About this Issue

What to do about Iran? The Islamic Republic’s nuclear ambitions present probably the most vexing problem facing U.S. foreign policymakers today. It is clear enough that the world will become a significantly more dangerous place if Iran, a radical Islamist state that actively supports international terrorism, succeeds in acquiring nuclear weapons. But efforts to prevent that outcome by means of military force would also entail enormous dangers, including the very real risk that they would fail to accomplish their objective. Sorting through U.S. options requires wrestling with a series of agonizingly difficult questions. How much time do we have before the whole issue is mooted by an Iranian nuclear test? Between now and then, is there any non-military approach not yet tried—a “grand bargain,” sanctions, covert subversion of the current regime—that offers a decent prospect of success? If those approaches are tried and fail, should the U.S. resign itself to a nuclear Iran and rely on deterrence as it did during the Cold War? Or is deterrence ill suited to a regime run by religious extremists? If deterrence is unacceptable, could a bombing campaign, the most commonly discussed military option, be counted on to work? How would we know if it did or didn’t work? How might Iran respond to a preventive attack? And finally, if the U.S. decides not to exercise a military option, what happens if Israel decides otherwise?

American Enterprise Institute resident scholar and Middle East foreign policy expert Reuel Marc Gerecht will launch the discussion with a provocative essay arguing for the preemptive bombing of Iranian nuclear sites. Jumping into the fray to reply to Gerecht will be Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute; Edward N. Luttwak, senior fellow of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of widely discussed recent article in Commentary, “Three Reasons Not to Bomb Iran — Yet”; and and Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and author of Iran’s Developing Military Capabilities.

Lead Essay

Cognitive Dissonance: The State of America’s Iran Policy

Why would the Iranian clerical regime, which has clandestinely spent hundreds of millions, if not a few billion, dollars over twenty years on nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, give up its quest for the bomb—especially when it is an issue that unites, not divides, the ruling clerical elite? Former president Mohammad Khatami, the “left-wing” reformist cleric European and American diplomats love to miss, never once seriously suggested he had reservations about Iran’s nuclear “energy” program during his presidency. And he hasn’t done so since leaving office. Khatami, who sat as president on the Islamic Republic’s national security council, and his inner-circle reformist allies, many of whom were present at the birth of the clerical regime’s nuclear-weapons program, undoubtedly could have privately taken issue with the bomb between 1997 and 2005. The former interior minister Abdallah Nuri, the audaciously bold disciple of Grand Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Montazeri, who publicly challenged Iran’s ruler, Ali Khamenei, to open a debate about the restoration of relations with the United States, didn’t, so far as I can tell, ever challenge the development of nukes.

Clerical Iran is a leaky place, where internecine disagreements among the mullahs usually boil over into the public square. Yet go ahead and try to find a discussion—a rumor of a debate—among the ruling clerical elite about the merits of possessing the bomb during Khatami’s presidency, which is when the Islamic Republic’s nuclear weapons program made perhaps its most significant progress. Although one may question whether the atomic weapons program is as popular among the Iranian public as is often suggested by the Western press (how one poses this question to Iranians, who generally have a sharp distaste for their clerical overlords and anything that may reinforce their power, is key), it’s hard to see any meaningful “atomic” split so far among Iran’s ruling clerics, the Middle East’s most successful practitioners of machtpolitik.

So given this apparent unity, what’s the Bush administration’s preferred solution to a rogue state’s quest for a bomb? Bribery. We will offer the Iranians trade and investment goodies, and a “safe” way to have nuclear energy, at least safer than what we once offered the North Koreans. I’ve never met a European or American official who believes the clerical regime wants a “safe” nuclear program, but the demands of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, at least according to the Europeans, oblige us to offer the clerics peaceful nuclear power. And if bribery doesn’t work, then severe banking coercion backed however tepidly by limited industrial and trade sanctions will follow, assuming the Europeans and Japanese agree.

Now, I’ve been to London, Paris, and Berlin fairly often to talk about Iran, and have met European officials from the EU-3 countries regularly in Washington. It is certainly true that the French, Germans, and Brits, who initially started the nuclear discussions with Tehran after the Islamic Republic’s massive clandestine facility at Natanz was revealed in 2002 by an Iranian opposition group, have become increasingly serious about countering the mullahs’ atomic ambitions and much less anti-American in tone and method. The EU-3-led negotiations, which began in fear of George W. Bush’s possible bellicosity toward another axis-of-evil member, have occasionally pushed the French into taking more aggressive rhetorical positions against the mullahs than has the United States. More or less, this process has worked exactly as Nicholas Burns, the Undersecretary for Political Affairs, and the major-domo at State for Iran policy, intended: Give the Europeans some responsibility for American foreign policy and they will act more responsibly. The election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has also helped.

It’s probably accurate to say, nonetheless, that the Europeans really aren’t very sanguine about the chances of bribing or coercing the mullahs into good behavior. Some—mostly Germans and Brits—will express the hope that the Bush administration be more capacious and preemptive in its incentives. Drop all trade sanctions immediately, offer other commercial bennies, and talk more loudly and generously about resolving once and for all the Shah-era Iranian debt issue (the clerical regime has never been able to decide how many billions the United States supposedly still owes it–accounting methods are somewhat idiosyncratic in the Islamic Republic). Last but not least, the United States should offer security guarantees to the clerics. Translated, this means that the Bush administration would henceforth stop using rude pro-democracy, anti-clerical language, secure Iran’s admission into some kind of new regional security organization (without spooking, of course, the Arab Gulfies, who in part provide the United States bases and other assistance precisely because they fear Iranian intentions), and publicly promise never to invade Iran. The Germans, Brits, and American “realists” who like this line of argument are never particularly specific on whether this public disavowal of the use of force is an unconditional promise, or whether it would be qualified. For example, if the clerical regime did a Khobar Towers II and again killed American soldiers, would that constitute grounds for an invasion, or perhaps just an airborne military assault? They also never bother to give a history of promises kept by the Islamic Republic.

The French, who’ve been burned in negotiations (and bombed) by the Iranians, and who have the most pessimistic timeline about when Tehran will likely go nuclear (one hears a three-year estimate in Paris and considerable derision for the CIA’s five-to-ten year guess), do not push “security guarantees” as vigorously as do the Germans and the British. One has the sense that they do not believe that the Islamic Republic of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad is a status quo-seeking force, yearning to be just a recognized regional, formerly terrorism-fond power, focused on the economic well-being of its citizenry. As the French scholar Bernard Hourcade has noted, twenty-seven years after the Islamic revolution, there are fewer than 3,000 Westerners living in Iran (including diplomats and their children). And many, if not most, of the Western businessmen who work in Iran live in isolated communities, by the design of the clerical government. “This situation is approved and imposed by the Islamic policy-makers,” writes Hourcade, “who dream about a country where a modern economy and technology would exist in a form of quarantine and would have no relation with the people’s way of life.”

