The End of the "Summer of Diplomacy": Assessing U.S. Military Options on Iran
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I recently attended a Middle East security conference in Berlin. At dinner one night, I sat next to the Iranian ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Ali-Asghar Soltanieh. I told him I had read that the Iranians were accusing the United States of supporting elements in Baluchistan. I asked him how they knew that. Without any hesitation, Soltanieh told me that they have captured militants who confessed that they were working with the Americans. The United States is also directly involved in supporting groups inside the Kurdish area of Iran. According to both western and Iranian press reports, the Iranian Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK) has been allowed to operate from Iraq into Iran and has killed Revolutionary Guard soldiers. The Iranians have also accused the United States of being involved in shooting down two of their aircraft, an old C-130 and a Falcon jet, carrying Revolutionary Guard leaders.
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When imposing the sanctions fails to alter Tehran's position, policymakers will revert to a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. One can imagine the words of a planner in the meeting: "If we are going to do this, let's make certain we get everything they have." I have done some rough "targeting" of nuclear facilities for which I can find satellite photos on the Web. By my calculation, an attack of relatively high certainty on nuclear targets would require 400 aim points. (An aim point is the specific location where an individual weapon is directed. Most targets would have multiple aim points.) I estimate seventy-five of these aim points would require penetrating weapons. But it is unlikely that a U.S. military planner would want to stop there. Iran probably has two chemical weapons production plants. He would want to hit those. He would want to hit Iran's medium-range ballistic missiles that have just recently been moved closer to Iraq. There are fourteen airfields with sheltered aircraft. Although the Iranian Air Force is not much of a threat, some of these airfields are less than fifteen minutes flying time from Bagdhad. Military planners would want to eliminate that potential threat. The Pentagon would want to hit the assets that could be used to threaten Gulf shipping. That would mean targeting cruise missile sites, Iranian diesel submarines, and Iranian naval assets.
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As an obvious consequence of the instability resulting from a U.S. strike, the price of oil almost certainly will spike. The impact will depend on how high and how long. The longer the conflict goes, the higher the price. A former Kuwaiti oil minister privately suggested a plateau of $125 per barrel. Confidential analysis by a major European bank suggests it would level off at $130, and a very conservative estimate would be over $200. With prices surging to this level, third order consequences become apparent The most obvious would be a global synchronized recession, intensified by the existing U.S. trade and fiscal imbalances. Another political consequence would be that oil exporting countries outside the region woul enjoy significant surges in revenue from higher prices. As a result, countries such as Venezuela and Russia would enjoy expanded influence while the West would be reeling from recession.
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Another major issue that affects timing is the conspicuous absence of reliable intelligence about Iran. A report by the House Intelligence Committee found that we have serious gaps in our knowledge of the Iranian nuclear program. Paradoxically, those gaps in intelligence produce not caution, but further pressure to attack. U.S. intelligence agencies do not know the locations of all of Iran's facilities; they are not certain how far Iran has gone with enrichment. They know that Iran's nuclear program bears a striking resemblance to the Pakistani program, but they do not know whether Iran has acquired technology that might put it ahead of current estimates. Some U.S. officials say that Iran is ten years from a weapon. The Pentagon, we are told, is operating under the assumption that Iran could have a weapon in ive years. Some Israeli estimates say that Iran could have a weapon in three years. John Negroponte, the U.S. director of national intelligence, recently said that Iran could not develop a nuclear weapon until some time in the next decade. But the next day, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said he did not trust estimates of the Iranian program. The very ambiguity of the intelligence picture has become another argument for military options, because even if U.S. policymakers could agree on a firm policy red line, there would be no way of determining if and when Iran crossed that line. Vice President Cheney's espoused calculation for dealing with global threats is that if there is even a 1 percent chance of a country passing WMD to a terrorist, the United States must act. Because there is a 1 percent chance Iran could pass WMD to a terrorist, the Bush administration finds itself obliged to reject nonmilitary options.