Yet there is a wider story, which includes how the United States availed themselves of other covert efforts to prevent Iranian enrichment from proceeding:
Paranoia or Healthy Concern?
Past American-led efforts aimed at Natanz had yielded little result. Several years ago, foreign intelligence services tinkered with individual power units that Iran bought in Turkey to drive its centrifuges, the floor-to-ceiling silvery tubes that spin at the speed of sound, enriching uranium for use in power stations or, with additional enrichment, nuclear weapons.A number of centrifuges blew up, prompting public declarations of sabotage by Iranian officials. An engineer in Switzerland, who worked with the Pakistani nuclear black-marketeer Abdul Qadeer Khan, had been “turned” by American intelligence officials and helped them slip faulty technology into parts bought by the Iranians.
Expect a firestorm of public reactions. Israeli and U.S. conservatives will show this proves the Iranians are up to no good, and need to be stopped now, at any cost. Some hawks will be angered that the United States did not give the bombs to Israel to take care of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, the same way they bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor site in the 1981 Operation Opera.
While many still deny Iran has ambitions towards developing nuclear weapons, Iranian apologists will point out how this is Western hypocrisy, disempowering and depriving Iran of nuclear arms, which the U.S. and Israel are both in possession of. And so are Pakistan and India.
The question this raises is that classic irony: are you paranoid if your enemies really are out to get you?
The question can be asked regarding all parties, the U.S., Iran and Israel. Iran can now use the revelation of this information to prove to the world how there is a conspiracy aimed at their efforts. Israel and the U.S. can declare how this shows the secretive ambitions of Iran towards a weapon, which, if obtained, would be used to commit a nuclear holocaust against Israel.
There is no firm concept of Nuclear Deterrent nor Detente developed between Israel and its declared enemies, such as Iran. The path of diplomacy pursued between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War may, or may not, apply.
This leads to a situation where the limits of covert, or even overt military actions, are not clearly delineated. How far is too far? What might happen if Iran is let to get a weapon? Could they be trusted to not give it to an extremist organization, or use it on a nuclear-armed missile?
Contingency plans and scenarios then need to begin considerations: what happens if the worst-possible imaginings begin to play out?
Given the high-levels of genuine concern by Israel and the United States, there has been efforts for years to prevent the “unthinkable.” A nuclear weapon falling into the hands of Iran.
At the same time, Iran, knowing this exclusionary desire of Israel and the United States—the policy to prevent an Iranian nuclear capacity—has done all it can to make its program immune from external shoaling.
Prospects for Iranian Uranium
For a moment, let’s consider the anathema: Iran gets a nuclear weapon. Back in 2003, Time covered the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The new discoveries could destabilize a region already dangerously on edge in anticipation of war in Iraq. Israel — which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear plant in Osirak in a 1981 raid — is deeply alarmed by the developments. "It's a huge concern," says one Israeli official. "Iran is a regime that denies Israel's right to exist in any borders and is a principal sponsor of Hezbollah. If that regime were able to achieve a nuclear potential it would be extremely dangerous." Israel will not take the "Osirak option" off the table, the official says, but "would prefer that this issue be solved in other ways."Yet what if an “Osirak option” fails to prevent the development of nuclear weapons?
Immediately, Iran has at least a limited nuclear deterrence against Israel. It may eventually threaten to, or actually use, nuclear weapons against Israel. It is also developing long-range missiles, though there is lively debate as to whether they could reach European targets. The Atlantic Monthly ran a strategic simulation in 2004 to see what options present themselves to the U.S. to prevent Iranian nuclear capabilities. The results were not encouraging of interventionism.
So this is how the war game turned out: with a finding that the next American President must, through bluff and patience, change the actions of a government whose motives he does not understand well, and over which his influence is limited. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," Sam Gardiner said of his exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work."To prevent the prospects of a nuclear-armed Iran, or counter such a “game changer” in the world of geopolitics, the United States, Israel, and other nations may mount a more formal pro-Western coalition acting to curb Iran. Such a coalition could include EU members (Turkey, Italy, even Germany) and/or Asian nations, such as India, concerned with the range of Iranian missiles capable of striking their cities. Such a coalition may take preemptive measures if diplomacy fails.