Some senior US officials hope that American participation in the EU-3 dialogue with Iran offers the clerical regime something its wants—regular direct contact, if not restored diplomatic relations, with the United States. That view is probably the polar opposite of the truth. There is very little evidence to suggest that Mohammad Khatami actually wanted to restore relations with the United States. His actions, his speeches, and his written works, which consistently depicted the United States as a technologically accomplished, liberty-crazed, energetic but declining cultural contagion capable of ruining Islamic civilization, didn’t suggest he would want to see the US embassy reopen in Tehran. Needless to say, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad are less open-minded and culturally curious than Khatami.

The same US officials who hold out the hope that the US and the Europeans might, just possibly, have something the clerics would want in exchange for suspending their nuclear program are by no means certain that such an Iranian desire for greater direct US contact constitutes an effective bargaining chip in the EU-3-led negotiations. Senior American officials who handle Iran are not, as they were in 1997 when Khatami first won the presidency, delusionally hopeful about the possibilities. Experience does matter, even among foreign-service officers who define success more by processes than results. If the clerical regime were to seize the moment and “temporarily” suspend its enrichment efforts, the odds are decent it could snag the United States into a diplomatic process from which Washington would have a hard time withdrawing, and in which it would be reluctant to be more aggressive than its European counterparts. The Europeans, including the French, have never been animated about the enforcement of the Non-Proliferation Treaty’s Additional Protocol, which in theory allows the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Association to visit any site without warning. It is doubtful the State Department would be willing to trash the whole beloved EU-3 process if it suspected the Iranians were building centrifuges inside a Revolutionary Guard military compound. Protracted discussions (and an Iranian nuclear weapon), not economy-crushing sanctions, would probably be the most likely outcome.

Let me make an assertion which I believe to be true but which no US official working on Iran will publicly admit: The Bush administration’s Europe-centered diplomacy to derail the clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weaponry has almost no chance of success and the senior officials directing America’s part in these EU-3 negotiations with Tehran know that they are unlikely to delay, let alone stop, the mullahs’ pursuit of the bomb.

Some officials certainly hope that the possible fiscal coercion devised at the Treasury Department by Undersecretary Stuart Levey will be sufficient to make the mullahs pause, if not stop, their program. And Mr. Levey’s strategy, which essentially would make it impossible for the clerical regime to use the international banking system, is a clever and potentially very aggressive means of pressuring the regime to relent. However, Iran is a big oil state, with an enormous cash flow and substantial trade connections all over the globe. It is, to say the least, uncertain whether there is sufficient collective will among the Europeans and the Japanese to make this strategy plausible. The better bet would be against the Treasury’s plans. It’s likely that most US officials who deal with Iran probably are not particularly optimistic that they can effectively align the international financial community against the clerics.

So what do we do? We can certainly try to support the democracy movement and dissidents in Iran more aggressively. But this is going to be an enormously difficult task even under the best of circumstances. Although the clerical regime has always had considerable fear of the unexpected spark that ignites the dissatisfaction and frustrations of young Iranian men, there is no reason to believe Iran’s internal security forces, who are numerous and, when necessary, quite brutal, are in danger of cracking. Detest the ruling clergy as they may, Iran’s young men still appear unwilling in any significant number to meet the regime on the streets. The dissident pro-democracy clergy has either been broken—Abdallah Nuri, the bravest of them all, was physically and psychologically destroyed in prison—or gone quiescent, politely protesting the regime in academic or clerical journals or through solicitations to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pro-democratic leader of Iraq’s traditional clergy and now the most esteemed Shi’ite religious jurisconsult in the world.

Although Iran’s growing democratic culture is unlikely to be stopped, and it’s pro-American disposition is unlikely to change unless Washington goes Scowcroftian and seeks to placate Tehran, a militant, dictatorial Islam remains strong among the country’s ruling elite. Unless the unexpected happens—some internal or external shock convulses and cripples the clerical system—the mullahs will surely get the bomb long before the people get a real democracy. And the circumstances in Washington aren’t propitious. The CIA hates pro-democracy covert action (it’s difficult, requires a level of knowledge and linguistic skill which is beyond today’s clandestine service, and is always politically problematic in Washington). The State Department doesn’t like it either, and doesn’t trust the CIA to undertake such action (an astute judgment call on State’s part). And many European officials are equally queasy about such things, seeing them as counterproductive to the spirit of dialogue and the undying European hope that the US will make some “grand bargain”—which means any serious democracy-promotion inside Iran is verboten. The Bush administration ought to begin a crash course in covert and overt Iranian democracy-promotion, firing all those in the bureaucracies who seek to sabotage the mission.

But this isn’t going to happen. Although a sense of urgency about Iran is growing in Washington, the administration has not—despite occasional rhetoric from the President, Vice President, and Secretary of State—been shocked into much action. As with so many other major foreign-policy issues, the Bush administration, worn out by Iraq, is operating on momentum, capable only of continuing the logic of policies from the first term. It does not want to see the Iranian train wreck ahead of it. The administration is pushing an approach that it really doesn’t believe will work, but it doesn’t want to break from the process since that, among other things, will inevitably force the administration to have the great Iran debate: Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons? And if the administration were to acquiesce to the clerical bomb, it would, of course, empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness. The United States and the Europeans have now aligned “the West” against the regime in Tehran. Acquiesce and the revolutionary hard core triumphs. We will whet their appetites, externally and internally. As Iranian society continues to sheer away from the ruling elite, that elite has kept its radicalism, especially among the diehards raised in the Revolutionary Guards, like Ahmadinejad. (Ahmadinejad, exactly like Khatami, ran against the detested ruling order, gaining him victory even though his temperament and beliefs are probably profoundly at odds with most Iranians.)

Unintentionally, America’s diplomatic efforts to find a multilateral and peaceful end to the Islamic Republic’s nuclear-weapons program have made the price of failure exponentially worse. Add a failure in Iran to a failure in Iraq to a failure in Afghanistan, and we could supercharge Islamic radicalism in a way never before seen. The widespread and lethal impression of American weakness under the Clinton administration, which did so much to energize bin Ladenism in the 1990s, could look like the glory years of American power compared to what the Bush administration may leave in its wake.

Which brings us back to the question that senior US officials have been assiduously avoiding since 2002, but which nevertheless defines the nature and intensity of America’s diplomatic dialogue with the Europeans and the Iranians. Would you rather have the mullahs get a nuclear weapon or would you rather have the United States try to militarily stop them from acquiring the bomb through preventive air strikes? Do you fear the repercussions of a nuclear Islamic Republic more than you fear the repercussions from an American attack? As I have written elsewhere, I think the risks to us and others from a nuclear-armed clerical regime are too great and that we should make every effort, including repeated military strikes, to thwart the clerics’ quest for the bomb. Containment and deterrence seem a poor fall-back strategy. Iran is too rich in oil and gas, and the likelihood of Iran’s neighbors, as well as the Europeans, growing more fearful and thus more accommodating to a nuclear-armed clerical regime is high. Americans and Europeans did a poor job of responding to Iranian terrorism in the past, when the Islamic Republic didn’t have the bomb in its arsenal. We, not the Iranians, are the ones most likely to be deterred by nuclear chicken.

