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Is the United States Going to Bomb Iran?

A recent flurry of statements by senior US officials indicates that Washington has opted to take a hard-line approach towards Iran. European leaders have been quick to stress the need for diplomacy over military action.

Is the United States Going to Bomb Iran?

Soeren Kern | Elcano Royal Institute for Strategic and International Studies | January 28, 2005

Summary

A recent flurry of statements by senior US officials indicates that the United States has opted to take a hard-line approach towards Iran, which many analysts believe could build a nuclear bomb within the next four years.

European leaders have been quick to stress the need for diplomacy over military action.

In public the White House has been careful to express support for the diplomatic initiative being pursued by Britain, France and Germany, in which Tehran is being pressed to surrender its nuclear ambitions.

But privately senior US officials view this exercise with the same scepticism as they did the UN process ahead of the invasion of Iraq.

Indeed, recent US comments about a possible Israeli strike on Iran were intended to warn the EU to take a more vigorous stance against Tehran.

In any event, talk of military action against Iran should be taken seriously. If EU diplomacy fails to end the standoff with Iran, a confrontation between Washington and Tehran appears inevitable.

Analysis

Fanning the Flames

During an interview just hours before US President George W. Bush was sworn in for a second term, on 20 January US Vice President Dick Cheney signalled that the White House intends to increase the pressure on Tehran over its nuclear programme. Cheney said that when “you look around the world at potential trouble spots, Iran is right at the top of the list”. Then he said: “the Israelis might well decide to act first and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterward”. Cheney added: “We don’t want a war in the Middle East if we can avoid it”. But he left the strong impression that if diplomacy failed, military action would follow.

One day earlier, during her confirmation hearing on 19 January, US Secretary of State designate Condoleezza Rice told the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the White House doubts the European effort will succeed. “We are sceptical that this is going to work”, Rice said. But she also said US differences with Iran go well beyond its nuclear and missile programmes. “It’s really hard to find common ground with a government that thinks Israel should be extinguished”, she told senators. “Iran’s policies are 180 degrees to our own interest at this point”, she said. Rice also listed Iran among six “outposts of tyranny”, which echoes Bush’s “axis of evil”. This suggests that the White House in fact has no interest in reviving bilateral ties that have been frozen since the 1980 hostage crisis in Tehran.

The comments follow the publication on 17 January of a sensational article in The New Yorker magazine, which claims the US has had a covert operation inside Iran since last summer in an effort to pinpoint sites that could be hit by air-strikes or commando raids. “Much of the focus is on the accumulation of intelligence and targeting information on Iranian nuclear, chemical and missile sites, both declared and suspected. The goal is to identify and isolate three dozen, and perhaps more, such targets that could be destroyed by precision strikes and short-term commando raid”, the article claims. Although the Pentagon retorted that the article was “riddled with inaccuracies”, it did not deny its basic point. On 18 January Bush responded to the article by affirming his support for a diplomatic settlement on Iran’s nuclear programme, but he warned: “I will never take any option off the table”.

Some analysts believe the article is part of a deliberate disinformation campaign directed against Tehran. But others say US covert reconnaissance missions into Iran to determine details about its programme are inevitable and should come as no surprise. Indeed, one of the main criticisms of the intelligence community by the 9/11 Commission was that it did not take appropriate covert action against al-Qaeda. So the penetration of special forces into Iran may well be driven by the need for solid evidence about Iran’s nuclear intentions after US intelligence about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction proved to be unreliable.

Indeed, the US for years has been passing intelligence to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in an effort to prod it to conduct more vigorous inspections of Iranian nuclear installations. For example, US satellite images prompted a team of five IAEA inspectors on 13 January to visit a facility in Parchin—a sprawling military complex located 30 km south-east of Tehran—which the US believes is being used to simulate the testing of nuclear weapons. But Iranian officials balked, providing inspectors with only limited access; the IAEA is now seeking permission to go back for a second look. In any case, US efforts to contain Iran within the framework of the IAEA are complicated by the dysfunctional relationship Washington has with the organisation. Indeed, the Bush administration has been seeking to replace IAEA chief Mohammed El Baradei—whose term is up for renewal in 2005—because of his willingness to challenge US assertions on Iraq and Iran.