The Nation that Cried Wolf
What has cloudied much of the discussion has been the Bush administration’s bungled handling of Iraq. Exagerated, overblown, and, at times, fabricated threats of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) in Iraq inured the world to concern. The U.S. became the “boy who cried wolf.” The American public, skeptical following the revelations of fabrication and politicization of intelligence information, wouldn’t believe genuine concerns of intelligence analysts. Furthermore, the investigation into failures of the intelligence community missing the actual, provable conspiracy which led to the 9/11 attacks lowered public trust.
While many people around the world live their lives day-to-day without concern for the situation, there have been many arguments on various public and private levels, “What do we do about it?”
Singing That Great Old Classic
Some who hold a hawkish position turned their views into a song, parodying the Beach Boy’s classic Barbara Anne. The first to do so were Vince Vance and the Valiants, who released their 1980 classic Bomb Iran during the Iranian hostage crisis. It was purportedly the most requested song on the radio that year across the United States.
What people forget was, while the United States never bombed Iran, the U.S. did support Saddam Hussein, who, on 22 September 1980, while the U.S. elections were in full swing, conducted his invasion of Iran. He bombed Iran for his own reasons, yet it also served the visceral satisfaction of many Americans wanting payback for the U.S. embassy hostage crisis. Such popular sentiments across the nation fueled the election of Ronald Reagan.
During the entire length of the Reagan presidency, Saddam Hussein benefited from U.S. support, from satellite intelligence, conventional weapons, chemical weapons, biological warfare samples, and dual-use technology. There was even direct U.S. and Iranian combat. At the same time, the United States clandestinely sold weapons parts to Iran as part of the Iran-Contra scandal. U.S. policy can be summed up by Ed Juchniewicz, quoted in Charlie Wilson’s War: “We didn't want either side to have the advantage. We just wanted them to kick the shit out of each other.” (George Crile, Charlie Wilson's War, 2003, Grove Press, p. 275)
Fast forward to 2007, and one can hear John McCain singing that timeless classic, “Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran.” Such a rendition, and the laughter of the audience, made newspaper headlines and radio reports. Yet it concerned many on the left, and even at the highest levels of intelligence and policy experts. If we bombed Iran, where would that lead us? What was the price of opening that populist can of worms?
The song is now broadly used by the left, the right, and anyone with a sense of absurdist or cynical humor. Paul Shanklin, who leans towards the right, made a full parody song, as did Adam Kontras, and William Tong, leaning to the left. It was also sung by anti-war protesters at the RNC in September 2008. The lyrics shift between renditions to either support, or make absurd, the prospects of war with Iran.
Be Careful What You Wish For
If the United States and/or Israel went to war with Iran, what would happen?
The Atlantic Monthly article of 2004 was the clearest published consideration of the topic. Any attempts by the U.S. to build up an adequate force to deal with Iran—a nation of 70 million people—would be easily observed by Iranian leaders. This could lead to pre-emptive terrorist strikes on the United States, either domestically or internationally, by an Iran backed into a corner. Terrorism would rise in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other locations, fueled by Iranian support, since the Iranian regime would have no reason to hold back. Such analysis was further reiterated by a Time magazine report in 2006.
Any attempts to bomb Iran would drive their nuclear program underground. Any ability for the IAEA to monitor their progress would immediately evaporate. Destabilization would occur in the present conflicts adjacent to Iran on both sides, and, once that occurred, the toss of the dice does not show any winning odds, no matter what comes up.
Yet, again, what would the costs be for such a war? What price would any sort of “victory” entail? A quick strike at Iranian nuclear facilities could be mounted for a many billions of dollars. Seymour Hersh wrote and spoke in April 2006 that certain members of the United States government were, at that time, considering to launch nuclear weapons if need be, to avert an Iranian nuclear weapon. As Wolf Blitzer quoted Hersh in an interview for CNN: “The lack of reliable intelligence leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites,” the nuclear sites in Iran, “little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons. Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap.”
