Target Iran: American Options

Ralph Zuljan

During the course of the last year revelations of a potential Iranian nuclear weapons program combined with increasingly belligerent rhetoric emanating from Iran has caused alarm in the international community and no more so than in the United States. As the Bush administration weighs its response to the possibility of the revolutionary Islamic Republic armed with nuclear weapons, perhaps it might be instructive to consider what options actually exist. There is a range of options available. Published discussions have suggested everything from diplomacy to sanctions to air strikes to a limited ground war to a regime changing war on Iran. Even the use of tactical nuclear weapons has not been discounted.

The most radical choice talked about is the use of earth-penetrating tactical nuclear weapons in an attempt to destroy the Iranian nuclear program. Chances are very good that nothing of the sort is seriously being considered, regardless of official coyness to admit this. While the United States has never formally forsaken the use of nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear state, it has become a fairly obvious operating principle for all declared nuclear powers, including the USA. And, it is one of the cornerstones of the non-proliferation principle. If there is a sure way of getting a few dozen countries to go nuclear in the next decade or less it would be to break the principle. I doubt the Bush administration is prepared to risk such consequences.

A regime changing ground war with the Islamic Republic is hardly more appealing as an option. Occupying Iran would not be a trivial military operation, even to the US armed forces. Any serious consideration of large-scale military operation must take into account that a successful occupation of Iran might require as many as a million troops. Iran has a larger population than Iraq and Afghanistan combined; it is one-and-a-half times the size of Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Since neither Afghanistan nor Iraq have been pacified this is hardly the time to expand into yet another country with a potentially hostile people. Furthermore, some Americans have already begun to balk at the paltry casualties generated in Afghanistan and Iraq. An expansion into Iran will result in increasing military casualties. I doubt the United States is willing to engage in a ground war with Iran at this time.

Short of a ground war, surgical strikes -- with conventional weapons -- against Iranian nuclear facilities has been widely discussed as another option, but this may do as much harm as good. Air power is notorious for failing to realize the bold claims its supporters make. It is unlikely that Iranians would then be willing to cooperate at all with any international effort to bring them to heel. Failure to completely destroy the rather well dispersed Iranian nuclear program will guarantee that the Islamic Republic will opt to be a nuclear power as soon as possible. Worse still for American interests is the fact that some countries might well facilitate Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons under these circumstances.

International support for military action against Iran is virtually non-existent and this too is something the Bush administration must take into consideration. Further alienation of the European allies and antagonizing China and Russia is not really in the national interest of the United States. Unfortunately, even the chances of broad international agreement on sanctions is unlikely. Failure to secure cooperation for implementing sanctions against Iran will likely fail to prevent further Iranian progress towards a nuclear capability.

While the most likely options, sanctions and air strikes, will probably do nothing but encourage Iranian development of nuclear weaponry, diplomacy is likewise unlikely to succeed because Iran is obviously determined to acquire the ability to produce nuclear fuel independently. Since American objections only relate to the possible Iranian acquisition of the capability to produce weapons grade enrichment of nuclear fuel; there is no objection, in principle, to civilian applications of nuclear technology. This is a necessary consequence of the non-proliferation regime. However, the ability to fuel nuclear reactors pretty much implies an ability to build nuclear weapons. Denying specific aspects of the fuel cycle to Iran is probably not a viable long-term possibility so agreements than might be reached with the Islamic Republic are unlikely to achieve US objectives.

Consequently, the harsh reality emerging is that, short of some revolutionary change in Iranian objectives, Iran is going to become a nuclear power sometime in the future. Whether it actually declares that capability in the next few years is unclear. Certainly the dynamics of its relations with its neighbors will change if it does declare itself a nuclear armed state and that change may very well be negative. Regional fear of a nuclear armed Persian state might well lead to its further isolation and actually weaken its position in the long term.

So the real question that must be asked is whether the possibility of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons is really such a serious threat. The likelihood of Iran sharing its nuclear assets with terrorists is probably so low as to be non-existent. Its ability to seriously threaten anyone with nuclear weapons is not that great and doing so would merely invite further proliferation. Ultimately, Iranian nuclear weapons will prove useless to Iran's political masters. They are rather expensive toys for such a relatively small country. Possessing nuclear weapons might cause Iranian leaders to realize the limits of rogue behavior in the international community.

None of the options available to the Bush administration at this time are particularly attractive. Further exercise of American military superpower status is likely to result in eroding its international influence further rather than expanding it. Popular support is not very strong either. Engaging the Islamic Republic could undo the tenuous consensus supporting American engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iran is not worth the political and military investment. Let Iran go ahead with its nuclear program and then let it face the reality of being threatened with nuclear destruction in the event of a war. Sometimes doing nothing is the best choice available.

Originally published in "Articles On War" at on February 1, 2007.

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