This is not a time to wander off in search of enemies and new wars. The U.S. faces major risks in Iraq and probably only even odds of any form of even limited victory. The situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating and uncertain. America is just beginning to rebuild its reputation with its allies throughout the world, and any sudden new military adventures are going to provoke a massive coalition of the unwilling. The U.S. cannot afford to ignore true threats to its vital interests, but it needs to be extraordinarily careful in what it does. Wherever possible, the U.S. should only take military action after it has exhausted diplomatic options, and only if it has the support of its allies—old and new.
Striking at Iran also presents serious problems. The IAEA has found some 17-22 sites at which Iran may have some relevant nuclear activity. The most the US could do is hit at the sites known to U.S. intelligence that clearly merit military strikes. This would probably allow it to destroy Iran’s best-known P-1 centrifuge and underground facilities, but Iran has almost certainly dispersed much of its equipment and it is impossible to attack its technology base—it has long been too dispersed and subject to rapid relocation. Iran’s ability to make more P-1 centrifuges, bring much more capable P-2 systems on-line, create dispersed small centrifuge facilities, and fabricate nuclear weapons components and test simulated nuclear weapons and warheads would remain, and would almost certainly be impossible to target in ways to keep Iran from eventually having a nuclear weapon.
Moreover, Iran’s proliferation goes far beyond its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. It is developing long-range missiles, and these include efforts to acquire cruise missiles and solid-state ballistic missiles as well as the liquid fuel missiles that Iraq has already begun to deploy. It is a self-declared chemical weapons power and it may have biological weapons. Certainly, some of its imports indicate such efforts, and the pressures of the Iran-Iraq War and the post-Gulf War discoveries about Iraq have pushed Iran towards biological weapons—which can be as lethal as small nuclear weapons, if not more so. Iran is more than a potential nuclear power.
Iran is a broad-based proliferator, and its history of concealing its imports and activities goes back to the time of the Shah. Even if the U.S. could suppress Iran’s nuclear weapons programs for a while, it would take a massive pattern of strikes and continuing restrikes to suppress the overall Iranian effort, and it is far easier to disguise biological weapons programs than nuclear ones.
Iran can also strike back at the U.S., its Gulf allies, and Israel in a wide range of different ways. Calling Iran a terrorist state, the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, or part of an axis of evil is far more rhetoric than reality, and part of a dangerous tendency towards American political infantilism in international affairs. Poorly chosen words, however, do not mean there is not a dangerous reality. Iran is a real and potential threat in many other areas. It has shown it is willing to conduct a proxy war against Israel, and it provides aid and arms to the Hezbollah, Hamas, and the PIJ. Like several other Middle Eastern states such as Syria, Iran has shown it is willing to strike a devil’s bargain with Al Qaeda and other Neo-Salafi Islamist extremist groups—in spite of their description of Shiites as polytheists and apostates—when it feels it can use them against the U.S.
It may benefit from U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it has no reason to be grateful and every reason to exploit the situation, and it is doing so. Iran is arming and training Shiite militias in Iraq, transferring IED technology, like shaped charges and motion detectors, and is serving its own interests. It will do the same in Afghanistan, in dealing with Syria, and throughout the region. Any effort to strike a “grand bargain” with Iran that prevents it from doing so will be an exercise in hollow diplomacy.
Iran can do more than respond to any U.S. pressure or military action with proxy wars, surrogates, and covert operations. Its conventional military capabilities are steadily aging and deteriorating, and much of its Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is now a corrupt bureaucracy. The naval branch of the IRGC, however, can cause a great deal of mischief in the Gulf. Iran can also sacrifice much of its navy—such as its mine vessels and submarines—just as it did during its “tanker war” with the U.S. in 1987-1988. Mines, small craft attacks on tankers, and raids on offshore and coastal facilities are just a few of its options. Iran can also conduct another kind of asymmetric warfare by threatening to cut its oil exports, cutting or shutting them down temporarily, and pushing the market towards panic and higher prices.
Iran also has the ability to fight long, slow wars of attrition. It does not have to react suddenly, obviously, or in ways that give the U.S. a clear excuse to escalate, and it can keep up steady, low-level pressure for years.
Another key point: The U.S. does not need another neoconservative fantasy about the ease and benefits of regime overthrow. The current president of Iran, and its repressive theocratic leadership, are in firm control. Students and other former political activists are in a survival mode if they have not been dragged into Iranian nationalism over the nuclear issue. The only opposition talking about any kind of military action is a terrorist organization, the MEK, which is far worse than Iran’s government. It is little more than a cult that sold what passed for its soul to Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, and murdered Americans when I served with the U.S. Embassy in Iran.
This does not mean that the U.S. does not have military options or should not act. It does mean we should play out the diplomatic option. If we do have to strike, it should only be after the world sees we went the final mile, did everything possible, and fully consulted with our allies and tried to use the UN. It also means we should be prepared for a long, messy struggle with a serious price tag—in terms of Iraq, the war on terrorism, energy, and Israel—that will become a political and military struggle of attrition lasting years.
We also need to carefully weigh two other options. One is waiting until Iran has fully committed massive resources to full-scale enrichment, weapons production, and missile production and deployment options. We can’t root out Iran’s technology and production base, and we do the most damage if we wait until we can strike at more visible and mature efforts where Iran has committed billions of dollars and years of effort to its nuclear, missile, and other forces. Given U.S. intelligence estimates that Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon until after 2010, we have time.
Second, deterrence and containment may offer a more solid approach than military strikes. This means giving our allies missile defenses. It means making it clear to Iran that the U.S. will extend the same nuclear umbrella over any nation it attacks with a nuclear weapon or other weapon of mass destruction, as we did for Europe in the face of the Warsaw Pact threat. It means developing more complex conventional options like halting all shipping into Iran, threatening its power and refinery capabilities, and showing Iran and the world that the U.S. has surgical punitive options as well as defensive and nuclear ones.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and is co-author with Khalid Al-Rodhan of Iran’s Weapons of Mass Destruction, CSIS, June 2006.