Meanwhile, support for “regime change” in Iran is growing in the US Congress. The proposed “Iran Freedom and Support Act” calls on the Bush administration to promote alliances with opposition groups. The initiative is being closely coordinated with the Coalition for Democracy in Iran (CDI), a pressure group created by neo-conservatives that aims to set the US foreign policy agenda for Iran. The CDI has strong ties to the exiled Reza Pahlavi, the son of the ousted Shah of Iran. This leads some analysts to conclude that the US intends largely to fund dissident groups that advocate a restoration of the monarchy in Iran.

Israeli officials have also stepped up the rhetoric over Iran. The head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency said on 24 January that Iran’s nuclear programme was nearing the “point of no return”. If Iran resumes enrichment of uranium, “the route to building a bomb is a short one”, he said. His concerns were echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who said that “Iran has become the focal point of all the dangers of the Middle East”. Seeking to build international support for action against Tehran, he also said that a nuclear Iran is a “Western” problem, and not simply an Israeli issue. “This problem should be of concern to the whole world and not just Israel”, he said, adding: “The world must mobilize against the Iranian nuclear option”.

But there is no real international consensus on how best to deal with Iran. Although the US is trying to avoid a public split by paying lip service to EU diplomacy, the White House doubts that the EU is able or willing to promote the kinds of policies that Washington wants regarding Tehran. NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer appealed on 21 January to Europe and the US to coordinate a “carrot and stick” approach to Iran over its nuclear plans. “It’s of utmost importance that the European Union and the United States of America see eye to eye on Iran. Only this way can we prevent that nations or alliances can be played out against each other”, he warned.

Will Iran Cause the Next Transatlantic Bust-Up?

Of all the issues facing the transatlantic relationship, Iran is the most serious. But there are major disagreements between Europe and the US over how to deal with Tehran. The Europeans have championed engagement while the Clinton and Bush administrations have favoured a combination of unilateral economic sanctions and public criticism of Iran’s regime. On their own, neither approach has worked.

The core issue surrounding the current deadlock involves Iran’s uranium enrichment programme. Iran is widely believed to be using its civilian nuclear power programme as a cover to develop weapons by exploiting loopholes that allow for the enrichment of uranium for peaceful purposes. The US believes Iran is seeking to enrich uranium not to the low level needed to generate power, but to weapons-grade uranium that forms the core of nuclear warheads.

The centre of diplomatic efforts is a fragile agreement that Britain, France and Germany (EU3) reached with Iran in November 2004 in which Tehran agreed temporarily to suspend activities related to uranium enrichment. The agreement derailed US attempts to have Iran reported to the UN Security Council for alleged violations of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). The IAEA is policing the suspension. But only days after Tehran signed the agreement, Iran’s powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani boasted: “Tehran is set to be a member of the nuclear club soon and will resume enrichment after a maximum of six months”.

Concerns about Iran grew after the IAEA in 2004 discovered that Tehran had been pursuing covert nuclear activities for more than two decades, in violation of its obligations under the NPT. Iran also acknowledged that it bought nuclear equipment on the black market. This was especially contentious because Iran earlier told the IAEA that it had not received any nuclear components from foreign sources. The admission came after Abdul Qadeer Khan, Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, confessed that he had sold nuclear secrets to Iran, Libya and North Korea. IAEA inspectors subsequently found that Iranian nuclear components matched drawings of equipment found in Libya and supplied by the clandestine Pakistani network.

Iran ratified the NPT in 1970. Although the NPT allows signatories to enrich uranium to provide reactor fuel, the same technology can then be used to enrich uranium further to weapons-grade standard. Therefore, the IAEA insists that any enrichment programme is fully declared and safeguarded. Iran’s predicament is that it now has the stigma of having deceived the IAEA, and while Tehran is technically correct that it is entitled to an entire indigenous nuclear fuel cycle under the terms of the NPT, this development is now unacceptable to both the EU and the US.

