The prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons is frightening. But the consequences of attacking Iran are unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable

MICHAEL PETROU December 10 2007


The prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons is frightening. But the consequences of attacking Iran are unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable

MICHAEL PETROU December 10 2007



The prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons is frightening. But the consequences of attacking Iran are unpredictable, and possibly uncontrollable


For anyone who hoped that U.S.

President George W. Bush would use his final year or so in office to quietly ease into retirement—satisfied with launching two major military campaigns—this has been a disappointing summer and fall. Despite ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the prospect of a third one to be fought with Iran over its nuclear program is real and growing.

Iran was a charter member of the axis of evil—defined as such, along with Iraq and North Korea, in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. Bush has since dealt with Iraq, and no longer says much about North Korea. But rhetorical sabre-rattling regarding Iran has been increasing ever since May, when Vice-President Dick Cheney stood on the deck of an American aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf and renewed America’s pledge to stop Iran going nuclear. “With two carrier strike groups in the Gulf, we’re sending a clear message to friends and adversaries alike,” Cheney said. “We’ll stand with others to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons and dominating the region.”

Since then, Washington has announced new sanctions against Iran’s Revolutionary

Guard Corps and officially declared its elite Quds force a supporter of terrorism. Bush himself said in August that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens to put the Middle East “under the shadow of a nuclear holocaust,” and then, in October, raised the stakes for the prospect of a global war. “If Iran had a nuclear weapon, it’d be a dangerous threat to world peace,” he said. “So I told people that if you’re interested in avoiding World War Three, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon.” Possible successors to Bush in both the Democratic and Republican parties sound just as hawkish. Hillary Rodham Clinton said: “We cannot, we should not, we must not permit Iran to build or acquire nuclear weapons.” Her rival Barack Obama will not rule out military force, noting that while strikes on Iran would be problematic, “having a radical Muslim theocracy in possession of nuclear weapons is worse.” As for Republican contenders, Rudy Giuliani has also vowed to stop Iran from going nuclear. And John McCain became a star on YouTube after singing an improvised ditty about bombing the country. “I think there is a very serious chance of conflict in the

next several years,” says Bruce Riedel, who was a member of a CIA task force during the Islamic revolution in Iran and subsequent hostage crisis, and later worked on the file while a member of the National Security Council during three presidential administrations.

Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful—a claim the United Nations nuclear watchdog has been unable to verify due to Iran’s history of obfuscation. Most Western governments believe the program is geared toward developing nuclear weapons. The fact that the program has been so thoroughly concealed suggests this is the case, says Jeremy Stocker, an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in England. “Frankly, the only reason for doing that is if it is a nuclear weapons program,” he told Maclean’s.

For now, there remains the possibility that Iran might be dissuaded from acquiring nuclear weapons through some combination of diplomacy and sanctions. But the window is closing and eventually—perhaps within only a couple of years—George W. Bush or his successor will face a stark decision: allow Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, or use force to stop it.

The case for bombing Iran seems compelling. Iran supports militias and terrorist groups in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories and Iraq, as part of its larger goal of dominating the Middle East. It has also been


linked to globe-spanning acts of terror, such as the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community centre in Buenos Aires. The greatest fear is that Iran would place nuclear material in the hands of terrorists, who would then carry out attacks against Western targets.

While horrific to contemplate, the chances of this occurring are not high. By passing on nuclear material to a third party, Iran would lose control over what it is used for, but would be unlikely to escape responsibility and retribution. “I would never discount it, but I think the threats of nuclear terrorism are often overblown,” Stocker says.

This does not change the fact that a nuclear Iran would greatly empower its terrorist proxies. “When it comes to the war on terror, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a game-changing event,” says lian Berman, vice-president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, a Washington think tank. “Since Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, the groups that it supports—Hezbollah, Palestinian [Islamic] Jihad, Hamas— will behave differently when they have a

nuclear umbrella. We would not be able to recognize the region we’re operating in. It’s not a very nice region to begin with. But it would create an opportunity for the region to become far less hospitable to U.S. interests or Western interests over the next decade.” Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for Israel to be wiped off the map. For the Jewish state, even though it possesses its own nuclear weapons, a nuclear-armed Iran is seen as an existential threat. Former CIA officer Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, has discussed the issue with “very senior” Israeli military and intelligence officials. He says there is a broad consensus among Israelis that it is better to attack Iran

than let it go nuclear. “The Israelis aren’t going to just sit back and let it happen,” he says.

