debate about whether Bush should have done it, and Bush gets far more approval than he's gotten recently. We'll have lots of people arguing that whatever else you say, it was *necessary*. That it's bleeding-heart liberals who think it wasn't completely necessary, and they should shut up because we're at war. The murky legality of treating the War on Terror as a war when nobody has declared war, an undeclared war against an indefinite enemy who has no capital city and no way to surrender, would be over. We would really and truly be at war, the only credible declared war we've had since WWII. (I think maybe oanama declared war right after or right before we invaded, but it wasn't like panama was a real nation or a real enemy.)

Much more satisfying than iraq.

"How do you know there was a nuclear bomb project?" "We know. But that information is classified because we are at war with iran."

"How do you know you knocked out their nuclear program?" "We know. It's classified. We knocked them back so far it will be ten years before they have a working nuke." (A safe bet if the estimates are correct that iran is currently 10 years from a working nuke.)

"Why did you have to start a war, couldn't there have been some other way?" "No, there was no other way. Now stop arguing, the nation is at war. We must present a united front to the enemy, anyone who criticises the war effort is providing aid and comfort to the enemy. And you know what that means."

I'm not sure how the public would react, but I can easily imagine the Rove campaign might decide that it's the best thing Bush can do for the elections.

JThomas, I'm fine with being called David. Thanks for asking.

Karl Rove may have an aptitude for managing some Republican constituencies and winning elections. But it is difficult to discern any commensurate influence of his on policy, given the President's current poll numbers and the reasons for them.

Regarding Iran, the non-nuclear consequences of a US war would occur immediately, not in ten years, and it is precisely the scale of these likely consequences that has caused even the most committed advocates of preemption to hesitate.

I agree that a war with Iran would see a surge of patriotic fervor and the marginalization of anyone who opposes the war. But the question is how long the American people would sustain another protracted conflict. I see no reason to believe that Americans won't grow as tired of a protracted conflict with Iran as they have with the war and occupation of Iraq. It may be too late now to head off a war with Iran, but there is at least an opportunity to debate alternatives that in their range should go beyond those shown already to be ineffective.

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Board last week that Iran is still obstructing inspection requests by the Agency, and advancing its uranium enrichment program and despite last minute diplomatic efforts by the EU and Russia, the matter is now headed directly for New York and the UN Security Council.

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