The Time Is Not Yet Ripe

Why a sounder coercive diplomacy against Iran might prevent war

16/02/2012 | by Jean-Loup Samaan

Category: Conflicts and Strategies, Security, Iran, Western Asia, Asia

A newer, more aggressive light has been cast upon the dilemma that a nuclear Iran presents the world; now, however, is no time to attack. There is much doubt regarding the efficacy of missile strikes on Iranian nuclear sites. The United States and Israel should “speak softly” and let sanctions, and their military capabilities, do the talking.

Carmel Horowitz / Israeli Defense Forces Photostream, CC BY

While 2011 saw international pundits looking at the Arab Spring as the new game-changer in the Middle East, the first weeks of 2012 have been marked by the return of the Iranian nuclear issue at the forefront of world politics. More particularly the conundrum regarding potential military strikes (whether Israeli ones or American ones) against the Iranian sites of its nuclear program has re-emerged.

On November 8, 2011 a new International Atomic Energy Agency report on nuclear verification in Iran was circulated to the Agency's Board of Governors and the UN Security Council. In a 10-page appendix, the IAEA gave information with an unprecedented level of detail on the military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, including projects that have been underway for more than a decade now. This report led to a new perspective on in the diplomatic crisis. While the US administration and the European Union have adopted new sanctions targeting Iranian crude-oil exports and national banks, rumors spread (again) of the planning of a looming unilateral Israeli aerial campaign. In January 2012, the American journal Foreign Affairs published an article from Matthew Kroenig titled “Time to Attack Iran.”

Sharply written, the piece supports the idea that the only option left  for decision makers is to launch a campaign to bomb Iran. WIth many flawed details, Kroenig’s paper has already engendered an intense battle of ideas among the experts. But to some extent, this current debate on the costs and benefits of the military option against Iran is only the resurgence of a debate that has been on-and-off in the public arena for the last decade. The rumors of a military intervention to stop Iran from developing its nuclear program have circulated since the initial 2002 disclosure of the country's clandestine enterprise by a dissident Iranian group, the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Already in 2006, New Yorker journalist Seymour Hersh argued that the Bush Administration was on the verge of launching an attack on Iran.1 Although Hersh may have taken some statements of the Pentagon insiders that he interviewed at face value, the reappearance of this debate today demonstrates the protracted salience of the military option.

Until today, this issue has provoked a major rift among specialists of Middle East security affairs on three key aspects: the strategic necessity of a military strike against Iran, the feasibility of such an operation and its short-to-long term consequences. This article examines the central arguments of both parties and then suggests a way for policy makers to avoid this critical dilemma in light of the developments of the past months.

A Window of Opportunity for a Military Strike?

First and foremost, the current proponents of the military option against Iran argue that a nuclear Iran would be unacceptable for the international community. Because of the religious zeal of its leadership, any deterrence calculus would be hardly conceivable. In other words the Iranian regime would not be as rational as the USSR was during the Cold War and could well break the so-called nuclear taboo that has endured for the last 67 years. Officials from the Israeli defense establishment have repeated: not only did Iran say that it would wipe out Israel but it is building a weapon to do so.

Added to that is the risk of a major proliferation of nuclear weapons unraveling in the Middle East as a chain reaction: in other words, if Iran gets nuclear weapons, so will Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt.

Second, supporters of a military operation tend to look at economic sanctions that have been endorsed by the United Nations, the European Nations and countries on a national basis with large skepticism, if not sometimes with complete contempt. Because key players like China, Russia, or India do not strictly apply these sanctions, they would be doomed to fail.

Additionally, the advocates of air strikes insist that because timing matters, today is a crucial moment to strike Iran. The regime in Tehran is allegedly reaching the breaking out capability where the regime would be able, in a few months, to build and assemble a nuclear weapon. According to Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Iran will soon find itself in a "zone of immunity" where it will be much more difficult for Western forces to coerce it.