It seems unthinkable that the United States would, for example, unleash any massive military strike against Iran that would kill thousands of innocent Iranians for the terrorism of its dictatorial leadership. The theory of deterrence just doesn’t give that much comfort to Western powers confronting terrorism-fond radical Islamic states. We have never before confronted a terrorism-supporting regime whose very identity and survival is inextricably tied to divinely-sanctified anti-Americanism. We can easily think up many reasons why we would not want to bomb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites, but all of these reasons are subsidiary to how you calculate the risk of giving a nuclear weapon to Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yes, it will be difficult to bomb all of the sites in Iran, but the most critical are well known—Natanz, Isfahan, Arak, Tehran, and Bushehr. These facilities took the Iranians years to build under ideal circumstances. Under siege, building new sites clandestinely will be a demanding, time-consuming task. The issue isn’t feasibility, but the determination to strike whenever required since the assessment of risk does not allow any other course of action. Delay the program by several years, and you may end it. Delay the program, and you could deny the nuke to extremists who would’ve used or exploited it. (A parallel with Saddam Hussein after Osirak comes to mind.) Supervening events can always change history to your advantage. If you think the risks of a clerical bomb are too high—that a nuclear weapon in the hands of Islamic militants in an age of increasing Islamic terrorism is unacceptable—then you will be in favor of striking, knowing the grave repercussions from such strikes.

Stay tuned for the Islamic Republic to once again aggressively lay claim to the leadership of Islam’s struggle against the West. Be prepared for the ideological marriage under Iran’s nuclear-protected auspices of radical Sunnis and Shi’ites against the United States. And even if you’re not in favor of the strikes, diplomatic common sense and a minimal comprehension of Iran’s internal power politics ought to encourage a willingness regularly to allude to the possibility of these strikes. Fear of America will be a key ingredient in any successful diplomatic conclusion of this affair. (The administration really ought to consider giving a subvention to Seymour Hersh of the New Yorker, who sees the Bush White House preparing for war against Iran, since he is the only one engaged, unintentionally of course, in effective psy-ops against the mullahs.) If there are influential reasonable men in Tehran who fear the repercussions of trying to go nuclear, we should allow them to make the argument that Iran’s current rulers have set the country on a collision course with the world’s only and angry superpower. Such moderate voices will never triumph if the Islamic Republic’s hardcore press against the Americans and find equivocation and fear.

Odds are the Bush administration will acquiesce to Khamenei’s bomb. It has been overwhelmed and deflated by Iraq. The “Iraqi” arguments against bombing Iran are among the weakest proffered by the anti-bombing critics—would that we only had to worry about Iranian mischief in Mesopotamia. But Iraq has, it appears, robbed the administration of its will in the Middle East and beyond. Odds are the American “realists” will get their chance to see what it’s like to live with a nuclear clerical regime. I’ll take a bet that they, the Europeans, and many in the Middle East, won’t at all like what Tehran’s “pragmatists” do with their new toy.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

Response Essays

A Cure Worse than the Disease

Reuel Marc Gerecht provides a provocative analysis of the Iran problem that continues to bedevil U.S. foreign policy. Iran would be at or near the top of a list of countries Americans would least like to see have nuclear weapons, and the reason for apprehension has deepened dramatically in the past year with the emergence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultimately, though, Gerecht’s policy prescription—preventive military action to eliminate (or more accurately, to delay) Tehran’s nuclear program—is a classic case of a cure that is worse than the disease.

It is somewhat surprising (and gratifying) that Gerecht distances himself from the favorite panacea of other neoconservatives—somehow orchestrating an overthrow of the clerical regime without an extensive U.S. military role. Unfortunately, he attributes the limitations of that approach to the alleged lack of enthusiasm for pro-democracy covert operations on the part of the CIA and other government agencies rather than to the inherent impracticality of the scheme. Enthusiastic proponents of regime change, such as Gerecht’s colleague at the American Enterprise Institute Michael Ledeen, have no such doubts. According to them, there is so much Iranian public opposition to the mullahs that a U.S. propaganda offensive combined with financial and logistical assistance to prospective insurgents would be sufficient to topple the regime.

Such a thesis might seem more plausible if we had not heard similar arguments in the years leading up to the Iraq war. Those arguments were quietly buried when the time for action arrived. Saddam Hussein’s overthrow was carried out by a massive application of U.S. military power. If the United States adopts a strategy of regime change in Iran, it is likely that an even greater military effort would be required.

Gerecht’s strategy of preemptive air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations may be more practical than the chimera of easy regime change, but it is also more dangerous. Proponents of preventive military action typically cite the successful Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 as a model. There are numerous problems with that approach, however. Osirak was one easily identified, above-ground site. There are numerous nuclear-related sites in Iran–many of which are in or near major population centers, maximizing the probable number of civilian casualties in an attack. Indeed, thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.

Moreover, there is no certainty that we have identified all of the relevant targets. There could be many other covert facilities, since Tehran has had nearly three decades to pursue its nuclear activities. Worst of all, some of the installations may be in reinforced, underground locations. Taking out such sites with conventional weapons would be problematic at best. Although some ultra-hawkish types have mused about using nuclear “bunker busters” for the required strikes, crossing the nuclear threshold is a momentous step that could come back to haunt the United States in multiple ways.

Even launching conventional strikes would be extremely dangerous. At the very least, Tehran would be tempted to cause even more trouble than it is already doing for U.S. and British occupation forces in Iraq. The infiltration of a few thousand dedicated Revolutionary Guards could accomplish that goal. The Iranian regime would also be tempted to unleash its terrorist ally, Hezbollah, on American targets throughout the Middle East. And there is always the risk that an attacked and humiliated Iran might do something incredibly rash, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching attacks against Israel, triggering a massive regional crisis.

Finally, there is the probable impact on the rest of the Muslim world. If the United States attacks yet another Muslim country (which would make three in the last five years), there will not be a Muslim from Morocco to Malaysia who will not believe that Washington is out to destroy their culture and religion. America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations, but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result. The military option is one that no rational U.S. policymaker should consider.

Gerecht is correct that the current round of diplomacy led by the EU-3, and now finally joined by the United States, will probably not produce a solution to the nuclear problem. The most discussed alternative, UN-mandated economic sanctions, holds out little prospect of success either. Even if Russia and China ultimately go along with meaningful sanctions (and that is not likely), sanctions have a dismal historical record when it comes to getting regimes to abandon high-priority policies. And acquiring a nuclear arsenal appears to be a high-priority policy for Tehran. That leaves two other options.

The first is to accept a nuclear-armed Iran and rely on a policy of containment and deterrence. Gerecht is skeptical of that approach, but it is a policy that has a good track record.

Admittedly, the presence of Ahmadinejad makes the deterrence option more nerve-wracking. It is worth remembering, though, that Iran’s political system is fairly diffuse, and Ahmadinejad is only one actor among many. Indeed, despite his lofty title of president, he had to submit several candidates before he induced the parliament to approve his nominee for oil minister. Iran, under Ahmadinejad, is not a tightly centralized system like Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin where one man’s decision could plunge the nation into war.