Therefore, the EU is trying to persuade Iran to turn its present temporary suspension of its enrichment programme into a commitment to permanently mothball all such activities. But the EU was unable to secure such a promise during a second round of talks held in Geneva on 17 January, even though it offered Iran the incentive of a possible trade agreement. Indeed, Iran continued its established pattern of nuclear brinksmanship; ahead of the talks, a senior Iranian official told a press conference that if the negotiations do not go well, Iran would resume uranium enrichment in March. And in what may be a clear statement of the true Iranian position, he then added that Iran “would never scrap its nuclear fuel cycle work—if the European problem is the fuel cycle, then negotiations are useless”. An exasperated German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer responded by telling the Iranian negotiators that Tehran may be miscalculating the EU’s ability to hinder the US from using military force.

The Israelis are also sceptical about the EU approach. A paper dated 16 January and titled “Europe and Iran’s Nuclear Future”, published by the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Centre for Strategic Studies—an institution that generally reflects official Israeli thinking—, says that Israel is dissatisfied with the EU talks because the Europeans have never unreservedly condemned Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Because of this, the EU is more susceptible to Iranian manipulation, the paper argues. Indeed, the EU has already wavered by agreeing to de-link progress on Iranian human rights from the economic incentives. Moreover, part of the EU deal hinges on the eventual integration of Iran into the World Trade Organisation (WTO), a move the US flatly rejects.

Indeed, it is unlikely that the EU effort can succeed without US leadership. Brussels and Washington both recognise that the Europeans lack the clout to win durable compromises from Iran because they cannot offer Tehran the security guarantees it seeks in exchange for a permanent freeze on uranium enrichment. But even though Washington faces weak diplomatic and military options, the White House has refused to participate in the EU talks. This has prompted some critics to accuse Bush of “sub-contracting” American security to the Europeans. But other analysts believe the US has followed the negotiations from the sidelines in an effort to keep its options open, possibly because it has not wanted to upset an understanding it has with Iran regarding Iraq ahead of Iraqi elections on 30 January.

Why UN Diplomacy Will Fail

Still others argue that those in Washington who favour confrontation might be eagerly awaiting a collapse of the EU-Iran talks in order to bring the issue to the UN Security Council, where the US would seek economic sanctions against Iran. Since Iran’s oil sector accounts for 50% of government revenues and 80% of its export earnings, a ban on investment in its oil industry or the purchase of Iranian oil could induce Iran to reconsider its nuclear programme, some US policymakers argue. But sanctions are unlikely because Iran’s key trading partners—China, France and Russia—have the right of veto in the UN Security Council.

China has already threatened to block attempts to impose restrictions on Tehran, and has said it wants the issue over Iran’s nuclear programmes to be resolved “within the auspices of the IAEA”. This is because the search for energy is becoming the dominant factor in China’s foreign policy choices. Indeed, In October 2004 Beijing signed a US$100 billion energy deal with Tehran, which guarantees China 150,000 barrels of oil a day at market prices for 25 years, and 250 million tons of liquid natural gas over 30 years. In 2004 Iran was the second-largest source of imported oil for China. This has frustrated the effectiveness of existing US economic sanctions on Iran. The Bush administration noted its displeasure on 16 January when it imposed sanctions against nine major Chinese companies that have been providing missile and military technology to Iran.

Russia is also unlikely to support UN sanctions on Iran. Moscow places a high priority on preserving the agreement it has with Tehran to finish construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. Indeed, Iran is essential to Russia’s nuclear power sector. The nuclear power industry in Russia faced an uncertain future after it lost customers following the collapse of communism, and the deal with Iran provides tens of thousands of Russian companies with most of their work. In October 2003 the US persuaded Russia to delay delivery of fuel rods to Bushehr until late 2005; this has slowed down the Iranian programme, and inauguration of the US$800 million reactor was recently postponed until October 2006. Meanwhile, Russia and Iran remain in protracted negotiations over the construction of three to five additional facilities at a cost of US$3.2 billion.