From there, things get messy. All sorts of scenarios lead from that. International terrorism. A conventional war requiring invasion of Iran, and the further destabilization of the Middle East and all of South Asia.
So what would a conventional war with Iran cost the United States?
BLITZER: The British foreign secretary, Jack Straw, was asked earlier today about this nuclear option, if you will, to deal with Iran's potential nuclear program. ... He didn't mince any words: "[The idea of a nuclear strike on Iran is] completely nuts" in his words. You want to react to that?
HERSH: Well, what he didn't say -- he didn't deny that there's serious planning about the military strike is the point. I mean, he's absolutely right about a nuclear option, but there is serious planning for a conventional war.
Iran is a nation of 636,000 square miles (1.648 million square km), and a population estimated variably between 65 million (2008 CIA World Factbook), to 70.49 million people (Statistical Centre of Iran, 2007), to 71.2 million (Population Reference Bureau, mid-2007). Though the actual population is difficult to ascertain with certainty, it is clearly far larger than the combination of both neighboring nations Afghanistan (647k sq km, 32.7 million population) and Iraq (437k sq km, 28.2 million population).
A war with Iran, would, therefore seem to require as much again as we committed to invading and occupying those two nations, right? Not at all.
Economically, politically, and militarily, Iran is in a far different situation than Iraq or Afghanistan were in when we invaded those countries. It is far healthier economically, having the 18th largest GDP in the world. Politically, while there are both peaceful and violent separatist and opposition movements against the hardline government of Iran, they are nowhere near the scale of the forces that opposed Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the factions that were infighting in Afghanistan during their civil war.
Iraq, when invaded, had been suffering from the military interdictions of the northern and southern No Fly Zones and economic sanctions levied in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and the Kurdish and Shiite uprisings. For well over a decade it had been suffering the withering deterioration of its military and civil infrastructure. Afghanistan was in even worse shape, having never fully recovered from its occupation under the Soviet Union and its protracted civil war.
Iran has instead been enjoying a period of relative peace and prosperity ever since the end of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. Its military of 545,000 can also draw upon another roughly 400,000 reservists. If need be, Iran is prepared to call upwards of a million, to possibly 12 million to defend the nation.
The Iranians mostly have defensive plans, considering responses and strategies against an aerial bombardment by cruise missiles, aircraft, and drones, or, possibly, a large-scale invasion. Yet it also has more modest plans to wage and even win an offensive war against U.S. military forces in neighboring states via irregular means. Their doctrine is centered around national defense, but also considers the failure of the United States to be able to maintain long-term presence at the present rate of expenditure. If invaded, they hope to make Iran as painful and costly a place to invade as they can imagine it. After they were invaded, Iran retook land from Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Similarly, a lot of their strategy now is based on getting hit hard, and then recovering. Iran is hoping to make itself as unattractive as possible to foreign expeditions. Eventually they would rise up and reconsolidate their holdings. Perhaps even expand their territories given a power vacuum in neighboring states.
Ever since the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been preparing for a U.S. attack to overthrow their regime. Their offenses are at best limited to the threat of irregular invasion and alliance with forces unfriendly to the U.S. in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, the exportation of arms for the conduct of terrorist tactics, and the denial of oil to destabilize the world market.
The costs to invade Iran would be four fold, in increasing levels of commitment towards full-scale war with Iran:
- the containment of its small arms/light weapons (SALW) insurgency support and terrorism exportation capability (arming Hezbollah, Iraqi and Afghani groups, etc.)
