Dealing with a Nuclear Iran
[ Page 8 ]
A modification of the buying-time strategy is the "Japanese option" of demonstrating the technical proficiency for a rapid npt breakout but forgoing the actuality in order to avoid international ostracism. A Japanese option holds the potential to advance Iran's security objectives without incurring the worse consequences an overt program might bring. Iran could have a program-in-being without actual weaponization, simply to create the impression it has nuclear weapons. This approach would hold the attention of Israel (its most likely regional foe), the U.S. (its most likely strategic foe), and other Arab (particularly Sunni) states. The key for this approach would be mastering the technology, which could explain Iran's insistence on enrichment, which is considered the principal technological threshold to successful weapons development. It would also explain Iran's refusing iaea inspections, especially if Tehran is hoping to benefit early by overstating its technical capacity - gaining nuclear status before it has the actual weapons.
[ Page 7-8 ]
The Iranian government's behavior could be a calculated effort to buy time for uranium enrichment to reach sufficiency for weapons. Frustrated Iranian nationalism could then explain the choice to produce the enriched material domestically and to proclaim its origin loudly. As we do not know how long Iranian enrichment has been underway, or whether Iran purchased weapons-grade material that would reduce the indigenous production requirement, it would be difficult to gauge how much time that would require. The government may be thinking that with Russian and Chinese reluctance to allow a un blessing for a military attack, with Europeans unwilling to use force themselves, and with the U.S. tied down in Iraq and sure to be excoriated internationally should it preempt without certain proof, time is on Iran's side. The government might even hope for a Pakistan-style outcome: riding out a brief period of international condemnation that international dependence (in Iran's case, on oil) could allow Iran to quickly overcome.
[ Page 18 ]
Ending ILSA sanctions is sometimes mooted as a unilateral action. Sanctions have had little effect on the Iranian economy, but serve a valuable political purpose of disapproval. Lifting sanctions to bribe the Iranian government out of doing something it initiated has the moral hazard so often displayed in policy choices about North Korea. As currently designed, however, ILSA sanctions prevent Iranian expatriates from sending money into the country. Revising the law to capitalize on expatriate funding of activities that diversify information, build civil society, and reduce the Iranian government's ability to control political activity would empower private citizens who share our commitment to changing the Iranian government. The U.S. has had some success discouraging international financial institutions, public and private, from making capital available to Iran. This should be continued as a way of isolating Iran from the economic opportunity it so badly needs to reduce the 20 percent unemployment rate the government admits to among those under the age of 29.
[ Page 19 ]
A simplistic exchange model would have the U.S. threatening a nuclear attack in retaliation for any nuclear use by Iran. This approach not only is implausible, but better options are available to the United States. As the guarantor of the international order and the country with an overwhelming dominance in conventional military forces, no nation benefits as much as the U.S. from the norm against nuclear use. Nuclear use in warfare would substantially drive up the cost to the U.S. of preserving order, whereas the prohibition that has existed since 1945 channels conflict into the sector of warfare in which the U.S. has the greatest operational advantages: clashes between identifiable combatants organized into military units and targeting adversary military units. To deter Iran, the U.S. doesn't need to threaten nuclear retaliation.
[ Page 10 ]
Our ignorance is, in fact, much broader. We do not know with any reliability the nature of Iranian command and control, either for the development programs or for the weapons' operational employment. We do not know the location or even the existence of the full array of laboratories and manufacturing plants. We do not know the extent of the program: Is it attempting to develop a dozen weapons, hundreds, or thousands? We do not know what Iranian doctrine envisions for their use. We do not know whether simple deterrence to ensure state survival is the political aim of their possession, or whether the Iranian government has grander, more aggressive ambitions. We do not know whether possessing the weapons will reassure Iran and make its behavior more stable and predictable, as has been the case with other possessor states (such as India and Pakistan), or more likely to provoke crises to test the political currency of the arsenal (as was the case with the Soviet Union). We do not know whether Iran will proliferate the knowledge and weapons to other states or terrorist organizations.Perhaps the most important thing we do not know about the Iranian nuclear program is when it will produce nuclear weapons. Intelligence estimates vary widely. The most recent assessment, representing the consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies (and, unsurprisingly, leaked to the Washington Post in an article published August 2, 2005) contains the longest lead-time of all: about ten years.