The experience of dealing with Stalin is pertinent in another way. The United States has successfully deterred other repugnant and bizarre regimes. Stalin was a genocidal psychopath, yet he was never so reckless as to attack a nuclear-armed America or even U.S. allies in Western Europe.

Washington’s experience with China in the 1960s and early 1970s is perhaps even more pertinent. China became a nuclear power under Mao Zedong, a leader who exceeded even Stalin’s record of genocide. His publicly enunciated views on nuclear warfare also were alarming in the extreme. His boast that China could outlast the United States in a nuclear war of attrition so disturbed the other communist giant, the USSR, that Soviet leaders hastened to assure their American counterparts that such thinking in no way reflected the Kremlin’s views.

China also emerged as a nuclear power on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. China during that orgy of fanaticism makes today’s Iran look like a normal, even sedate, country. U.S. policymakers were understandably very uneasy about China joining the ranks of nuclear-weapons states. Yet they rejected the advice of those inside and outside government who advocated military action to take out Beijing’s nuclear program. Given the constructive changes that have taken place in China, and the important relationship that has grown up between Washington and Beijing in the past three decades, history has vindicated a policy of restraint.

A similar policy of caution and deterrence may also pay off with Iran. It is not an easy or comfortable course to advocate, but it is more realistic and less dangerous than launching another preventive war.

Containment and deterrence is not the optimal strategy, however. We should make a serious diplomatic effort to get Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons–and that means going substantially beyond the scope of the current EU-3-led negotiations. Washington should propose a grand bargain to Tehran. That means giving an assurance that the United States will not use force against Iran the way we did against such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia and Iraq. It also means offering restored diplomatic relations and normal economic relations. In return, Iran would be required to open its nuclear program to unfettered international inspections to guarantee that the program is used solely for peaceful power-generation purposes.

It is possible that Tehran would spurn a proposed grand bargain, since the Iranian political elite seems divided about whether to seek a rapprochement with the United States. Indeed, Iran may be unalterably determined to join the global nuclear weapons club. But we will never know for certain unless we make the offer.

If Iran turns down the proposal, Washington’s fall-back position should be to rely on deterrence. The one thing we should not do is start yet another war.

Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

We Have the Right Policy Now and Better Options for the Future

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.

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.

The Conversation

Kicking off the Conversation: The Great Iran Debate

Concerning the commentary by Messrs. Carpenter, Cordesman, and Luttwak, its not really necessary to respond in length to the first two gentlemen, since Mr. Carpenter isn’t really writing about the Islamic Republic—he’s writing about the United States and what might be called the libertarian conception of American foreign policy and especially the projection of American power. And Mr. Cordesman paints an extremely dark (and accurate) image of the clerical regime, and then says we shouldn’t really consider military strikes to derail the mullahs’ quest for a nuke. (I would agree with Mr. Cordesman that we have a diplomatic process underway that we should allow to play out—and we will not have to wait in all probability all that long for it to exhaust itself—before we choose any military option.) There is an internal contradiction in Mr. Cordesman’s piece that Mr. Luttwak alluded to, and I don’t think I need to add anything more.

I don’t think it’s unfair to Mr. Carpenter to suggest that one could imagine virtually any country as the subject of his commentary and the essentials of his critique wouldn’t vary much. For example, Mr. Carpenter gives no discussion of the internal clerical dynamics or Iran’s revolutionary history, which really ought to lead any discussion of whether we can tolerate Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and Mahmud Ahmadinejad possessing atomic weapons. There is neither a discussion of Allah and Man nor the place of the United States in Iran’s radical Islamic cosmology. Nor a discussion of the Islamic Republic’s lasting embrace of terrorism. Nor its long-standing ecumenical outreach program to Sunni radicals and holy warriors (Al Qaeda’s number two, Ayman az-Zawahiri, has been for twenty years one of Tehran’s favorite militant Sunni poster boys). Nor its enormously worrisome “incarceration” of Al Qaeda warriors who fled Afghanistan and yet still placed phone calls to Saudi Arabia just before Al Qaeda attacks in the peninsula. The Islamic Republic allowed members of Al Qaeda to traverse its territory before 9/11, even though Al Qaeda had clearly established itself as a deadly organization, eager to kill Americans in Africa and the Middle East in large-scale operations. None of this is mentioned.

Instead, Mr. Carpenter talks about Mao and Communist China. No offense meant to Mr. Carpenter, but Mao and his minions do not have much in common—especially vis-à-vis the United States—with the terrorism-generating clerical children of Ayatollah Khomeini. Juxtaposing China during the Cultural Revolution with North Korea might be a valuable exercise in thinking about North Korean nuclear weapons and proliferation—but even here, given the differences between the two totalitarianisms it would be a bit of a push. Try imagining Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei, let alone the slightly more messianic president Ahmadinejad, shaking hands with an American president after a long American motorcade has passed through Tehran and you ought to be able to see that Mr. Carpenter’s discussion is a bit surreal. In a pre-9/11 world, Shi’ite and Sunni radical Islamic terrorism should have been one of those things that scared us the most. To President Clinton’s credit he intellectually understood the potential of the Sunni menace (he understood Iran not at all, though some of his working-level minions, like Ken Pollack, certainly learned from that administration’s experience with the presidency of Mohammad Khatami that there is something seriously concrete in the clerics’ God-delivered anti-American creed). To President Clinton’s shame, he couldn’t compel himself into preemptive military action against the rising Sunni menace. Yet it would appear in 2006 such holy warriors scare Mr. Carpenter not much at all. They should.

Concerning Mr. Luttwak, I don’t think I need to write much in response either. Essentially, we are in agreement. I’m somewhat skeptical that we have three years before we ought to strike—assuming the diplomatic process fails, and it will likely fail completely within twelve months unless the clerical regime becomes much more astute. The dynamism of this situation—the likely increasing clandestine nuclear activities of the mullahs (and I agree with Mr. Luttwak that it will be difficult for the regime to keep its activities completely in the black) and their nefarious activity abroad (the recent actions of the Hezbollah, which is as permeated by Iranian influence as were the former European satellites of the Soviet Union, are just a foretaste of the hard-power games we are likely to see Tehran inspire)—will probably shrink the 36-month calendar, perhaps considerably. As we begin to contemplate seriously the awful ramifications of the clerical regime going nuclear, our patience on this issue may well disappear. The Bush administration will not likely punt this problem to its successor (and to the administration’s credit, there doesn’t appear to be much desire to try to make the next president responsible for the clerics’ atomic bomb). Before the Bush presidency ends, we will probably have the great Iran debate about bombing. I still have a suspicion that the president may make this debate much more lively than most of Washington’s cognoscenti now believe.

Decidedly Underwhelming

I find it amusing that Mr. Gerecht asserts that it is unnecessary to respond at length to my thesis and then spends a major portion of his post responding to my thesis. His response, however, is decidedly underwhelming.

