The Last Resort: Consequences of Preventive Military Action against Iran
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Moreover, much of the public debate regarding preventive action has focused on military-technical considerations: Does the United States (or Israel) have the intelligence needed to hit the right targets? Does either have the means to destroy those parts of the nuclear infrastructure located in hardened, buried facilities? Is there an optimal moment to strike, and when is it too late?These questions, however, are not the primary questions that need to be asked, and they highlight the fact that the accepted wisdom is based on an inappropriate metric for measuring the success of preventive action: the amount of destruction visited upon Iran's nuclear infrastructure may matter less than whether or not Iran decides to rebuild.The accepted wisdom also ignores context: preventive action that follows provocative Iranian steps, such as an announcement that it is leaving the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), could have a much different effect than action not linked to a perceived Iranian provocation. The accepted wisdom is also based on assumptions not grounded in the Islamic Republic's track record of retaliation after military attack, which is decidedly mixed. Nearly all retaliatory options entail considerable challenges and risks for Iran.
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Because the ultimate goal of prevention is to influence Tehran to change course, effective strikes against Iran's nuclear infrastructure may play an important role in affecting Iran's decision calculus. Strikes that flatten its nuclear infrastructure could have a demoralizing effect, and could influence Tehran's assessment of the cost of rebuilding. But the most effective strikes may not necessarily be against nuclear facilities. Iran is extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks on its oil export infrastructure. Oil revenue provides at least threefourths of government income and at least 80 percent of export revenues. Oil export facilities are extremely vulnerable; nearly all of Iran's oil goes through a small number of pumping stations and loading points along the country's Persian Gulf coast, readily accessible for attack from sea or air. If forced to cope without oil export revenues, Iran has sufficient foreign exchange reserves to get by for more than a year, but the political shock of losing the oil income could cause Iran to rethink its nuclear stance—in ways that attacks on its nuclear infrastructure might not.To be sure, in a tight world oil market, attacking Iran's oil infrastructure carries an obvious risk of causing world oil prices to soar and hurting consumers in the United States and other oil-importing countries. That result, however, need not be the case if sufficient excess capacity existed in countries ready to increase output to compensate for the loss of Iran's exports. Moreover, if the choice is between higher oil prices and a Middle East with several nuclear powers, higher oil prices and reduced economic growth are not clearly the greater evil.
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Three conclusions can be drawn from these past experiences: (1) Tehran recognizes that at times its interests are best served by restraint, although it will react when circumstances permit; (2) its responses have sometimes been ill conceived and ill timed from the viewpoint of Iranian interests but at other times have been on terms favorable for Tehran (e.g., relying on a delayed asymmetric response in a distant theater of operations, using proxies or terrorist surrogates); and (3) Tehran has not always reacted swiftly to foreign attacks to assuage nationalist passions—and it has sometimes not responded at all. When it has responded, it often did so on its own timeline, and at a time and place of its own choosing.
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Covert action probably entails the least risk of political complications or a harsh Iranian response. Such action could include efforts to encourage the defection of key engineers or scientists, the introduction of fatal design flaws into key pieces of equipment or of destructive viruses into critical computer systems, or the sabotage of critical facilities. In the event of covert action, Iranian authorities may not be able to determine, for instance, whether damage to a critical facility was caused by an industrial accident or sabotage. Even if Tehran suspected sabotage, it might not be able to determine whether such action was the work of Iranian dissidents or foreign intelligence services. Such uncertainty would greatly reduce the risks of a nationalist backlash and Iranian retaliation.Covert action entails many challenges, however, not least of which is that of access to the facilities to be targeted. Iran's nuclear infrastructure is extensive, and for that reason, it would be difficult to disrupt. Additionally, covert actions would have to be sustained over time to succeed. Because of these difficulties, covert action would probably not have a broad, long-term effect on Iran's nuclear program or obviate the need for military action.