Before Bombing: A Three-Year Plan for Iran

In their different ways, both Reuel Marc Gerecht and Anthony H. Cordesman explain very well the nature of the problem.

What the rulers of Iran are doing, without any nuclear weapons to protect them, is already recklessly aggressive and very damaging to American interests. Nor can it be said that they are defending themselves from outside threats—they are driven by the purely internal dynamics of an intense competition between rival factions within the regime. That is why all the many attempts at conciliatory diplomacy, starting with Mitterand of France in 1990-91 inevitably fail: as soon as one faction agrees to talk, another will accuse it of giving in to the infidel—and stage a provocation to abort the initiative. It would be folly to let these rulers acquire the shield of nuclear deterrence for their extremism.

Some advance the notion of mutual deterrence with a nuclear Iran. The proof of its imprudence is the failure of non-nuclear deterrence. U.S. forces are present on both sides of Iran in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well to their south in the Persian Gulf and Indian ocean, Iran’s own armed forces are outdated in structure, training and equipment. Nevertheless, instead of being deterred, the rulers of Iran feel free to attack U.S. policies world-wide in the most violent terms, to form alliances with any and all enemies of the United States from Chavez of Venezuela to North Korea, and to foment actual violence against the United States and its allies. They fund, train, and arm the Mahdi militia of Moqtada Sadr which periodically attacks U.S. and British troops, specifically supplying—to others as well—the triggering devices for the bombs that are causing most U.S. casualties in Iraq.

Under the banner of Shia solidarity, it was the Iranian regime that established the Hezbollah of Lebanon which it has continued to train, arm, and generously fund––to then give full support for the rule-breaking attack on Israel that has provoked the current war. This now directly serves the interests of the Iranian regime by diverting diplomatic efforts from the build-up to UN Security Council measures against its uranium-enrichment activities.

Moreover, even though both the Salafist Al Qaeda and Hamas, as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, hold that the Twelver Shias of Iraq and Iran are not true Muslims but apostates deserving of death, in a convergence of extremism the rulers of Iran are harboring surviving Al Qaeda elements, and also funding Hamas to support its refusal of any peace.

It is therefore unreasonable to expect that the rulers of Iran would suddenly see the wisdom of moderation if they are able to assemble their own nuclear weapons.

It follows that if all diplomatic efforts to obtain a verifiable cessation of uranium enrichment fail, the United States must be ready to bomb the buildings that are likely to house critical processes and equipment. It is argued that Iran has many facilities in many places. That is true, but an air strike would not have to achieve total destruction—it is not a Las Vegas demolition contract—nor even partial destruction. While the enrichment process requires several functional stages, it is only necessary to destroy the buildings and facilities needed for one of them to stop the entire process. In itself, that result is likely to be short-lived, so an air strike would also target other buildings or facilities that are both critical and more difficult to replace. It would take something of an air campaign to destroy every single structure in every installation associated with Iran’s nuclear program—the total might come to 1,000 aiming points, requiring some 500 sorties for the strike aircraft alone, assuming both a number of re-strikes, and no use at all of cruise missiles, because of their smaller warheads and lesser accuracy. But to destroy selectively only the critical and hard-to-replace structures, less than 100 aiming points would suffice, so that unless an exaggerated number of defense suppression and air superiority sorties were also flown (Iran’s fighters are useless and its air-defense missiles obsolete) the combined total could still amount to a one-time air strike as opposed to more prolonged bombing.

That difference is of the essence politically. It is one thing to start a bombing campaign of unknown duration and scope, and quite another to announce that the previous night a number of buildings were destroyed. The negative political impact within Iran, within the region, and globally would be infinitely smaller.

It would be most unfortunate if narrowly bureaucratic considerations and standard operating procedures were allowed to prevail over political priorities, increasing sortie numbers unnecessarily to over-insure against feeble Iranian air defenses, thus precluding a one-time strike. It would be imperfect of course, but then the purpose is not to solve the problem presented by Iran or even its nuclear program, but only to delay the acquisition of nuclear weapons as long as possible, in the hopes that a better regime comes along, something that will surely happen one day.

All of the above presumes target intelligence of sufficient accuracy. That is not an unreasonable assumption. Iran is not North Korea. Its borders are open to visitors and are easily crossed illegally, both ways. There are a great many Iranian expatriates abroad—more than a million in the U.S. alone—who travel back and forth and frequently communicate with friends and relatives still in Iran, and there are active opposition groups both formal and informal within Iran’s educated classes, which reach deep into the scientific establishment. In the absence of unforgivable institutional failure, enough should be known of Iran’s nuclear activities on a current basis to allow really accurate targeting.

But it is also an agreed assumption that Iran cannot acquire nuclear weapons in less than three years by the shortest estimates.