Iran is also likely to test Anglo-American relations. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has paid a heavy political price for his unwavering support for Washington in the Iraq War. Blair and his Labour Party face national elections in May with the opposition Conservative Party not too far behind in the opinion polls. Any forays in Iran could therefore cost Blair dearly on the home front. Indeed, on 23 January the London Sunday Times reported that British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw had prepared a 200-page paper for the House of Commons laying out the case against military action in Iran. The document touted ongoing EU negotiations with Iran as being “in the best interests of Iran and the international community”.

Amid fears that the Bush administration may seek support for a conflict with Iran, on 24 January Straw met with White House officials in an effort to quash speculation of military action. But after his meeting with Rice, Straw acknowledged that he did not ask whether the US had plans to use military force against Iran, and the new secretary of state did not offer to tell him.

All of this means that if the US does decide to go to war against Iran, it will have to go it alone. This is ironic because the case for going to war against Iran is in fact far stronger than the case against Iraq. But why can’t the US just live with a nuclear Iran?

Why the US Cares About a Nuclear Iran

Iran is at the nexus of two of America’s main national security concerns: terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The 9/11 Commission has implied that Iran had more to do with al-Qaeda than Iraq ever did. Given the radical nature of the Iranian regime, this has raised the spectre of terrorist access to weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the US State Department says Iran is the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, and it continues to support militant groups involved in a variety of regional conflicts, including the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. In fact, it was the discovery of more than 50 tons of Iranian weapons heading for Palestine on the Karine-A merchant ship in the early days of the Bush administration that was the catalyst that placed Iran on the “axis of evil” and clearly put it in the sights of America’s new policy of preventive military action.

Iran also has ongoing relationships with competing power centres in Afghanistan and Iraq, and could play an important spoiler role in the short- and long-term future of both countries. Indeed, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons might further embolden its hard-line conservative leadership to bully its neighbours, stiff-arm Europe and sponsor terrorism against Israel and US interests in the Middle East and elsewhere. Indeed, a nuclear Iran would be in a unique position to disrupt access through the strategically vital Persian Gulf. Some 40% of the world’s traded oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

An Iranian bomb is also likely to spur a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. If Iran’s neighbours are uncertain about how strongly the US will deter the Iranian nuclear threat, then regional states will have to consider whether they need to proliferate themselves. There are signs that Saudi Arabia and Turkey—both of which are long-time regional rivals with Iran—are already debating this question.

Because Iran occupies such a central position in the Middle East, its internal and international conduct has wide-ranging repercussions for the region as a whole and for US interests within it. Therefore, the US would view an anti-American, nuclear-armed Iran as a major threat to regional and international security.

As a result, there is a broad bipartisan consensus in Washington that restraining Iran will be the top national security priority of the second Bush term. But there is a hawk/dove split in US foreign policy circles over how best to deal with Tehran. There are some hard-line voices—especially among neo-conservatives—who argue that the regime cannot be rehabilitated and that conditions are ripe for an imminent revolution to bring about full democratic change in Iran. Although many analysts view this as overly optimistic, these forecasts have helped shape current US policy towards Tehran, conditioning the Bush administration to reach out to putative opposition leaders and making US policymakers reluctant to engage with the current regime in order to avoid perpetuating its hold on power.

The realist counter-argument, both inside and outside the White House, is that the Iranian regime is too deeply entrenched to be changed by American interference; it controls all the instruments of power and the opposition is insufficiently united to bring about any coherent challenge to the existing system. Thus, if Washington is going to have a relationship with Tehran, it must deal with the current regime.

Indeed, a growing number of American foreign policy experts advocate limited dialogue with Iran. A July 2004 study by the Council on Foreign Relations titled “Iran: Time for a New Approach” argues that the regime in Tehran is basically stable and that direct military intervention by the US in pursuit of regime change is not plausible: Iran is three times the size of Iraq and likely to be even more hostile to foreign occupation. Moreover, the US military is already stretched to its limits by commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq. The study says Washington instead should expand efforts to win cooperation in areas of mutual concern because the current lack of sustained engagement with Iran harms US interests. It concludes that because of Iran’s importance, economically and geo-strategically, the US government should revise its strategic approach to Iran by seeking to engage Tehran in dialogue as a prelude to diplomatic normalisation.