At the operational level, although key elements remain classified, there have been many net assessments in the press and policy journals claiming the feasibility of an air strike. Back in 2007, Whitney Raas and Austin Long—two scholars from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—argued that the Israeli Air Force could strike the three sites of Natanz (a uranium enrichment facility), Isfahan (a uranium conversion facility), and Arak (a facility composed of a heavy water plant and plutonium production reactors): “The operation would appear to be no more risky than Israel’s 1981 attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor, and it would provide at least as much benefit in terms of delaying Iranian development of nuclear weapons."2

Moreover, the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq on December 31, 2011 provides Israeli air forces with a new flying path option. Flying through Jordan and then Iraq to reach the targets in Iran is said to be more efficient and less risky. Besides, the departure of US troops allows Israel not to be put in a delicate situation with Washington.

Furthermore, the defenders of the military option have displayed a great level of confidence in the ability of Israeli and Western forces to contain the side effects of the bombing campaign, whether by setting explicit redlines to de-escalate the conflict or by absorbing the retaliatory measures of Tehran, or both. Matthew Kroenig, a former US Department of Defense official, argued in the January 2012 issue of the Foreign Affairs journal that the "US could first make clear that it is interested only in destroying Iran's nuclear program, not in overthrowing the government."3 In other words, the strikes would constitute a quick campaign with explicit limited goals.

But even if Iran wants escalation, these pundits affirm that Israel and Western countries have the ability to absorb the counterattack. Some Israeli officials, among them Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have expressed the conviction that Iran’s retaliation capacities are overestimated and rely mainly on Tehran’s bluffing. Similarly, in a January 2012 report from the right-wing Israeli think tank Begin Sadat, Haim Rosenberg argues that Iranian missile arsenal “would be able to inflict only limited physical damage on Israel.”4

In the long run, the upholders believe that a raid on Iran would demonstrate the ultimate firmness of the Western countries to fulfill their commitments, and would as a result deter the regime from restarting its program the day after the strikes. Some observers even believe that this could weaken the rulers of Tehran and strengthen the domestic opposition to bring regime change.

Together, all these reasons provide a perfect narrative to support the idea that indeed technically, strategically, and morally, a military strike against Iran might be the least-bad option to solve the issue. However, far from reaching a consensus in Europe, the United States or Israel, this narrative has led other observers and decision makers to counter these arguments and urge for caution against ill-advised warmongering.

The Case Against a Military Strike

The observers demonstrating skepticism of military strikes against Iran are a less homogenous crowd than the ones supporting the military option. At the low end of the spectrum are pacifists that cannot philosophically envision the endorsement of any armed intervention. But at the high end of the spectrum are pragmatists that happen to share some assumptions of the advocates of military strikes, but differ on the conclusions of their assessment.

For instance, some pragmatists have argued that a nuclear Iran would not be such a catastrophe for the stability in the region—that  Tehran, as a rational actor, could be deterred. Founding their argument on the precedents of the Cold War and the India-Pakistan standoff, these thinkers tend to believe in the rationalizing effect of nuclear weapons.

More generally, the skeptics argue that proponents of an intervention exaggerate the urgency of the situation. If Iran were to acquire the breakout capability (which it has not yet reached, according to all available information including the IAEA reports), it would then have to expel the IAEA inspectors to start the ultimate process of militarization. Only then would it leave the international community with no choice other than military intervention. This could take place within a 6-to-18-month window of opportunity, a timeframe more than sufficient to generate the required forces.; the key point, however, is that this scenario would provide the nations a much more legitimate circumstance to act decisively than the current foggy situation.

Meanwhile, a critical unknown that the skeptics underline is the feasibility of the operation. Of course, the United States could without doubt strike Iran, and it could probably have done so even at the highest peak of the Iraq War in 2006. But the real issue is the quality of intelligence: how much do we know about the Iranian sites? If the US Air Force (or the Israeli Air Force) destroys the sites of Natanz, Arak, and Isfahan, how certain would we be that the key facilities—the nodes of the nuclear program—had been destroyed? Learning the lessons from the Israeli raid on the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981, the Iranians have concealed and dispersed the constituents of their program all around the countries to ensure that there would still be an uncertainty whether a raid would be based on sufficient intelligence to erase the whole program.