[ Page 12 ]
We are currently in an unenviable position for containing or reversing Iran's nuclear programs. We claim their programs are developing weapons and must be halted at the enrichment stage, but our proof requires public understanding of the scientific argument that enrichment is the critical threshold. The variability of intelligence assessments about the stage of the Iranian program also increases the difficulty of making our case. Moreover, after Iraq, the credibility of Western, and especially American, intelligence is very much in question. All of which leaves us with a complicated technical case to make based on dubious sources of information. Skepticism will be especially prevalent in the Middle East, where competing narratives will have greater sway.These fundamental weaknesses make our case unwinnable. Enrichment may be the right substantive place to draw the line on the Iranian nuclear program, but it is indefensible ground as a matter of public policy. If the U.S. were to use military force against Iran because of enrichment, we would be seen as provoking the ensuing war. Neither European nor regional allies would support us. Iranians would surely unite behind their government. And we would be defending our choices at the un over a chorus of castigation. It is not even difficult to imagine the U.S. being accused of using nuclear weapons against Iranian facilities because of the nuclear material any conventional attack would release.
[ Page 20 ]
Destroying all of the Iranian nuclear program - not just weapons being readied for use - is a much more demanding task. The lack of information about the extent and location of nuclear facilities means we would be unlikely to destroy the entire program. We do know enough to get started, however, and activity intended to protect additional facilities after attacks began would likely provide additional helpful intelligence. Such a campaign - and it would be a campaign, not a single strike - would likely be of extended duration, requiring politically costly support from regional allies and incurring substantial civilian casualties. Operationally, we would need persistent surveillance and a dramatically improved battle damage assessment system than was operating during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Given the high probability of retaliation with residual Iranian nuclear forces, we will want more than one approach so that the combined probabilities of destruction are as high as possible.
[ Page 18 ]
Despite the high price of oil in the past few years, economic impairment may be our most powerful tool short of force. The CIA Factbook describes the Iranian economy as "marked by a bloated, inefficient state sector, over reliance on the oil sector, and statist policies that create major distortions throughout." Public debt is 25 percent of GDP, and inflation is running at 16 percent. By focusing all our attention on the Iranian nuclear program, we are allowing the Iranian government to divert attention from its inability to provide economic opportunities. Part of our argument should be that Iran is a country that ought to be rich and inventive and engaged in the international economy, but its government prevents those things.
[ Page 23 ]
Iran could also disrupt the flow of oil by closing the Straits of Hormuz or attacking Gulf platforms or shipping. As Edward Luttwak points out, "all of the offshore oil- and gas-production platforms in the gulf, all the traffic of oil and gas tankers originating from the jetties of the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, are within easy reach of the Iranian coast." However, this, too, seems improbable beyond a short duration, since oil accounts for 80 percent of the Iranian economy. Attacks on gcc oil facilities are a greater likelihood, since they would increase the value of Iranian oil, but if gcc states were not involved in or supporting the strikes against Iran, such attacks would have long-term detrimental consequences for Iran's relations with the gcc states.We should not be deterred by Iranian threats, but if military attacks were seriously considered, we would need to prepare for increased Iranian meddling in Iraq, more expensive oil for at least several months, greater and more overt Iranian support for terrorist organizations, attacks on friendly governments especially in the Middle East, the possibility of infiltration attacks in the United States, and the diplomatic gambit of the U.S. being referred to the un Security Council.
[ Page 8 ]
It could be that Ahmadinejad is an immature political actor unaccustomed to international scrutiny and has blundered into the crisis. Khamenei's decision in July to create advisory councils reporting directly to him on foreign affairs and wto preparedness could be seen as a rebuke to Ahmadinejad's recklessness, as could the Militant Clerics Association's complaints to Khamenei about Ahmadinejad. This seems the least plausible of the explanations, simply because the Iranian president has little authority in national security issues: It is extremely unlikely he could initiate resumption of enrichment activity without involvement of Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard. Moreover, until UN sanctions were voted, other leading figures in the Iranian government did nothing to try to tone down Ahmadinejad or chief negotiator Ali Lirijani's positions.