Some influential Americans believe the United States shouldn’t sit back either. Norman Podhoretz, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2004 and is now a foreign policy adviser to Rudy Giuliani, compares current diplomacy with Iran to the appeasement of Nazi Germany during the 1930s. The “plain and brutal truth is that iflran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of military force—any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938,” he wrote in a recent essay.

A nuclear Iran would also destabilize the Middle East in other ways. Arab countries in the region, such as Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, whose citizens are for the most part Sunni Muslims, already resent and fear the rising power of Iran, whose population is largely Persian and follows the Shia brand of Islam. (This week’s Middle East summit in Annapolis, Md., involving Israel and most

members of the Arab League, has been billed as a chance to jump-start a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, but it is also aimed at building an informal alliance against Iran.) Should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, its regional rivals will likely try to follow suit. “What you could do in effect is start a nuclear arms race,” Riedel says.

lian Berman at the American Foreign Policy Council says that U.S. policy toward Iran is governed by three overriding goals: that Iran does not acquire weapons of mass destruction; that it does not sponsor terrorism; and that it does not undermine moves toward peace between Israelis and Palestinians. “Does Iran become closer or further away from those goals as a result of nuclear acquisition?” Berman asks. “My feeling is that it gets further away.”

The United States still has non-violent options, such as sanctions and “economic warfare” to pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program, Berman says. But he believes America must be ready and willing to use force: “Eventually, if it comes down to it, this is the world’s most dangerous regime. Do you want it to have the world’s most dangerous weapon? I would argue probably not.”

It is a disturbing scenario—a nuclear arms race in the Middle East; emboldened terrorist proxies; and a country that has pledged to wipe Israel off the map now armed with the means to make good on its threat. The U.S., and indeed much of the world, has good reason to stop this from happening. But can an attack on Iran succeed?

John Sigler is a retired U.S. Navy admiral who recently served at United States Central Command, where his responsibilities included strategic planning for major theatre war. He is not permitted to reveal the details of his work, but he has since written about military options in a war with Iran.

A full invasion and occupation of Iran would require hundreds of thousands of troops. Given the strain that U.S. forces are under in Iraq and Afghanistan, this option is simply not feasible. A military strike against Iran would be designed to damage or destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons capability, rather than

overthrowing its government, as was the goal in Iraq. But even this more limited goal is fraught with obstacles. Sigler says the Iranian regime has learned from a 1981 Israeli air strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq, which was successfully destroyed. The Iranians have hidden and dispersed their nuclear production facilities, making their nuclear program that much harder to hit.

“It is problematic,” Sigler told Maclean’s. “To get at all the elements of it, including the brain power behind it—the key people who

understand this kind of technology and can make it work—would be extremely difficult.” Nevertheless, Sigler believes that a combination of air strikes and special forces missions, launched over a period of six to 12 days, “could set the program back a year or two or three.”

The damage would not be permanent. Damaged facilities can be rebuilt, and the knowledge thus far acquired by Iranian scientists cannot be negated unless they are captured or killed. Moreover, based on the example of the Israeli raid, Iran would intensify its nuclear efforts. “Osirak would be considered a brilliant tactical and operational success by any measures, but there is a big argument whether it was a strategic success or not,” Sigler says. “In fact, there’s pretty ample proof that the result of that attack was that Saddam increased his efforts to have a nuclear program.”

If the United States does launch strikes against Iran, however, it will have more immediate concerns than a renewed Iranian nuclear program a few years down the road. “The problem is, once you’ve gone ahead and attacked a country like Iran, then you’re effectively at war,” says Jeremy Stocker at the Royal United Services Institute. “You’ve just made your position in Afghanistan and Iraq immeasurably more difficult, never mind the Persian Gulf and the whole issue of oil supplies.”

