War with Iran?

Yesterday, New York Times columnist David Sanger published an intriguing piece on “America’s Deadly Dynamics With Iran.” For those who have been following this blog from the beginning, many of you may remember I did my Master’s thesis on Plan B for Iran’s nuclear program. My thesis outlined potential alternatives for preventing Iran from pursuing a nuclear program, or living with a nuclear Iran and containing it. In the end, I advocated that the United States conduct a precision strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

I wrote my thesis in 2006; as of this writing, the United States has not conducted a precision strike, and the Iranians still do not have an operational nuclear weapon. That said, I still believe that Iran’s possession of nuclear capability could still trigger a proliferation spiral in the region, making the threat of regional nuclear war rise dramatically.

Given Iran’s recent plot to kill the Saudi ambassador on American soil- in a restaurant frequented by senators and other senior American political leaders, no less — tension between the United States and Iran is at a hair-trigger. Previous covert actions of unknown origin such as the Stuxnet computer virus and the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists have succeeded in pushing back Iran’s nuclear programs by one or two years. At this point, serious policy-makers are openly discussing the potential of an American strike on Iran’s nuclear program.

This week, some experts believe the IAEA might release evidence that the Iranians have been attempting to weaponize their nuclear program. Furthermore, as the United States cuts back forces in Iraq, Iranian forces have fewer targets to retaliate against in the event of an American strike on their nuclear facilities.

I believe that an American strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is a real possibility over the next twelve months. The probability of an Israeli or American air strike on Iran by December 2012 spiked at the end of October from about 7.5% to 40+% before settling at 20% today on Intrade. I think the probability is somewhat higher than that, but the IAEA’s report should provide more information about exactly how far the Iranians have progressed with their nuclear weaponization program.

Either way, I have included a brief poll to see what this blog’s readers think will happen with regards to Iran by election day.

About Sean Patrick Hazlett

Finance executive, engineer, former military officer, and science fiction and horror writer. Editor of the Weird World War III anthology.
This entry was posted in Defense, Energy Security, International Security, Middle East, Nuclear Power, Nuclear proliferation, Peak Oil, Policy, Politics, Predictions, Terrorism, War and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to War with Iran?

  1. Scott Erb says:

    I have downloaded your paper and read the executive summary. I’ll read it soon with an open mind, but right now I’d be opposed to a strike on Iran. First, despite bombast from Iran’s President (who isn’t the most powerful leader in Iran), the foreign policy of Iran has been consistent, pragmatic and rational. They aspire to become a regional power and they’ve not pushed in ways that go beyond their capacity. Their handling of the US in Iraq was masterful (unfortunately).

    They have motive to develop nuclear weapons to balance the fact Israel has hundreds of functional nuclear weapons and a superior delivery system. While Iran cannot match Israel, it can take away Israel’s monopoly. However, the chance of a strike on Israel is virtually nil given Israel’s capacity to hit back.

    The US has to consider whether or not there is public support for continued military action and the economic harm that could be caused by striking Iran. Especially given the mood after Iraq, anger over a strike would be immense if it did not yield a clear and decisive strategic victory (that’s why if Obama were to do it, I’d predict it AFTER the election). The downsides seems immense, including unrestrained Iranian and Syrian aid to Hezbollah, Syria radically increasing the scope of its crackdown on citizens, and likely problems for the US diplomatically at a time when concerted economic action with China and other states is needed. And again, anything but unequivocal success could yield massive opposition in the US; the public mood now is almost isolationist. That could lead us into a venture we cannot conclude in a way that doesn’t actually harm our prestige more than help it.

    While proliferation in the region is possible, it is not certain. Saudi Arabia has its own problems, Pakistan already has nuclear weapons, and I have doubts about the extent of the problem (obviously this is a part of your longer paper I’ll look at very carefully – with an open mind). The risk of a nuclear Iran becoming a larger regional power seem to me to be minor and containable, especially given the balance of power in the region already. I also think China and Russia might find this a fine time to shift power away from the US by aiding Iran and supporting their position. To me the risks of action seem immense, but the cost in terms of US national interest of Iran becoming nuclear are bearable, and Iran can be contained. Finally (and perhaps you discuss this in your longer paper), I’d be worried about whether or not a raid could succeed. If there is imperfect intelligence, Iran’s using decoys or hiding “real” sites, or if their program is better shielded than we believe, we could end up causing a conflict and not stopping the program.

    But as I said, I’ll read your entire paper and rethink my position.

    • I worry less that Iran will use them against Israel, and more that the probability of an accidental launch increases dramatically. The US and USSR each had about 30 minutes to respond to an suspected nuclear launch. And that was two nuclear armed states. Imagine six in an area as small as the Middle East.

      I think the fact that oil prices are at $93 per barrel is definitely a deterrent, but if the red line that Iran must cross (to go nuclear) is between now and election day, the President’s advisers may very well urge him to strike while the window is open. Any attacks by Hezbollah against American civilians in response to a limited precision strike would only stiffen the resolve of the American people. Furthermore, the Iranians are already responsible for a high percentage of US military casualties in Iraq as they supplied insurgents with the IEDs that have killed or maimed so many soldiers and Marines.

      A nuclear armed Iran will also likely be an emboldened one that will likely engage in much more military adventurism in the Middle East , increasing volatility and long-term oil prices. The US is simply running out of time.

  2. Alan Scott says:

    I just do not think Obama has the guts to attack Iran . He did not even give vocal support to the Iranian civilian opposition a couple of years back. He is too much focused on reelection and his base wouldn’t be happy .

