Speaking to reporters during a visit to Turkey on January 19, Iran’s foreign minister Ali Akbar Salehi warned his country’s Arab neighbors against aligning themselves too closely with the United States in the ongoing crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program. Saudi Arabia was particularly vocal in its condemnation of Iran’s warning last month that it might close the Strait of Hormuz—through which one-third of the world’s seaborne oil passes daily—if the United States and her allies apply sanctions against Iranian oil exports.
A day earlier Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said American troops in the Persian Gulf region do not require any build-up for a possible military conflict with Iran. “We are not making any special steps at this point in order to deal with the situation,” he said. “Why? Because, frankly, we are fully prepared to deal with that situation now,” Panetta explained.
In the meantime the European Union is on track to agree to an oil embargo against Iran at the EU foreign ministers’ meeting next week.
The latest rhetorical escalation follows President Obama’s decision on December 31 to apply sanctions against any institution dealing with Iran’s central bank, effectively making it impossible for most countries to buy Iranian crude oil.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao criticized the U.S. position in comments published on January 19, and on the same day foreign ministry spokesman Liu Weimin said that “sanctions and military threats will not help solve the problem but only aggravate the situation.”
On Wednesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the military option mooted by U.S. would ignite a disastrous, widespread Middle East war. “Unilateral sanctions against Iran has nothing in common with the desire to keep the nuclear weapons nonproliferation regime unshaken,” Lavrov said.
Unsurprisingly, the neoconservative advocates of a preventive war against Iran are delighted. They see Tehran’s threat to block the Strait of Hormuz as a “golden opportunity” to force the issue by military means:
A military plan would have to include the elimination of the offending Iranian ships or submarines laying mines, and the destruction of missiles that might menace shipping. Most of Iran's navy would find itself gracing the bottom of the sea as a result. Meanwhile, major U.S. Marine amphibious landings on Iran's coast and Army airborne drops deep inside the sparsely populated Hormozgan region would have to create a physical cordon and an occupied buffer zone between Iran and the Strait of Hormuz. It would be a very long time before the West gave this territory back to Iran.
Furthermore, the argument goes, by seizing Hormozgan, the West would have a forward base within Iran from which to conduct attacks on known nuclear sites: “Strike aircraft (and, more worrisome to Iran's regime, Special Forces troops) would be just 60 to 90 minutes away from Iranian nuclear sites. Iran's threat to block the Strait of Hormuz has given the West new options.”
The issue that remains moot is not whether Iran is developing a nuclear weapon—let us assume that this is a documented fact, though it is not—but whether an Iranian nuclear weapon would be a threat to the United States. What are the motives of the Iranian decisionmakers? To threaten Europe, thus necessitating an American antimissile shield along Russia’s western borders in Central Europe? To threaten the United States even, regardless of a guaranteed hundred-fold retaliation to any attack? Or to protect Iran from what her leaders perceive to be a threatening environment?
Iran has one neighbor to the west and another to the northeast who were both invaded by the United States over the past 11 years. Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq would have been invaded had they actually possessed weapons of mass destruction. Iran’s eastern neighbor is Pakistan, an unstable and unpredictable nuclear power. In the wider neighborhood there are two other key players with an atomic arsenal, India and Israel, with Turkey not far behind. Under the circumstances, having an independent nuclear deterrent is a perfectly rational option for the government in Tehran to pursue—any Iranian government, Islamist or secular, monarchist or republican, pro- or anti-Western. That option is based on the realities of the security equation and not on the millenarian zeal of Shi’ite fanaticism or on genocidal Jewhatred, as the proponents of war would have us believe. Even if Iran were to garner an arsenal of a dozen devices, which would take a decade at least, the overall strategic balance would remain fundamentally unaltered. Indeed, the political climate in the region may actually improve: Iran would feel safe from an American attack and therefore at least potentially less likely to indulge in destabilizing proxy interventions in the region, notably in Lebanon.
Israel may have reason to feel threatened by Iran’s long-term plans, but it is up to Israel to consider her options and to act accordingly. She may well decide on a robust response, like her bombing of the Osirak nuclear plant in Iraq in 1981, with all the attendant risks and uncertainties. She should not expect the United States to do the job on her behalf, however.
The Saudis would also feel uncomfortable with a nuclear-armed Iran across the Gulf, and that would be a good thing. The more the royal kleptocrats in Riyadh focus on potential threats in the neighborhood, the less likely they are to escalate their global proliferation of Islamic extremism, which they have lavishly financed for decades. In any event, as the example of North Korea shows, the possession of the bomb by a single actor does not necessarily lead to a sudden nuclear rush in the region.
The second objection is technical. Regardless of its formal or substantial justification, can a U.S. war against Iran be kept limited and winnable? The initial intent may be to execute bombing raids against a dozen or perhaps two-dozen specific targets, but would that merely set Iran’s efforts back by two or three years? And what if Iran retaliates by detonating dirty bombs in downtown Tel Aviv and midtown Manhattan? What if the Iranians treat a U.S. attack not as a limited action that, in the War Party’s calculus, would produce a limited response, but as an existential struggle comparable to Khomeini’s all-out reply to Saddam’s attack 30 years ago?
If the Iranians respond forcefully, the advocates of limited air strikes against nuclear installations are certain to demand troops on the ground, regardless of risks and consequences, because our “credibility” would be at stake. In reality, America’s credibility would be terminally undermined by the resulting Iranian quagmire. An all-out “Operation Iranian Freedom” is not a rational option, because even with our unsurpassed military capabilities, the United States would not be able to mount a full-fledged invasion.
The third predictable consequence of a U.S. attack on Iran would be a global economic meltdown of unprecedented severity and magnitude. Not only would Iran’s output of some four million barrels per day be halted, but the maritime traffic through the Straits of Hormuz would come to a standstill for months on end—regardless of outcome. The resulting global energy crisis would make the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War pale in comparison, pushing a barrel to $300 within weeks and making the economic and financial crises of the past three years in Europe and the United States seem like the good old days.
Last but not least, we’d witness internal consolidation of the Iranian regime, a calcified theocracy devoid of ideas and solutions as it faces economic stagnation and political tensions. Domestic squabbles and the infighting of recent months would be forgotten, and any sign of opposition to the regime would be equated with treason. There would be no Iranian Spring for decades to come. On the other hand, without the unifying effect of an external threat the mullahs’ regime may yet prove more vulnerable to implosion than we would otherwise suspect.
Instead of considering a military action against Iran with no clear exit strategy at a prohibitive cost to our core interests, Washington would be well advised to prepare a strategy for dealing with Iran—even as a putative nuclear power. Deterring and containing Iran would be easier than deterring and containing the Soviets 50 years ago. The country’s regime, admittedly unpleasant, is neither suicidal nor tainted by the blood of untold millions, as the two communist nuclear powers had been.
Real concerns about Iran’s nuclear program exist; they are also present in Moscow and Beijing. It is still possible and politically profitable for Washington to pursue bilateral diplomacy based on an offer of U.S. security guarantees to Iran in return for a rigorous supervision regime and a formal pledge that Iran refrain from developing nuclear weapons. A reasonable agreement would also allow Iran to enrich uranium to the extent needed for power generation and accept Iran’s right to the enrichment technology, so long as she agrees to subject her entire nuclear program to international oversight.
By pursuing sanctions similar in intent and likely consequences to FDR’s sanctions against Japan in 1941, the Obama administration may produce similar outcomes. That would be a disaster for all concerned.