Iran has a variety of means to retaliate against the U.S. and its allies—what John Sigler calls a “large kit bag of asymmetric responses, including terrorism.” It would likely strike at Israel through its proxy Hezbollah and possibly Hamas. It could also hit American troops in Afghanistan and Iraq— using its own forces, or through proxies in

Iraq’s Shia south. In other words, the United States might initiate a strike on Iran believing it was investing in a week or two of air strikes, but soon find itself embroiled in a much larger conflict with a regional power. “I think the military option is a horrible idea,” says Riedel. “Buying a year or two reprieve at the cost of a war from the Mediterranean to the Khyber Pass seems to me to be a pretty bad trade-off.”

Proponents of pre-emptive military strikes can argue—correctly—that Iran is already supporting proxies that attack American and other coalition troops in Iraq. But Riedel believes it could get much worse. “I don’t think we’ve seen the Iranians, particularly in Iraq, take the gloves off,” he says. “They’ve sent a signal. What they’ve not said to the Iraqi Shias is, ‘Rise up and go get the Americans.’ That would be a profoundly difficult problem for the U.S. militarily to deal with—

in part because we don’t have troops in most of the southern half of the country. And yet we’re dependent on our logistics. Everything that we eat and drink in Baghdad and beyond comes up the road from Kuwait City, right through 10 million Shias. And if those 10 million Shias became really actively opposed to our presences, we would find ourselves in a very, very difficult position.”

Any strike on Iran would therefore need to anticipate Iran’s response and try to mitigate it. “The logic is that if you are indeed going to attack Iran, you should attack them sufficient to knock out their retaliatory capability, which means this is unlikely to be a pinpoint operation,” says Rosemary Hollis, director of research at the London think tank Chatham House. “You would stand to kill a lot of Iranians.”

This touches on what is perhaps the most serious repercussion of military strikes on Iran—how Iranians themselves would react. Winston Churchill once described Russia as a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Bruce Riedel sees Iran in a similar fashion.

“Iran is a black hole,” he says. “It’s an extremely difficult country for outsiders to understand, and I think it’s an extremely difficult situation for Iranians to understand.”

Iran is a country where, on the one hand, religious police prowl the streets berating women who are “immodestly” dressed, dissent is crushed, and liberal professors are purged from universities to make way for more Islamic instructors. On the other hand, much of the population is young and proWestern. And liberal Iranians, often students in their teens and twenties, have shown formidable bravery protesting to demand basic rights and freedoms that are denied to them in a religious dictatorship.

Trying to figure out which of these two Irans is ascendant has bedevilled Western policy-makers for years. What is almost certain, however, is that American military strikes against Iran would do deep and lasting dam-

age to the Iranian reform movement and would likely strengthen the hand of President Ahmadinejad and other hard-liners.

“If there is a military strike, Ahmadinejad and his group will be definitely very, very strong,” says Saeed Rahnema, a political scientist at York University who left Iran in 1984 because he and his wife opposed the Islamic revolution. “He will be there. He will be much, much stronger. Even those who are against him will rally support. Even the secular ones who are not with the religious establishment, who are very critical of him, they will also stay with him. They feel that Iran is in danger. And of course there is a lot of nationalist sentiment. People would feel that this is their country. They know what happened in Iraq. That was the end of a nation, the way it was demolished.”

According to Robert Hunter, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now a senior adviser at the RAND Corp. think tank, Ahmadinejad knows external hostility causes Iranians to rally around their president, and he plays international relations to this end. “Any time he’s having trouble,” Hunter notes, “he says the Holocaust didn’t exist, or Israel is a nono. And we, like a trout to the fly, jump at that. And we say or do things that Ahmadinejad laughs at all the way to the bank.”

If bombing Iran is not a good option for stopping Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons, what is?

The unfortunate reality is that there are no easy answers. Some believe that Iran can be forced to give up its nuclear program through sanctions and diplomatic pressure. Others argue that “engaging” Iran would produce results, if the United States offered Iran security guarantees so that it didn’t feel the need to get nuclear weapons to ensure its own protection.