    • Scott Erb says:

      Oh, I don’t know about that. Look at how he handled Bin Laden, has authorized taking out other high priority targets, and defied his base on a variety of security issues. I think Obama is pretty cold and rational when it comes to foreign policy, he’ll go with what he thinks is in the national interest. However, I think any President would be wise not to engage in a controversial military action during an election year if not absolutely necessary. If an attack on Iran were wise and it was done during an election, support inside the US would be wobbly. Republicans would accuse Obama of “wagging the dog,” Democrats would be divided, and given the need in such a case to have the country behind the action it would be best after an election (or a year before — and the window is closing on that possibility).

    • Well somebody’s authorized the release of Stuxnet and the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists. It could be the Mossad, but I doubt the Israelis acted alone.

  3. Vern R. Kaine says:

    I would agree. It seems that when he doesn’t have to do a “Mother May I”, he can act quickly and decisively.

  4. Vern R. Kaine says:

    Interesting question! I know next to zero about the issue in comparison to someone who’s done their Masters on it, but all things considered my vote would be for a combination of the scientists disappearing and the cyber-sabotage (the most covert actions). It’s the best option, in my opinion, because it’s the only one that seems to 1) keep their nuclear capability in check and 2) keeps the perpetrator anonymous, which would in turn make any response of force by Iran appear to be a first-strike.

  5. Scott Erb says:

    OK, I read your complete analysis — a bit more quickly than I should have, but I was impressed by both the realistic appraisal of the situation, your interesting use of game theory, and what appears to me a thorough and accurate analysis of the situation (especially as it stood in 2006). I enjoyed reading it – it was a sophisticated analysis that nonetheless was easy to read and follow – not every writer can do that. I do have a few questions:

    a) in your opinion, what are the prospects that the necessary conditions you site in your report will be achieved — particularly that neither Russia nor China impede US efforts, and that we have Turkish cooperation. EU membership for Turkey has never had enough EU support to be feasible in anything but the longer term, and Turkish enthusiasm has waned. Turkish-Iranian rivalry has seemed to grow more intense, but I’m not sure that is enough. This article is interesting, and it shows another side effect of the Arab spring:

    As for Russia and China, they appear united in warning against a strike. To me this suggests a Security Council resolution is not on the table any time soon.

    b) Egyptian action is important in your 2006 report, as well as Iraq having coalition forces remain in Iraq. How do changed circumstances in the region impact your recommendation?

    I’m going to re-read your report when I have a bit more time, but I also wonder how easily one can assess the cost of action. In both Kosovo and Iraq 2003 the US under estimated the cost of the operation, reaffirming that once a conflict begins it takes on a life of its own. I think you detailed very well the likely Iranian reactions and their dominant strategy, but there is much uncertainty. Finally, I wonder how stable the Iranian regime might be. One reason I’ve been skeptical on military action is I fear that would make real liberalization of Iran and the prospect of a “Persian Spring” more distant. Anyway, thanks for posting the link to your Master’s thesis!

    • Scott,

      Sorry I haven’t gotten back to you on this. All of these are good questions that don’t lend well to me answering on my iPhone. I promise I will get back to you once I am in front of a proper computer. 😉

      • Scott Erb says:

        No hurry — yes, it’s not an iphone friendly set of questions. I’m in the process of more carefully reading your thesis in any event, I’m realizing I really have to get myself up to speed on this case because something may happen!

        • It all depends on whether we, as a country, decide that we can live with a nuclear Iran. I agree with you that Iran is rational. My concern is the probability that there is a miscalculation by one side or another that leads to a regional nuclear war. Let’s say, the Iranians decided to test a Shahab-3 missile without notifying the Israels. Then the Israelis react by counterattacking with aircraft. Iran, in turn, cannot be sure if Israeli aircraft are carrying nukes, so they react preemptively by launching nuclear tipped missiles. As you can see, this scenario quickly spins out of control very quickly. Add a few more nuclear-armed players to the mix like Saudi Arabia and Egypt and the probability for trouble grows exponentially.

    • a) I think it will be tough to get either Russian or Chinese support. The Russians see their nuclear industry as a strategic one. As such, giving up their Iranian customer would be a tough sell. The Chinese have already responded to US pressure on Iran by signing oil and gas contracts with that country. I surmise that if we do anything in Iran, it will be like the Libyan operation — ignore the UN (or at least avoid running a process through it) and work through NATO — the EU will be in range of Iranian missiles long before we will – and Zarkosy has always been onboard with some action against the Iranians. I suspect if the Turks do not want to cooperate, the US military can run much of the operation out of Diego Garcia, Kuwait, and the Georgian Republic. Not ideal, but feasible.

      b) Not having troops in Iraq actually plays to the US’s advantage, as Iran will have fewer “legitimate” targets against which to retaliate. I have always found Obama to be strategic, and I don’t think the drawdown was done for the drawdown’s sake. I think he always had his eye on the bigger strategic calculus.

      Egypt will be a problem, because the Iranians can stir up enough trouble to keep us busy there.

  6. Scott Erb says:

    Good points, and interesting perspective on the Iraq draw down, that does seem plausible. I still think (as I wrote on my own blog) that the risks outweigh the benefits, but the proviso is always that I don’t know what Obama knows, and if I had access to all the intelligence then I might change my mind!

    • The other wildcard is an Israeli strike, which would likely throw the region into chaos. I think, if given the alternative between that and an American strike, an American strike would serve our interests best. And this may be exactly what the decision may hinge on.

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