His first ploy is to try to impress (overawe?) readers with his knowledge about the personalities inhabiting the Iranian clerical regime. In the process he demonstrates his ignorance about far more crucial issues—most notably, the enduring features of international politics and deterrence theory. His attempt to minimize the relevance of America’s experience with Maoist China for our current policy options with Iran is especially telling. He wants us to forget that the Gerechts of that era were arguing just as passionately as he does about Iran now that the Chinese regime was run by revolutionary lunatics who could not be deterred. And proponents of war with China could cite numerous inflammatory quotes from Mao and his minions just as Mr. Gerecht and the war lobby can cite comments from Ahmadinejad and other members of the Iranian political elite. Just as Iran is deemed the godfather of Islamic terrorism, China was deemed the godfather of communist subversion and wars of national liberation. In both cases, the threat to America’s security and interests supposedly could be neutralized only by resorting to war.

Let’s be clear about what Mr. Gerecht is advocating. Because of the possibility that Iran might, someday, use nuclear weapons to attack or blackmail the United States or a U.S. ally, he wants to start a war now that would kill tens of thousands of Iranians. And that’s the level of carnage that would occur if we were “lucky” and such an attack did not trigger a full-scale regional war, or even worse, a war of civilizations. If either of the latter scenarios emerged, we would be counting the dead in the hundreds of thousands or millions. No decent nation should pursue such a policy unless there is no alternative. And Mr. Gerecht doesn’t even come close to making the case that we are at that point.

It also appears that he is not especially interested in whether we can halt Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons by peaceful means. The nuclear-weapons issue is simply a convenient pretext for pushing a policy of forcible regime change in Iran. He does so even though our last war for regime change (in Iraq) has not exactly been a sparkling success. Trying the same foolhardy strategy in a country with three times the population is an option wise policymakers should reject.

Response to Carpenter

Okay, let’s try to take this in order. First, if Mr. Carpenter thinks either my original commentary or my response contained a heavy dose of Iranology, then that perhaps underscores why Mr. Carpenter prefers to talk about Maoist China. I can think of several folks who write well on Iran and who usually take opposing views, especially on the nuclear issue. They do, however, the basic homework. I try never to talk about North Korea since I have no serious grounding in the subject; Mr. Carpenter might consider doing the same on the Islamic Republic. And, incidentally, as could be noticed in both my original piece and in my response, I do not underscore President Ahmadinejad’s commentary. His views do not markedly differ on the most important external issues from Khamenei’s; and I would argue that his differences with Rafsanjani overseas are more tactical than strategic. (Rafsanjani, who ought to be viewed as the father of Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, and who was probably the majordomo behind Iran’s world-wide assassination/bombing campaign in the 1980s and 1990s, also spent some effort developing a divide-and-conquer strategy towards Europe vis-a-vis the United States—an approach which Ahmadinejad has trashed.)

Mr. Carpenter’s apocalyptic scenarios for preventive military strikes seem, to put it politely, hyperbolic. The land invasion of Iraq didn’t cause anywhere near these fatalities. I’m not the biggest fan of Mr. Rumsfeld’s military transformation plans, but one thing is clear after the two Gulf wars: civilian casualties from air campaigns—particularly ones that are highly restrictive as would be preventive military strikes on Iran—are becoming, by any historical standard for warfare, small, and if one ever can say these things about warfare—and one should given the enormous time and effort the U.S. Air Force and Navy spend on reducing civilian fatalities—“humane.” I would, nonetheless, argue that it would be wise to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities before they reach a point where uranium processing and enrichment could contaminate a substantial area.

And If Mr. Carpenter thinks that the U.S. and the Europeans can actually bribe the clerical regime into nuclear submission, then he really ought to explain exactly what these “incentives” are and why historically he thinks this could work with the clerical regime, especially if Mr. Carpenter, or those with a similarly pacific disposition, were sitting across the table from the mullahs. It’s very unlikely they would be much intimidated. It’s clear that Mr. Carpenter wouldn’t threaten any military action. If you’re a mullah, why not have your cake and eat it too? Or does Mr. Carpenter believe that the mullahs are really misunderstood (foreign policy as psychiatry)? They’re really soft-power types who only act the way they do because of American “aggression.” (In answering this, do try to remember the commentary of someone like Abdallah Nuri before the Special Clerical Court or that it was Ayatollahs Kashani and Behbehani who orchestrated the ‘53 coup against Mossadeq.)

I suspect—Mr. Carpenter will have to tell us—that he would not have approved of the Israeli preventive military strike against Saddam’s Osirak reactor. That the thought of such military action by the U.S., or Israel, would be repellent even in the case of Saddam, when he was clearly gunning for a nuclear bomb (and the modern Middle East would certainly be a different place if the Butcher of Baghdad had got an atomic weapon in the early 1980s).

Last point: there is a very long history of Westerners predicting that the Arab and Muslim streets will rise against this or that Western power doing something particularly unpleasant in the Muslim Middle East. From 1914 forward, I can’t think of a single instance where these predictions have proven correct. The ones made in 1991 and 2003 have proven particularly risible. It would, however, be great fun imagining the Saudis and other devout Sunnis rising indignantly on behalf of their defanged Shiite brethren. There are many other things that better inspire these gentlemen to aid and abet holy war against us. Given the pathetic state of Shiite-Sunni relations, it is almost something to be hoped for.

Gerecht’s Antiseptic War Fantasy

Let’s stipulate that Mr. Gerecht and I both believe the current Iranian regime is repulsive and difficult to deal with–a point that is apparent without Mr. Gerecht repeatedly touting his knowledge of domestic Iranian politics. But the nature of the regime is only one factor among many in determining what kind of foreign policy the United States should adopt toward Tehran. Mr. Gerecht acts as though that is the only relevant consideration.

The most troubling feature of his latest post, though, is his assertion that the United States can attack Iran while inflicting or incurring few casualties. That is the pervasive fantasy of hawks who are reluctant to acknowledge the human costs of the military crusades they embrace. Amazingly, he cites the Iraq experience as evidence that the United States can wage such an antiseptic war. Yet even President Bush admitted in December 2005 that approximately 30,000 Iraqis had died in the ongoing conflict. The UN has documented that at least another 14,000 civilians have perished in the first six months of 2006. That would seem to fit my description of “tens of thousands” of prospective casualties for an Iranian war. Or does Mr. Gerecht believe the United States can attack Iran and Iran will do NOTHING in response? That notion strains credulity to the breaking point. And if, as is almost certain, Iran does strike back, is he arguing that the United States would not escalate the conflict? It’s hard to imagine Washington just standing by as Iran unleashed Hezbollah on American targets, attacked Israel, or fired on shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. Before asking the American people to incur such risks, Mr. Gerecht needs to do a lot more than make the unsubstantiated allegation that a nuclear-armed Iran could not be deterred, and would therefore be so dangerous that even the cataclysm of preventive war is preferable.