- the destruction of its WMD creation capability (uranium and missile production, chemical weapons)
- the invasion and defeat of its standing military forces in detail
- the occupation of Iran during a period of socio-political change
WMD Disposal: The second level is difficult without both air and ground operations. It might even require tactical nuclear weapons to get deep bunkers. Requirement: Hundreds of thousands of U.S. military personnel waging a 3-12 month air and special forces campaign to eradicate Iranian WMD facilities. Cost: $50-200 billion. Benefit: Sets back Iranian WMD production capacity by 5+ years. Problem: Unless root causes of animosity are addressed, they can always rebuild capacity.
Defeat in Detail: This operation would not necessarily be as easy to accomplish as the march on Baghdad. During World War II, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom invaded Iran and conquered it in a month. This is the type of war the U.S. is best prepared for, in terms of strategy and doctrine, known as “third generational war.” Large-scale movements. Divisions and corps-level operations. The U.S. was able to defeat the army of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War because it was not alone. A coalition of nearly one million troops of enormous capability devastated the Iraqi forces, which were approximately 545,000 troops (the same number as Iran has today). In 2003, the U.S. was able to make bold moves against the Iraqi military because it was a shadow of its former self. It melted before them as they advanced. Some forces fought, yet many broke and ran. The odds were about 290,000 U.S. and UK, 70,000 Kurds, with about 4,000 other allied troops, against 375,000 Iraqis — roughly about even in terms of numbers, though greatly disparate in terms of equipment and preparedness. To tackle Iran would require a force somewhere about these numbers. The invasion might take anywhere between one month to one year, depending on how many parts of Iran the U.S. wished to attack to destroy war-fighting capacities of defending units. Requirements: Between 300,000 to 1 million troops. Cost: $60 billion (for a quick and bloody assault, followed by withdrawal) - $1 trillion (for one year’s operations for a million troops). Benefits: Nullifies the Iranian army as an effective fighting force for years. Problem: Unleashes a guerrilla warfighting infrastructure designed for protracted civil defense which could draw the U.S. in for years.
Occupation: This is the long-term prospect of any invasion bent on regime change. It could take as long as Afghanistan and Iraq have taken. About a decade, all told, for the situation to meander to an end. Requirements: Between 300,000 to 1 million troops. Cost: $300 billion - $1 trillion for one year’s operations; $3-10 trillion for a decade’s operations. Benefits: Ideally provides pro-Western regime change in Iran. Problem: May not provide desired pro-Western regime. May lead to failed state, corruption, and humanitarian disaster. Could bankrupt the United States. Could lead to underground operations producing nuclear or chemical terrorism.
None of these options are particularly attractive to either Tehran or Washington. Which means that, given the right circumstances, both nations might be interested in de-escalations of rhetoric after decades of belligerence. Israel, however, is another matter.
A Superpower in Search of a Policy
Because of implicit long-term distrust between Iran and the United States, dating back to the 1979 Iranian revolution, no diplomacy is considered reliable. Iranian relations towards Israel are in even worse shape. Therefore, right now the United States is doing the equivalent of head-scratching towards Iran. What is to be done?
There is indeed a clear national policy towards Iran, as outlined in the 2005 Statement before the Foreign Relations Committee by R. Nicholas Burns of the State Department. Yet that position paper does not meet with effective action in terms of diplomacy. The “Freedom Deficit” of Iran has not closed significantly since 2005. Nor have U.S.-Iranian relations thawed to any degree. The U.S. has no clearly-expressed strategy regarding Iranian nuclear power besides a general aversion to the possibility and taking steps for prevention with European allies. What happens if Iran gets a bomb? Very few public statements exist that deal with such contingency.
Possibilities for deterrence and detente are subjects for discussion. It worked with the Soviet Union and China during the Cold War. We would have to see if the same rules of national survival and preservation apply to an Islamic republic.
The opportunity for the new Obama administration is to set a new course for U.S.-Iranian foreign relations. “We are going to have to take a new approach,” the President-elect has been quoted as saying. What that approach is, other than opening the door to negotiations, is unclear. Yet the stakes have never been higher.
Here is a video by JustForeignPolicy.org regarding the history, and the possibility, of U.S.-Iranian relations.