Additionally, the most contentious issue for the skeptics is the outcome of the operation. In fact, skeptics tend to be puzzled by how advocates of a strike look at the appraisals on the ability of Western powers to control escalation and compel Iran to exercise restrain. These views are characterized as an optimistic, if not naïve assumption. This point has been denounced on several occasions as a preoccupying contradiction in the rhetoric of the advocates: at the same time, they describe Iran as an irrational fanatic regime ready to commit nuclear suicide to defend the case of an air strike but later on, they downplay the possibility that an operation would trigger uncontrolled escalation. In other words, a nuclear Iran would be irrational and suicidal but an Iran under aerial attacks would be restrained.

Even if this scenario fortunately prevails, there would be no way, argue the skeptics, that Western forces could prevent the Iranian regime from rebooting its program. And this time, in all likelihood, Tehran would act in complete clandestinity. For instance, although destroying the uranium enrichment facilities in Natanz might severely damage the program, centrifuges can in fact be set up rapidly, silently, and far away from international scrutiny.

These are the main reasons why skeptics or pragmatists have urged to look at the military option with extreme caution.

The Urgent Need for Sounder Coercive Diplomacy

After almost a decade of rumors of looming air strikes on Iran to stop its nuclear program, the most obvious failure regarding this critical issue is the framing of the debate: for many it was assumed that the choice of the decision makers was either economic sanctions or military strikes. And to support their cases, the proponents of one of the two options were usually discarding the relevance of the other. This might have been intellectually stimulating, but at the policy level it has proved disastrous. On the one hand, economic sanctions have been impeded by inconsistencies from Western powers: inconsistencies in their application (the US and Europe failing to compel powers like China and India), in their redlines (which were steadily postponed in the face of Iran’s recklessness), and even in their objective (was it the strict suspension of the nuclear program or the changing of the regime?).

On the other hand, the military option of Western forces ironically (or sadly) has looked more and more like a “bluff.” Public disagreements over its values have seriously weakened the credibility of the allies to be ready if needed. For instance, the last two US Secretaries of Defense, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, both estimated that military intervention was unlikely. And although the US forces had and still have without a doubt the resources to swiftly destroy Iranian infrastructures, the strategic fatigue which Washington has been enduring following the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan did eventually affect the perception of its capacity to respond militarily.

In fact, this state of the debate might be the biggest failure, both intellectually and politically: economic sanctions should have been supported by a credible threat of the use of military force, not undermined. Any sound coercive diplomacy is based on economic and military pillars. As the American president Theodore Roosevelt famously said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far."

In spite of this past failure, there might be some good reasons as 2012 begins to believe that it is still time to avoid the dilemma of a military strike. Because of its massive scale, the new round of economic sanctions implemented by the US and European countries could be decisive. Moreover, the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq followed by the redeployment of 15,000 troops in Kuwait as well as the growing awareness within NATO that the Atlantic Alliance needs to prepare itself against the Iranian challenge are signals that the perception regarding the credibility of the use of force might change.

Again, to prepare for military intervention does not undermine the current process of economic sanctions but rather adds an element of coercion to support them. In that perspective, to plan for war while conducting all diplomatic efforts is not illogical, it is the most concrete way to show Iran how big the cost would be if the regime were to cross the Rubicon.         

JEAN-LOUP SAMAAN is researcher for the Middle East Department at the NATO Defense College in Rome.

*The opinions expressed in this article are the personal views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NATO or the NATO Defense College.

The German version of this article will appear in the March/April 2012 edition of Internationale Politik.

  • 1. Seymour Hersh, "The Iran Plans," The New Yorker, April 17, 2006.
  • 2. Whitney Raas & Austin Long, “Osirak Redux? Assessing Israeli Capabilities to Destroy Iranian Nuclear Facilities,” International Security, Vol. 31, No.4, Spring 2007, pg.30.
  • 3. Matthew Kroenig,"Time to Attack Iran," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 91, no.1, January-February 2012, pg.81.
  • 4. Haim Rosenberg, "Missile Warfare: A Realistic Assessment," BESA Center Perspectives Paper, No. 161, 25 January 2012, pg.1.

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