Aside from the issue of Iranian casualties, how many American casualties would Mr. Gerecht find acceptable in a U.S. war against Iran? The Iraq crusade that he sought so eagerly has already consumed more than 2,550 American lives. As that episode demonstrates clearly, Mr. Gerecht and his neoconservative colleagues are adept at starting wars, but they’re not very good at finishing them.

I will ignore his silly allegation that I am naive about the mullahs. I am most curious, though, about his reflexive hostility toward even putting a “grand bargain” on the table. What, exactly, is the harm in proposing such an agreement? If Tehran turned it down, all of the other options would still be available—even Mr. Gerecht’s favorite strategy of unleashing the dogs of war. Proposing a grand bargain would, at the very least, smoke out the Iranians. If they turned it down, we would know for certain that Iran is determined—regardless of any carrots that might be offered—to become a nuclear-weapons state. And if they accepted the deal, we would have a reliable way of preventing them from building a nuclear arsenal. Mr. Gerecht’s opposition to even trying the grand-bargain approach makes sense only if his real goal is forcible regime change (at whatever cost), not stopping Iran’s nuclear program.

Another Round

I’m not sure we are making progress here, but fortified by a good part of a bottle of Rosé (it’s late, very hot, and il n’y a pas de climatisation en France), I’ll make another try. (I admit that I’m somewhat envious of Edward Luttwak who is sitting all of these exchanges out.)

If we’re talking about the bomb, the nature of the regime in question is paramount in deciding American foreign policy—it ought to trump any libertarian hope of keeping America’s military small, inexpensive, and at home. (All perhaps worthwhile goals in 1800.) France, a country that I adore, is in many ways an organically anti-American country—especially among the elite. It’s also a nuclear power. But it poses no threat to the United States whatsoever with its atomic arsenal because France and the United States are not enemies in any transcendent way, even though the two countries differ enormously and the French state does things regularly that most Americans would find repellant. (When senior French officials say that their nuclear missiles can go “tout azimuts“—in all directions—the only American response, like all Frenchmen in private, is to giggle; and France, like Communist China or North Korea (outside of domestic or peninsular considerations), is not and never has been a terrorism-supporting state. Nuclear weapons in the hands of a terrorism-loving, God-ordained anti-American state like clerical Iran are just frightful.

As I’ve written before, one does not have to conjure up scenarios of atomic terrorism—though such scenarios should never be too far from one’s mind—to see how nuclear blackmail could work against the United States and the West. We, not the mullahs, are likely to be intimidated by a game of atomic chicken. We—America and Europe—have done an awful job of confronting the clerical regime for its terrorism when the Islamic Republic wasn’t a nuclear power. (The Khobar Towers bombing was an act of war and should have been treated as such.) The better bet would certainly be that the Europeans (certainly) and the Americans (probably) would be likely to blink and give way to Iranian intimidation backed by a nuclear threat, especially one that has a terrorist edge to it.

And it is touching that Mr. Carpenter’s heart is so open to the possible Iranian dead from American preventive military strikes while it seems closed to those innocent civilians that would die if his “deterrence theory” were tested. For Khobar Towers II in post 9/11 world, what type of reprisal would Mr. Carpenter suggest?

Let me repeat what I said in the original submission: The United States isn’t going to kill tens of thousands of innocent Iranians because of the (nuclear) terrorist actions of the clerical regime. We won’t do it. And I don’t think we should do it. MAD is dead. It was I think dead before the Cold War ended but the vast arsenal of the Soviet Union kept it alive even though the American heart and soul I suspect were no longer in it. The dimension of what the clerical regime might most likely do to us—thousands dead through (just) conventional terrorism—will not likely compel us to incinerate Iranian women and children. It might compel us to invade and occupy Iran, as 9/11 did Afghanistan, but we are not going to unleash hell against the Persian citizenry for the mullahs’ sins. I don’t think Mr. Carpenter would really want to, which is why his “deterrence theory” is a hollow bluff.

It’s a popular dodge, however, since it’s become a common theme among those who want to show their hawkishness—for example, the New Republic’s Peter Beinart—but don’t really have their hearts in it. I suspect Anthony Cordesman might go in this direction, too—though that cannot be drawn from his essay—since it is an understandable reflex given the difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, which Mr. Cordesman mentions. The theory might be called, “If the Iranians really make us bleed, then we’ll just whack’em”—again, I don’t think it’s particularly credible, and if one understands the dynamic correctly in Afghanistan and Iraq, one would realize that punting on the nuclear issue will in all probability cause more harm to America’s health inside these countries than would preventive military strikes, but the difficulties we face in both places will likely make this “deterrence” theory the path of least resistance (on which we can put a very manly varnish). Needless to say, Mr. Cordesman would be much more likely to actually whack the Iranians in the case of nefarious behavior than Mr. Carpenter. Bets are off on Mr. Beinart until after a thorough personal and historical soul-searching (“What would Truman Democrats have done against Khameneh’i, Rafsanjani, and Ahmadinejad?” in the New York Times Magazine.)

Re Mr. Carpenter’s quip about “finishing wars,” I’ll let that pass. I think enough has been written in the Weekly Standard by Bob Kagan, Bill Kristol, Fred Kagan, Gary Schmitt and myself to answer that question. Mr. Carpenter’s knowledge of “neoconservatism” rivals his knowledge of the Islamic Republic. On all of these issues, Mr. Carpenter should address himself to the Secretary of Defense and Generals Pace and Abizaid, who have, I suspect, the most illuminating commentary on Iraqi operations.

And for the record, I’ve said before and I’ll say again that I’m in favor of restored diplomatic relations between the US and Iran. If the clerical regime is stupid enough to agree to this, then by all means go for it. (This will be perceived as a huge American defeat in the Arab world, but we should live with this signaling of profound weakness. It would be a killer for the revolutionary ethos in Iran, which is what we all—the Americans, the French, the Brits, and the Germans—want.) The mullahs are not that stupid, however. I’d probably be in favor of many other “incentives” so long as the embassy was opened. (If Mr. Carpenter wants to just give the clerical regime 12 billion dollars—a figure often sited by the regime as the amount the U.S. owes it—up front on faith as part of an Iranian promise to forsake nukes, then he should say so. If he wants to dribble out taxpayer money, then he should say that, too.)

Concerning “security guarantees,” I find the whole discussion surreal. I’ve gone through these scenarios with Ken Pollack, a fellow I admire a good deal, many times and I can’t keep from laughing whenever I render these discussions into Persian. The video of Nick Burns or Steve Hadley sitting down in front of the mullahs offering “security guarantees” to the clerics, which I don’t think is going to happen, would be a belly-buster, on a par with Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lilly?” But go ahead, offer whatever you want—I suspect I may be able to go along with it (if you want the United States to stop saying the Iranian people should have a democracy, then say it please straightforwardly). Please do try your best to make this all verifiable with the most intrusive inspections imaginable (the Iranian clerics will try to cheat, rapaciously, but you know that). But you must promise that if the Iranians refuse or cheat in any way, we attack. No wavering. No waffling. No appeals for the Iranian common man. We attack. So let’s hear your terms. In detail.