There is therefore no compelling reason to use force before then, while there are very good reasons to wait. One may still hope that diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to abandon uranium enrichment will succeed, however unlikely that now seems. A more solid reason to wait is that the United States is already over-committed, and one hopes that it will regain some freedom of action once U.S. troops are disengaged from active operations in Iraq. An even better reason to wait is that the next three years could used very productively to weaken Iran’s regime. Even if the UN Security Council fails in the end to impose sanctions, so long as the United States can preserve its entente with the European Union over Iran, punishing measures could still be implemented to dissuade investments in Iran, to deny international banking services, and prohibit the travel of leaders broadly defined and their families to their favorite European destinations. Pyongyang is not Paris.

In the meantime, the new intelligence now available should be used to slow down Iran’s nuclear program by finally, at long last, stopping exports of electron-beam welders, balancing machines, vacuum pumps, flow-forming machines, and such from the West, chiefly Germany and Switzerland. For that was the startling discovery made by the IAEA inspectors: although Iran’s nuclear program critically depends on equipment imported from Europe—a well known fact in itself—the Iranians had not even bothered to remove the manufacturers’ labels.

There is also something else that should be done most vigorously in the meantime, if only to keep faith with the Wilsonian dimension of American foreign policy, but really to be congruent with the nature of our times, in which the politics of national identity prevail over all other considerations.

Adding to the many nation-states that have emerged from the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia, Catalonia has just claimed its separate national identity, and even Montenegro has separated from Serbia, with which it shares both language and religion. It is just the same in multi-national Iran, which is also destined to become a drastically smaller Persia, for Persians and ethnic groups linguistically and culturally close to them do not account for much more than half the population. The Kurds of the northwest and Baluch of the southeast are actively fighting for independence from both the cultural oppression of their Persian rulers, and the Shiite oppression of their Sunni faith (there are Sunni mosques in Rome, Tel Aviv, and Washington, but none is allowed in Tehran). Both the Kurds and the Baluch deserve our sympathy and more. Then there are the Arabs of the southwest who needed Tehran’s protection when Iran was ruled by Sunni oppressors, but are now revolting against Persian domination and see themselves as naturally combining with their fellow Arabs of Iraq just across the border.

These are all peripheral minorities which amount to less than 10% of the population of Iran, and could presumably be suppressed by brute force in the future as in the past. The Azeris are an entirely different case. They are Shiites and historically they were glad to combine with the Persians to protect their faith against the Sunni menace from Ottoman Turkey. Now they no longer need religious protection and increasingly resent the Persian suppression of their entirely different Turkic language and cultural identity—their children are condemned to grow up as analphabets in their own language.

This is no small minority than can be brutalized. On May 11 of this year, the regime did not even try to resist the gigantic demonstrations in Tabriz, in which banners were carried calling for an independent, united Azerbaijan, which would comprise rather than be subject to the Republic of Afghanistan. Excluding the assimilated Azeris of Tehran and elsewhere in Iran, who are Persian speakers, and for whom any sense of a separate identity is merely a matter of family memories or just folklore, there are at least 20 million Azeris in Western Iran who are increasingly determined to assert their nationality, without violence if possible. Outnumbering as they do most UN member states, they deserve our consideration and friendly regard and support, if only to facilitate a peaceful separation. That should be at the very center of the three-year agenda.


Edward N. Luttwak is a senior advisor to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Cognitive Dissonance: The State of America’s Iran Policy by Reuel Marc Gerecht

    In this month’s lead essay, American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that American and European diplomacy aimed at derailing the Iranian clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weapons is, for various reasons, bound to fail. Gerecht maintains that we are then left to with two unattractive alternatives. “Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities, or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons?” he asks. Arguing that the latter option “would empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness,” Gerecht advises the former: a policy of preemptively bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.

Response Essays

  • A Cure Worse than the Disease by Ted Galen Carpenter

    Cato vice president for defense and foreign policy studies Ted Galen Carpenter argues Gerecht’s strategy of bombing Iranian nuclear facilities may be harder than advertised and that “thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.” Such an attack might trigger a “massive regional crisis.” “America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations,” Carpenter writes, “but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result.” Carpenter argues the U.S. should try to persuade Iran to give up its nuke program by offering a “grand bargain,” and if that doesn’t work, should pursue a policy of containment and deterrence, which, while “nerve-wracking,” has proved effective against deadlier and more fanatical regimes.

  • We Have the Right Policy Now and Better Options for the Future by Anthony H. Cordesman

    In his reply to Reuel Marc Gerecht’s lead essay, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues the U.S. must exhaust all its diplomatic options before taking military action against Iran, especially given the shaky situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Cordesman argues, airstrikes are unlikely to be succeed in stopping the Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran already has lethal chemical and biological capacities, and the ability to strike back seriously in a variety of ways. If a strike becomes necessary after the exhaustion of non-military options, it would be better to wait until the targets are clearer. Containment and deterrence, Cordesman maintains, may be a more effective approach.

The Conversation