Such tactics might work, but there is little reason for optimism. Iran has powerful friends, such as Russia and China, who would not support a global economic crackdown. And despite recent meetings between American and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq, the bellicose rhetoric emanating from both Washington and Tehran makes the prospects of a real diplomatic breakthrough slim.

A third option, unpalatable but perhaps inevitable, is to plan for a nuclear-armed Iran. Such a strategy would be built on a policy of deterrence and containment, similar to that pursued during the Cold War by the United States regarding the Soviet Union and Chinastates that presented a much bigger threat to the West than Iran does today.

There are drawbacks to a strategy of deterrence. Some analysts believe Iran cannot be deterred because it is not “rational,” the way the Soviet Union and China were. This is because Ahmadinejad and others within Iran’s political and religious elite are followers of a branch of Shia Islam that holds that the 12th and final successor to the Prophet Muhammad, the so-called hidden imam, will return to earth at a time of chaos and war—in which case, the fear is, the Iranian leadership would see no reason to avoid a nuclear exchange.

Bruce Riedel dismisses this. “I think Iran would behave like a normal nuclear state,” he says, before adding: “I don’t think that’s terribly reassuring. Normal nuclear states engage in aggressive behaviour, from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the Kargil war in South Asia. But they’re not crazy. They don’t use nuclear weapons because they know nuclear weapons crosses a threshold that leads to mutual assured destruction.”

Even among rational actors, deterrence has its flaws. During the Cold War, the deterrent effect of nuclear weapons prevented the United States and Soviet Union from directly attacking each other. But the two superpowers engaged in many vicious proxy wars. Deterrence is an effective means of avoiding apocalyptic nuclear exchanges; it does little to avoid the kind of low-intensity conflict that is common in the Middle East today.

“There are scores of possible scenarios short of nuclear war that demonstrate that deterrence at the nuclear level does not automatically translate into stability at lower levels of conflict,” writes James Robbins, a professor

of international relations at the National Defense University, in a recent book titled Taking On Tehran. “In fact, it leads to permanent instability as regimes pursue conflict by other means, relying on their nuclear insurance cards to deter the U.S. or any other power from using decisive measures.”

A deterred nuclear Iran is hardly an ideal situation—and yet it is probably the best we can hope for should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons. American political leaders are therefore right to say that all options are on the table when it comes to Iran. Such rhetoric is a necessary part of strong-arm diplomacy. But if and when Iran calls America’s bluff, the United States might be wise to seek further non-military measures to pressure and contain Iran. A nucleararmed Iran would be dangerous, destabilizing, and potentially catastrophic. Bombing Iran could be worse.

There is a final strategic option, which is both difficult and involves a substantial leap of faith—and that is to intensify work with Iranian democrats toward reforming and ultimately democratizing the country. This is a delicate strategy to pursue. Supporting opposition groups within Iran—something the United States is already doing—invites the Islamic regime to tarnish anyone who opposes it as an American spy or stooge.

But there is also evidence that Ahmadinejad’s support is weakening, and he may even be losing the backing of Iran’s religious establishment. His presidency has been a disaster in terms of the economic well-being of most Iranians. And a newspaper closely linked to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, recently said Ahmadinejad was putting Iran in danger because he described people opposed to his nuclear program as traitors. The paper called the president’s behaviour immoral and illegal.

This reporter has travelled widely through Iran and encountered widespread hostility to the ideals of the Islamic revolution and the mullahs who run the country. Many Iranians also expressed admiration for democracy, the Western tradition of separating church and state, and for the United States in general. None said they would welcome American air strikes or an invasion, and it would be foolish to advocate Iraq-style regime change in Iran. But the democratic West has allies among everyday Iranians. These can be cultivated and multiplied through programs as simple as student exchanges.

It will take time for such a strategy to pay dividends, and there is the risk that Iran will go nuclear before it does. But a democratic Iran with nuclear capabilities is far better than a hostile, theocratic Iran seeking to acquire the same. M