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Iran: Disarmament we can believe in (part 2)

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COMMENTS

23 July 2009 15:50

Vanessa Newby clearly doesn’t share my confidence in the feasibility or desirability of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. So before I elaborate on what an effective US military strategy might look like, allow me to respond to her very thoughtful riposte by exploring what I think might be a few tender spots in her own analysis.

Vanessa warns against confronting Iran, concerned that it might compromise political reforms arising from the ongoing post-election upheaval. To me, this overstates both the probability of political change in Iran and its likely impact on Iranian foreign policy. While the clerical leadership is clearly divided, the ruthless efficiency with which the regime has restored and maintained order in the weeks since the election suggests a determination on the part of Khamenei and his cohorts to consolidate their political dominance.

Of course, even if it were to occur, political reform in Iran is neither a vital US interest nor an end in itself. Moreover, the assumption that it might dampen Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, making it more receptive to compromise, is at best a tenuous one, as Obama himself has acknowledged.

So if diplomacy isn’t going to deliver the goods, how might the US go about constructing an effective military strategy? The first element is perhaps the most challenging, but also one to which the US military is well suited: a short, sharp campaign of crippling air strikes against Iran’s air defences and nuclear facilities, using a combination of air and sea-launched cruise missiles.

Vanessa is right to highlight the difficulty of generating a comprehensive target set on such a well dispersed and secretive program. However, an acceptable outcome, one that sets Iran’s nuclear program back by around 5-10 years, need not require such extensive destruction. Indeed, Saddam’s nuclear program appears to have never been quite the same after Israel’s 1981 strike on Osirak, a lone nuclear facility.

The most time-consuming part of any nuclear program involves the production of fissile material, so the fuel cycle should be the top priority. That Iran has buried its uranium enrichment facility at Natanz beneath almost 23 metres of earth and several metres of reinforced concrete provides some indication of its importance (along with a handful of other facilities) to the wider nuclear program. See this CSIS report for a detailed open-source analysis of Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The second strategic element involves limiting Iranian retaliation through deterrence. This would require the US to communicate to Tehran a clear set of red lines and a commitment to re-escalate over the top of any Iranian retaliation. For such a strategy to work, the initial strike should leave intact as many of the regime’s valued assets as possible, holding them hostage as a way of raising the costs and risks of retaliation.

If the Ayatollahs are as rational and calculating as I suspect, they would cut their losses rather than accept massive costs for no reason other than a show of defiance; otherwise, they will have proven themselves undeterrable. It was precisely this kind of strategy that allowed Israel to bomb Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007 with impunity. By contrast, an Israeli strike on Iran would be highly destabilising because, unlike the US, Israel would not enjoy the same kind of conventional escalation dominance and could not stem Iranian retaliation, except via Hamas or Hezbollah.

The third and final element, coming in the weeks after an attack, would be a generous set of diplomatic concessions, designed to allow Tehran to save face while dissuading it from reconstituting its nuclear program. This is a bit of a long shot, but if there’s any chance for engagement it will only arise once Tehran’s calculations have been changed – once the destruction of its nuclear program is a fait accompli and the benefits of normalised relations with the West begin to look more enticing than another long and potentially dangerous era of isolation and competition.

Photo by Flickr user steelisrael, used under a Creative Commons license.

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