One little other thing: Please answer the question about Osirak. The entire Iranian discussion seems silly until that question is answered.

The Three Options

While the debate continues, it would be useful to focus hard on the three possible options.

First of course is to do nothing. That is contrary to American activism in all things, from surgery to foreign policy, but it is the greatest lesson of statecraft that it is usually a good idea to do less rather than more, and plain inaction is usually the best option if

a) to do nothing leaves the situation unchanged;

b) that situation is judged to be tolerable ; and

c) there is no adverse change in the situation that is already underway.

To do nothing is best when others do nothing also, as when all sides decide to leave a buffer state in place, instead of trying to conquer pieces of it. In this case, however, that best of options is foreclosed because Iran’s nuclear-weapon program continues to advance. We know what these words mean regarding Iran, a country now ruled by religious fanatics who have violated all the rules by equipping, funding, training and publicly inciting at least three organizations that appear on all the terrorist lists, which have carried out large and small operations for Iran in third countries; and with each passing day Iran is closer to the possession of a nuclear explosive device. Given what Iran’s regime is now doing to attack American interests world-wide from Venezuela to Iraq even without the shield of nuclear weapons, it is irresponsible to do nothing and merely await to see how they will behave when they feel more secure.

The second option would be to accept any and all Iranian demands, including the payment of two billion dollars of Iranian claims dating back to 1979, as well as whatever additional demands might be imposed in pre-negotiations about negotiations, to then reach agreement on whatever issues can be agreed, or even on all issues as in Ted Galen Carpenter’s “Grand Bargain.”

Negotiations, to be sure, are the sovereign remedy for all international disputes. But not all parties want to negotiate at all times. As it happens, the Iranian regime is in that category. That is no a priori pronouncement but fact. Fact 1: Iran has recently been offered a rather generous package of incentives to stop its uranium enrichment activities. Fact 2: the regime has not replied with a yes, or a no, or a counter-offer. In the meantime it continues to enrich uranium. Actually, since 1979 there have been many attempts to negotiate but they all failed, essentially because power in Iran is not centralized in a coherent executive branch , but rather diffused among different power groups that are in constant competition and outright conflict with one another; as soon as any of them started an attempt to negotiate, if only about the terms of substantive negotiations, it was attacked by a more extreme group as weak, traitorous, un-Islamic etc. Those who wanted to talk never won these contests, because of the dominant internal dynamics: as religious oppression continues and the population at large becomes increasingly anti-clerical, to the extent that many Iranians have become “post-Islamic ,” the regime becomes more extreme, and must therefore reject negotiations. That is the standard reaction of fanatics when prophecy fails: the Islamic Republic was supposed to make the Iranians better Muslims, but instead it has become the agency of secularism (just as the aggressive secularism of the Shah’s father inadvertently promoted Islam). In each case, therefore, attempts at negotiations resulted in the collapse of the attempted talks, and the downfall of their advocates, who lost some power, or all of their power, or even their lives. Negotiations are not an option.

That leaves the third option: to weaken Iran in every way possible and worthwhile, from the material support of the Baluch, Kurdish and other insurgents already in the field, to the diplomatic support of the rising Azeri national movement, to the bombing of Iran’s nuclear installations at the right moment, once all possible counter-measures are in place to contain all the likely reactions, in Iran, the Gulf and beyond.

To weaken an enemy that cannot be ignored nor peacefully dissuaded is not the best option: it is the only option.

War as a Last Resort, Not the First Option

First of all, I’m glad that Ed Luttwak has decided to join us for this round of the dialogue, for he provides some intriguing insights. I do, however, take issue with three of his arguments.

I have never suggested that we “accept any and all Iranian demands.” The whole point of negotiations is to work out an agreement that is acceptable to both parties. In this case, the United States has some important demands of its own—most notably, getting an inspection regime that will guarantee that Iran cannot build nuclear weapons. If Iranian leaders want all the “carrots” that would be offered as part of a grand bargain, they will have to make some significant concessions. Is the Iranian regime united enough to take that step? The outcome is uncertain, but we need to make the effort; the alternative is much worse.

I am troubled by Mr. Luttwak’s suggestion that we try to “weaken Iran in every way possible.” The United States already inadvertently destabilized one important state in the region with our blundering intervention in Iraq. To deliberately destabilize the Iranian state by encouraging Baluch, Kurdish, Azeri and other secessionist movements strikes me as even more reckless. Yes, we hate the current government in Tehran (for very good reasons), but we must be careful not to create another cauldron of chaos in the Persian Gulf region.

Finally, Mr. Luttwak places great emphasis on the point that Iran seeks to undermine American interests in the region and beyond, and would probably engage in more of such conduct if it had nuclear weapons. (Mr. Gerecht also stresses that argument.) No one would suggest that it is a benign outcome if Iran acquires a nuclear deterrent—and that is why we should make every reasonable effort to prevent it if we can. However, the one thing worse than a nuclear-armed Iran that might be tempted to try to blackmail other countries in the region is to launch a preventive war that would have open-ended (and extraordinarily bloody) consequences.

A related point is that Mr. Gerecht once again displays his lack of understanding of deterrence (and several generations of international relations scholarship). Deterrence does not guarantee (and did not guarantee during the Cold War) that an adversary will not nibble at the peripheries of America’s interests. Deterrence merely seeks to create certain lines that an adversary dare not cross because it knows that the U.S. response will be devastating. The Soviet Union was deterred from attacking the American homeland (and America’s key allies in Western Europe and Northeast Asia). Moscow was not deterred from probes in the Third World where America’s interests were less central. Yet Mr. Gerecht seems to demand that we must be able to prevent Iran from engaging in any geopolitical mischief whatsoever, or we must discard deterrence as an option.

Also, since he asserts flatly that the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction is dead, what does that signify for our current deterrence strategy with respect to, say, Russia? Or China? Or does Mr. Gerecht favor launching preventive wars against those countries as well? He cannot avoid that issue by putting up the strawman that we don’t take seriously a nuclear “threat” from France.

To address another of his points, I would, with great regret, be willing to support an attack on Iran if Tehran threatened vital American interests—even though that would result in the deaths of innocent Iranians. The difference between Mr. Gerecht and me, though, is that I would support such a policy only if deterrence failed or there was compelling evidence that a major failure was imminent. He would launch a war on the grounds that someday in the future Iran might, maybe, possibly, perhaps cross the line and threaten vital American interests. That is the difference between war as last resort and war as first option.

I am gratified that Mr. Gerecht does not oppose offering to restore diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran. I am also somewhat surprised, since that argument has not exactly been a prominent feature of his public statements or published writings. It does suggest, however, that he has been dragged, however reluctantly, into endorsing the grand bargain approach. Indeed, what responsible person could object to at least trying that strategy, since if it failed, all other options would still be available?