As a result of these competing views, and the uncertainty surrounding Iran’s nuclear timeline, the Bush administration is coming under intense pressure to commit itself unambiguously either to a policy of regime-change or to one of limited engagement, and direct its actions accordingly. But another option is also being debated.

Why a Military Strike is Conceivable

Speculation is rife that Israel and/or the US intend to strike at the nuclear plant in Bushehr and other facilities around Iran before fuel rods are delivered from Russia by late 2005. Bush has said that “we will not tolerate Iranian development of nuclear weaponry”. The head of Mossad recently said that “Iranian nuclear weapons pose, for the first time, an existential threat to Israel”. Indeed, a preventive military strike—of the kind Israel carried out on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981—cannot be ruled out.

But even (somewhat) chastened neo-conservatives admit that Iran is quantitatively and qualitatively different from Iraq. The December issue of the Atlantic Monthly included a sobering report titled “Will Iran Be Next?”. For that article, the author assembled a group of former US security officials to conduct a fascinating “war game” about Iran to examine America’s military options and recommend the most suitable approach. The results can be summed up in two sentences: “Mr President, you have no military solution to the issues of Iran. You have to make diplomacy work”.

Israel’s options to counter the nuclear threat from Iran are also limited. If Israel were to decide to act alone, it would face a much greater challenge than it did with Osirak because the distances are much greater. Moreover, the targets are very well protected—some of them in deep underground installations. Furthermore, it is not likely that Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Turkey would allow Israel to pass through their airspace en route to Iran. If Israel were to use the Jordan route to Iran, the US would have to allow Israeli overflight of Iraqi airspace, which would be seen as equal American complicity in the attack.

And a military raid would stand an extremely low chance of success in deterring the Iranian nuclear programme. Israel’s attack on Osirak actually did little to hinder Iraq’s nuclear aspirations. Although it temporarily set back Iraq’s capabilities, it served rather to increase Saddam’s desire for a nuclear arsenal. A preventive strike on Iranian facilities might enhance Iran’s nuclear prospects over the long term by providing Tehran with the justification to pursue a full-blown nuclear deterrent programme. Moreover, unlike Iraq in 1981, Iran no longer depends on foreign imports for nuclear technology and already has the raw materials, as well as most of the designs and techniques, required to pursue a nuclear weapons programme. Given the sophisticated nature of Iranian capabilities, even if its main facilities were to be destroyed, Iran has the know-how to pursue a more vigorous nuclear weapons programme over the long term.

A preventive military strike would also elicit fierce retaliation from Tehran. Iran has already threatened to destroy Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor if the Jewish state were to attack its nuclear facilities. A likely scenario also includes an Iranian missile counterattack on US bases in the Persian Gulf, followed by a serious effort to destabilise Iraq. Iran could also opt to destabilise Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and induce Lebanese Hezbollah to launch sustained rocket attacks on northern Israel.

Therefore, the strategic usefulness of a unilateral preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably be short lived and could have various adverse effects on US interests in the Middle East. But somehow the US must deal with Iran. Indeed, a preventive military strike is not an unthinkable option, especially if the White House determines that an Iranian nuclear bomb would pose such a grave threat to US interests that merely postponing that process was a worthy goal, despite the attendant costs.

If the US acquires actionable intelligence on Iranian facilities, and if European diplomacy fails to obtain real guarantees from Tehran, the Bush administration may well conclude that it will soon have to do to Iran what the Israelis did to Iraq. A US attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities—using cruise missiles and guided munitions from stealth bombers—would not be announced in advance. Instead, a television broadcast the following morning would acknowledge that the job had been done. In public European leaders would express collective outrage, but in private many would be relieved to be rid of the threat.

Conclusion

Iran constitutes the most pressing challenge facing the Bush administration. If European diplomacy fails to restrain Tehran’s nuclear ambitions, the US may conclude that a preventive military strike on Iranian facilities is the only remaining option.

Soeren Kern, Senior Analyst, United States and Transatlantic Relations, Elcano Royal Institute for Strategic and International Studies

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