The Bottom Line on Iran: The Costs and Benefits of Preventive War versus Deterrence
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A policy of acceptance and deterrence is also an unattractive prospect. Iran would likely be emboldened by the acquisition of a bomb and could destabilize the region and inject more problems into an already bleak prospect for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Still, given the costs of the military option, the only compelling rationale for starting a war with Iran would be if there were good reason to believe that the Iranian leadership is fundamentally undeterrable. But available evidence indicates that Iran is deterrable and would be particularly so if faced with the devastating repercussions that would result from the use of a nuclear weapon. Therefore, the United States should begin taking steps immediately to prepare for a policy of deterrence should an Iranian bomb come online in the future. As undesirable as such a situation would be, it appears less costly than striking Iran.
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The U.S. government appears to know very little about Iran's nuclear program. It is quite difficult to gather effective intelligence on a country with which America has not had commercial or diplomatic relations for more than two decades, and a successful attack against a nuclear program as dispersed and effectively hidden as Iran's apparently is would require very good intelligence. In 2002 the United States learned of startling advances in Iran's nuclear program after revelations regarding the Natanz enrichment facility and the Arak heavy water reactor were made very publicly by the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq's (MEK's) political arm, the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI). Given that these facilities would rank high on any list of potential targets in Iran, we must understand that the Iranian leadership knows that we know about them. Are Natanz and Arak still the key sites to strike in order to damage Iran's nuclear program? If so, the Iranians would be leaving themselves vulnerable to just the sort of U.S. air strikes that they fear. It is far more likely that the leadership in Tehran has taken into account that those locations would be first on a list of U.S. aim points and has adjusted their programs accordingly, by either diversifying the locations even further than they were or by relocating nuclear activity.
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In addition to the inherent difficulty of gathering information about a country with which we have had nearly no diplomatic or economic engagement for 27 years, there is reason to fear that what little intelligence we do have is of poor quality. According to James Risen of the New York Times, the entire Central Intelligence Agency network inside Iran was 'rolled up' in 2004 when a CIA operative accidentally sent a full roster of U.S. assets inside Iran to an Iranian double agent. This, according to Risen, left the CIA 'virtually blind in Iran.' Even before the 'roll-up,' a presidential commission concluded in 2004 that the U.S. intelligence community had 'disturbingly little' information on Iran's nuclear activities. That assessment was echoed in August 2006 in a report for the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. That report noted that 'American intelligence agencies do not know nearly enough about Iran's nuclear weapons program.' Further, the report argued: "Improving intelligence collection and analysis to better understand and counter Iranian influence and intentions is vital to our national security. The Intelligence Community lacks the ability to acquire essential information necessary to make judgments on these essential topics, which have been recognized as essential to U.S. national security for many, many years."
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In reality, the difficulty of preventive strikes against Iran's nuclear program is closer to that described by Anthony Cordesman and Khalid al-Rodhan of the CSIS: To be effective, a military strike against Iran's nuclear efforts would virtually have to attack all probable and possible Iranian facilities to have maximum impact in denying Iran the capability to acquire a nuclear weapon or ensuring that its efforts would be delayed for some years. . . . The problem for anyone who starts a shell game is that some players either will insist that all shells be made transparent or else will proceed to smash all the shells.16 The implications of intelligence shortcomings would be severe. As Jeffrey Record of the U.S. Air War College has pointed out, 'an effective strategy of counterproliferation via preventive war requires intelligence of a consistent quality and reliability that may not be obtainable within the real-world limits of collection collection and analysis by the U.S. intelligence community.17 Although the analysis in this paper is based on open-source intelligence reporting, and it is possible that the classified materials contain a systematic intelligence picture of the Iranian nuclear program, it is far from clear that that is the case. Given the apparent intelligence shortcomings inside Iran, a policy of preventive war as counterproliferation seems unlikely to produce a decisive outcome.
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Perle's suggestion that six or eight B-2 aircraft could eliminate Iran's nuclear program in a single evening simplifies a complex situation with the assumption that we know where the relevant Iranian nuclear facilities are. Some Iran hawks explicitly point to Israel's 1981 strike against Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor as a model. That analogy is strained at best. The attack against Osirak was a targeted strike at one above-ground facility located roughly 10 miles outside of Baghdad in open desert terrain. By contrast, Iran's known and suspected (to say nothing of unknown and unsuspected) nuclear facilities number as many as 70, some of which are in or around civilian population centers such as Tehran. Unlike the Osirak reactor, Iran's nuclear facilities are widely dispersed, and as Cordesman and al-Rodhan argue, 'many of Iran's research, development, and production activities are almost certainly modular and can be rapidly moved to new sites, including tunnels, caves, and other underground facilities.' Given that the 2002 revelations about the sites at Arak and Natanz came as a bolt from the blue, it is worth considering whether our ignorance pre-2002 has now been replaced by an ignorance of the latest developments inside Iran. The notion that we have a complete or near-complete target set for Iran's nuclear facilities is not supported by the available evidence.