Mr. Gerecht seems obsessed with getting me to take a position on the Osirak episode. Alas, I must disappoint him yet again. I am not the Israeli defense minister. Decisions about what is necessary to protect Israel’s security properly belong to the Israeli people and government, not American foreign policy analysts. For a similar reason, I do not take a position on what Japan should do in response to the problems posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. I deal with American interests and policy options. That is a difficult enough task without trying to craft policy prescriptions for foreign countries. Moreover, as I pointed out in my initial post, there are vast differences in circumstances that render the Osirak model largely irrelevant for dealing with the current Iranian nuclear issue.

Finally, Mr. Gerecht is annoyed that I brought up the Iraq episode, and he does his best to wash his hands (and those of other neoconservatives) of that debacle—implying that the Bush administration is solely responsible for the policy. He tacitly endorses the view of his Weekly Standard colleagues that the Iraq intervention was a brilliant strategy, badly executed. The reality is more stark. It was a foolish strategy, badly executed. Neoconservatives lobbied loudly for war, insisting that the Iraq intervention would be a “cakewalk” and that the transition to a democratic government would be quick and easy. They denounced and ridiculed those of us who warned that U.S. intervention would cause Iraq to become a bloody, chaotic mess.

That background is pertinent to the discussion about Iran. The same people who lobbied for the Iraq war are now beating the drums for war with Iran—and again suggesting that it will be quick and easy. Given their track record, however, Mr. Gerecht and his colleagues are the last people on the planet that U.S. leaders should listen to about how to deal with the Iranian nuclear problem.

Iran’s Self-Destabilization

Ted Carpenter writes

to deliberately destabilize the Iranian state by encouraging Baluch, Kurdish, Azeri and other secessionist movements strikes me as even more reckless. Yes, we hate the current government in Tehran (for very good reasons), but we must be careful not to create another cauldron of chaos in the Persian Gulf region .

What is destabilizing the Iranian state is not anything that the United States is doing or could do, but its own nature as a multi-national state whose rulers reject pluralism. Everywhere multi-national states have been breaking up in one way or another. The Soviet Union was born truly multi-national under the rule of a muti-ethnic Politburo that repressed rather than expressed Russian chauvinism, and in its old age had become lax with local potentates. But its national republics nevertheless split off to form independent nation-states, some of which remain Russian lieges but are even so independent. Yugloslavia’s break-up continues still after five national republics emerged with one more republic soon to come. Slovakia would not remain in Czechoslovakia; in Catalonia a referendum recently affirmed a separate national identity; and in different ways, separatism is the wave of the present outside Europe too, from Bolivia to Indonesia.

Only policies rigorously pluralist can contain the phenomenon. But Iran’s regime rejects religious pluralism to impose a specific hyper-clerical version of Twelver Shiism in all spheres of life, thus afflicting Bahais and Christians, and antagonizing the 9-10 % of the population who are Muslims but do not belong to the ruling sect. Paradoxically, a regime that presents itself as religious first and foremost also perpetuates the exquisitely secular phenomenon of Persian cultural imperialism, which cannot irritate overmuch the sub-Persian Gilakis and Mazandaranis, but which is totally unacceptable to the Baluch, Kurds and Arabs, and an increasing proportion of the Azeris who make up at least one quarter of Iran’s population. The choice for the United States is not whether to destabilize Iran or not: it is being fragmented by the extremist regime, whether we like it or not. The United States only has a lesser choice to make: do we follow the normal practice of American foreign policy in generally supporting political self-expression, whenever possible and not inconvenient—or do we exempt the Iranian regime. And why on earth do that ?

From Rhetoric to Practice

Like Ed Luttwak, I see a great many grays and uncertainties, not blacks and whites. I’ve never been much for blogging, and this exercise has simply persuaded that it leads to forms of “soapboxing” that fail to add much insight.

There are, however, a few additional points that I feel need to be considered if anyone ever tries to go from all this rhetoric to practice.

1. Military options are fine to talk about in theory, but no one involved in this exchange knows the U.S. estimate of how well it can actually target Iranian activity, and exactly what would survive. Given its recent history, U.S. intelligence is likely to be more willing than usual to admit uncertainty. We need to remember, however, that we are the country that failed to assess Iraq’s efforts before 1990, gross overestimated wartime damage in 1991, continued to underestimate capabilities up to 1995, over estimated them after 1998, and got it horribly wrong in 202-2003. Not a confidence builder in targeting and damage assessment terms, particularly after our earlier fiasco in Desert Fox, and our inability to characterize the contents and damage done to many fixed facilities in Kosovo and then in Iraq in 2003.

It seems likely to me that we could do some damage now, but would leave most of the Iranian technology base intact and much of the equipment, and would simply drive the Iranians to change their effort.

I still feel we need to see the Iranians commit massive, targetable resources to really justify a major strike, and we would then need to take out their long-range surface-to-surface missile capabilities, hit what chemical and biological facilities we know about, blow a secure corridor through their air defenses and keep it open. We would also have to be prepared not only for short-term restrikes but the equivalent of a the same kind of “offensive containment” we used in Iraq up to 2003.

This would be a new form of “long war” that will almost inevitably provoke unpredictable Iranian attempts at reprisals, and Iran can reach out into the region far more effectively than Saddam Hussein could. It is no more of a casual adventure or “cakewalk” than invading Iraq.

2. Why should any reader trust any of us to predict the current and future level of political instability in Iran? What precedent is there for trusting experts in previous cases of this kind, and luck doesn’t count.

In the short term, I see few clear fault lines and even more hollow and impotent exile groups than the Iraqis who tried to overthrow Saddam. Iran’s mid to long-term political dynamics, however, are anything but predictable, likely to be driven by internal events, and largely immune to U.S. efforts to use covert action, public diplomacy, or exile groups.

3. Uncertainty goes beyond military strikes and regime change. There are many different ways Iran can proliferate whether it accepts diplomatic options or rejects them. The history of the IAEA effort to date is impressive in many ways, but could we count on Iran not concealing a reactor, not going on covertly to centrifuges far more sophisticated than the P-1, and not developing advanced nuclear weapons designs and then testing them in non-fissile ways? There is also the option of shifting weapons types and going for genetically modified infectious and noninfectious biological weapons.

Assessing these uncertainties involves technical expertise, and more intelligence and weapons design access, unavailable to analysts outside government has. These uncertainties also apply to all three outcomes for proliferation: Iranian agreement to Western proposals; Iranian stalling, and Iranian reaction to any post-strike aftermath.

4. Does the Iranian regime really matter as a motive for proliferation? The Shah began in the 1970s. The Iran-Iraq War catalyzed many Iranians with very different political views. Iran is surrounded by different ethnic groups and largely by different sects. It may talk to the U.S., but it seems unlikely that it will ever fully trust it. It has two nearby nuclear powers. Thesis: If Iran was Israel, it would still seek nuclear weapons. If Israel were Iran, it would still retain nuclear weapons.

To me, this adds up to what easily could be a long, hard mix of diplomatic and military efforts to deal with a problem we cannot easily erase, and that needs to be thought of a 25-year duel with Iran that can take many forms and cannot be resolved by any short term option.