Iran: Bad Outcomes, and Worse

Wednesday, May 1, 2013
Hoover Institution Archives Poster Collection: IR 54
Hoover Institution Archives Poster Collection: IR 54
Hoover Institution Archives Poster Collection: IR 54

Negotiations are the opium of the chattering classes, but sanctions are pure heroin to our governing elite. Those who have risen to power in Washington on the strength of words, rather than deeds, assume that malign foreign powers must be as receptive to appeasement and largesse as their constituents, while those who have never done without imagine that foreign actors accustomed to hardship must surrender if deprived of imported luxuries.

Repeated rounds of negotiations have granted the junta in Tehran a decade to advance their nuclear ambitions. The Persians invented chess; our diplomats play checkers. As for sanctions, they are, indeed, felt by the powerless, but those in authority can still get spare parts for their Mercedes and all else, thanks to our Persian-Gulf “allies,” our Afghan clients, and delighted Russians, all of whom profit wonderfully by undercutting our ballyhooed embargo.

We do not have an “Iran strategy,” merely a pouch of impotent diplomatic techniques that allow us to delude ourselves about progress and postpone effective action, while, at most, further inciting Iranian feelings of nationalism and inherent superiority. Meanwhile, we project vacillation, trepidation and moral weakness. Nor do we grasp that, while Iran is the present, if not yet fully real, danger, the long-term, insidious threat of greater scope comes from Saudi Arabia, a state that has bought influence wholesale in Washington, and whose uncompromising global zealotry for the Wahabi cult within Islam has already killed Americans by the thousands, while stunting the prospects of millions of needy Muslims. But that is another story.

Another story, too, is this writer’s conviction that our president has privately accepted the advent of Iranian nuclear weapons and will not employ American military force to shatter the program (admittedly, a greater challenge than the public grasps).

Would Iranian possession of nuclear weapons be so great a threat? Even should Tehran’s apocalyptic rhetoric regarding Israel prove nothing but talk–an existential question for Israelis–an Iranian nuclear arsenal would give the Shi’a autocrats de facto control of the Persian Gulf and its littorals without the need to pull a single trigger. Ships would transit the Strait of Hormuz only at Iran’s sufferance as Tehran’s capabilities threatened to choke off what remains the lifeblood of the world’s oil supply. The ayatollahs would not even need to preach their threat, although one suspects they could not refrain from doing so.

Tehran would dominate the region militarily, raising the cost of intervention to a prohibitive level for outside powers, while touching off a regional arms race that would see Turkey rapidly develop nukes “for defensive purpose,” while Saudi Arabia would call in its chips, having bankrolled the Pakistani nuclear-weapons program in the past. As a minimum, we would see, in short order, three historically hostile and currently spiteful nuclear powers, Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia jostling against one another in a very small strategic space. Israel might be attacked only as an afterthought.

There are no good options or attractive solutions to the Iranian sprint toward armed hegemony, but, in terms of strategic Realpolitik, a nuclear-armed Iran is the worst of various unattractive outcomes.

As for the hopes of the fingers-crossed crowd that Israel might take unilateral military action against Iran’s nuclear program, be careful what you wish for: Israel does not have the power to destroy Iran’s artfully dispersed and deeply positioned facilities. Jerusalem (or Tel Aviv, to the timid laggards in our State Department) has the military wherewithal to start a conflict dramatically, but not to end one conclusively.

The Iranian response to Israeli strikes would be asymmetrical: While missiles would be launched at Israel just to maintain bragging rights, and terrorist operations would reach from Afghanistan to Lebanon and beyond, the crucial response would be broad-spectrum Iranian attacks on oil transport from the Persian Gulf and on the oil-producing, -processing and transfer infrastructure on the Arab side of the water. The effect on the world economy would be immediate and powerful. Inevitably, world opinion–ferociously anti-Jewish even where there are no Jews–would blame Israel, not Iran, for the resulting crisis.

If military action should be required, it would be far better (if tragic, nonetheless) for the United States to do it–preferably at the head of a close-knit coalition (this would not be an operation for symbolic participation that only cluttered the Air-Sea-Land battle space). Only the U.S. Armed Forces have the capability both to smash the Iranian weapons program and to devastate–though still not eliminate–Iran’s retaliatory capabilities

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And it would be hard. Not a matter of days or weeks, but of months, an intensive air campaign and supporting naval operations (with limited on-shore special operations) would not only have to strike nuclear-related targets buried deep underground or cynically placed in populated areas, but would have to neutralize Iran’s early-warning radars, intelligence nodes, air-defense system, Republican Guards facilities, naval capabilities in the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, air force, national communications network, cyber-capabilities–and key leadership clusters. This would be a serious war, not a get-off-cheap surgical strike.

Complicating matters, the Iranians have spent the last generation retailoring the Revolutionary Guard Corps and the (lower-priority) regular military specifically for the mission of catastrophically damaging Persian Gulf commerce. Iran’s naval forces are certainly no match for the U.S. Navy, yet capital ships–including any supercarrier–caught in the Gulf at the commencement of hostilities would be in grave danger from multi-faceted air and surface attacks with fast boats, mines, torpedoes and missiles launched as swarms, and perhaps even aircraft used in “kamikaze” fashion. A badly damaged American supercarrier would lead to the most profound revolution in naval affairs since World War II (although it might be a blessing in disguise to learn how vulnerable supercarriers are before we charge into a conflict with China from the flight deck).

And the only way to make the Iranians quit would be to decapitate the leadership three levels down from the top. Meanwhile, the global economy would tip into panic and deep recession, if not worse.

Every potential course of action is perilous and structured for tragedy. But to quote former U.S. Army chief of staff General Gordon Sullivan, “Hope is not a method.” The view of the threat’s immediacy may differ when viewed from Washington versus Jerusalem, but the long-term strategic effects of Iran’s possession of a nuclear arsenal would be still worse than a hard pre-emptive war. As a splendid master sergeant I knew liked to put it, “It just sucks every which way.”

And one great caution: Should military action be chosen, it must be massive and comprehensive from the outset. Any attack on Iran’s nuclear program that sought to minimize the number of targets within Iran would only result in maximum damage to all parties and an extended war.