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The United States could always go a step further and decide to use low-yield earth-penetrating nuclear weapons against such a target (or other, more deeply buried targets that we might not know about yet), but it would be extremely difficult to limit civilian casualties in the event of such an attack. Even a weapon with a yield of five kilotons, detonated roughly six meters underground (which is roughly the current penetrating depth of the most advanced U.S. bunker-busting nuclear weapon, the B61-11), would create a cloud of radioactive dust over an area of roughly three square miles. Since many of Iran's nuclear facilities are located close to civilian populations, significant numbers of noncombatants could be exposed to dangerous levels of radiation.
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The Fall 2004 issue of the Atlantic Monthly sponsored a war game involving Iran. Col. Gardiner, the retired Air Force officer and an expert war gamer, was asked to simulate a potential set of options for attacking Iran's nuclear program. A number of Republican and Democratic foreign policy experts were brought in to play the roles of secretaries of defense and state, CIA director, and White House chief of staff. After developing military plans and running them through the war game, Gardiner concluded: 'After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.' Similarly, Newsweek magazine reported in September 2004 that both the CIA and the Defense Intelligence Agency had conducted war games on Iran and that 'no one liked the outcome.' Gardiner would later conduct more exercises, increasing the number of aim points from 300 to 400, with at least 75 targets requiring penetrating weapons, only to conclude, once again, that the military option would not prevent eventual Iranian acquisition of a bomb. Ret. Gen. Barry McCaffrey went so far as to argue on NBC's Meet the Press that 'the notion that we can threaten them with conventional air attack is simply insane.'
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One problem with a preventive war strategy is that Iran has the ability to retaliate in a number of ways. First among them is the prospect that Iran's political and military penetration of Iraq could lead to a rapid escalation of violence in that country and might well plunge the entire Persian Gulf region into chaos. In early 2006, U.S. intelligence warned of the most likely tactics Iran could employ: longrange missiles, secret commando units (presumably IRGC), and 'terrorist allies planted around the globe.' In particular, both the political and the security situations in Iraq could become nightmarish if the United States were to attack Iran. In January, powerful Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced that if Iran were attacked, Sadr would throw his support behind Iran. Sadr's large militia, the Mahdi army, has clashed repeatedly with U.S. troops, and Sadr has become a major player in Iraq's national politics; he demonstrated his political influence most recently by prompting tens of thousands of supporters to take to the streets of Baghdad in August to profess support for Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah's campaign against Israel by chanting 'Death to America! Death to Israel!' According to former National Security Council official Kenneth Pollack, Iran's Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has 'allowed the [Iranian] intelligence services to deploy to Iraq in force and position themselves to fight a war there if necessary.' Pollack concluded that if Iran decided to ratchet up its activity inside Iraq, our troubles in that country would 'increase dramatically, perhaps even insurmountably.' U.S. officials confirm this account, noting that Iranian agents have poured money and personnel into southern Iraq in an effort to create a 'greater Iran.' England's Chatham House think tank went so far as to argue that 'Iran has superseded [the United States] as the most influential power in Iraq.'
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Terrorism analyst Daniel Byman says that Iranian attacks against the U.S. homeland are 'less likely' than attacks against U.S. interests overseas, but warns that they are 'far from impossible.' Former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Bob Graham stated after the 9/11 terrorist attacks that Hizbullah was the terrorist group with the largest presence inside the United States. Serving as deputy secretary of state in 2003, Richard Armitage wondered whether 'Hezbollah may be the 'A-Team of Terrorists' and maybe al- Qaeda is actually the 'B' team.' Former U.S. counterterrorism officials Richard Clarke and Steven Simon worry that the forces Hizbullah could deploy against the United States are 'far superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field.' Provoking a full-scale conflict with Hizbullah could have significant consequences if Armitage's and Clarke and Simon's thinking is accurate.
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Moreover, when Iran attempted to cause mischief in the strait in 1988, during the socalled tanker war, U.S. naval forces showed near-total dominance in the water, disabling six Iranian vessels and attacking two oil platforms used by Iran for intelligence monitoring. Still, Iran could take a decidedly lowtech lowtech approach to the strait, attempting at the least to raise insurance premiums on tankers traveling through it to prohibitively high levels. Raising insurance premiums (and, accordingly, the cost of petroleum products) would not require the infliction of much damage on ships, per seóit would only require that insurers become nervous that there is enough potential danger ahead that they hedge against this risk by raising premiums. Iran could attempt to use a naval version of the asymmetric warfare that the Iraqi insurgents are usingóand history indicates that if they were creative, the Iranians could cause notable damage. Such a low-tech approach would emphasize quantity, not quality, of mines. Minesweeping and detection are particularly difficult tasks, and a strategy that deployed an irregular pattern of mines would not need the use of high-tech mine-laying vessels or submarines. Mines could be dropped off the back of commercial vessels, to potentially strike oil tankers (or naval vessels) attempting to transit the strait specifically or the Persian Gulf more generally. According to Anthony Cordesman, the Iranians possessed roughly 2,000 such mines as of 2004. And during a test in July 2006, U.S. mine countermeasure vessels stationed in Bahrain were judged to have serious technical shortcomings, including dysfunctional mine warfare hardware 'hampered by cracks and leaks in equipment, damaged wires and cables, faulty indicators and exposed electrical wiring.'