Iran On Final Approach, What To Do?

The Bushehr nuclear power plant is in its final development stages.  Russia will fuel the reactor sometime in the next 7 days and commence initial operations.  The plant will produce plutonium as a by product; Iran has “promised” to return spent fuel to Russia for reprocessing.  The checks in the mail, really, I promise.  It is doubtful that Iran possesses the technology to produce their own fuel rods at this point in time so that promise may hold……….for a little while at least.  Yet, enrichment continues; within a hair’s breath of exceeding the red line of 20% enrichment, 19.72% last check with credible reporting.

As long predicted in this space the sentiment that we can “live with” a nuclear Iran is growing.  Iran has deftly manipulated the “international community” to buy the time necessary to achieve this benchmark.  Russia and China have served as willing accomplices based on economic interests and political influence in the region.

Published analysis regarding the Iranian nuclear program is frequently oxymoronic.  Analysis in Foreign Policy Magazine contends that we should not pressure Iran now as our influence will be more significant once they actually have the full scope of their nuclear program in place!  Really? That one sent me scrambling to cancel my subscription. 

Cold War strategies are denigrated at every turn, and yet we hold on to the idea that mutually assured destruction (MAD) will work to restrain Iran.  Ridiculous! MAD depends on rational players, it depends on weapons confined to States, it depends on absolute security related to the release of weapons and it also depends on the fact that your opponent does not maintain an apocalyptic vision of their faith that calls for the manufacture of chaos and crisis.

MAD depends on the idea that putting a weapon in the hands of non-state actors is incomprehensible!  Are we sure Iran would not pursue that strategy?  Are we sure that they can fully secure a potential weapon?  We know they have not been able to secure their nuclear facilities, equipment or personnel.

The discussions of a strike against Iran seem to miss obvious options.  The analysis is almost exclusively focused on striking nuclear facilities.  That option becomes more difficult by many factors of 10 once the nuclear plant at Bushehr is operational as the risk of secondary fallout is a clear reality to be avoided.

The typical analysis also considers “blowback” the most serious of which is closure of the Straights of Hormuz, strikes against shipping, rising oil prices, economic dislocation and retaliatory strikes by Hiz’bAllah.  There is also jeopardy of the Iranian demand that terrorist surrogates “get on with it. 

However, what if the initial strike was aimed, not at nuclear facilities but at the Iranian ability to generate the feared blowback?  There is a logic that says if you remove the capabilities that will be used to punish you; you also remove the credibility of Iranian threats.  Talk is cheap when your guns, boats and planes are twisted hulks.  There is little question that these military capabilities could be removed from the chessboard with high probability of success.  Nearly every nation recognizes the distinctions inherent in attacking military facilities versus “civilian” facilities.

Iranian navel resources in the Gulf are limited mostly to small attack craft, Iran is absent blue water Navy capabilities.  Military facilities located on off shore Iranian islands are present, but their use would likely be effective only in a surprise attack.  Iranian Air Force assets are not significant and could be easily defeated should they make the mistake of going airborne.  Time would be necessary for the small Iranian craft to plant mines assuming they survive a strike and the ability to identify and track them is unquestioned.  The U.S. has already repositioned mine sweeping vessels in the Gulf and primary shipping routes could be cleared in a matter of days based on actual Iranian capabilities.

Hiz’bAllah could be managed with a major Israeli redeployment along the Lebanese and Syrian borders combined with retaliatory strikes on known missile sites and encampments should either move.  Syria will likely not move without the advance cannon fodder of Hiz’bAllah.  Hiz’bAllah and Syria, were they to honor their Iranian agreements, could be forced into a more traditional battle scenario which would work in Israel’s favor.

Of critical importance, is that the pressure, both self imposed and internationally generated on Israel is mitigated.    

A limited attack on military targets may give Syria and Hiz’bAllah pause.  They would have to reach a new calculation; is a limited strike aimed at military capabilities sufficient to gamble our resources on?

The message to Iran would be clear; “no more delay, no more negotiations designed to go nowhere.”  “Yes, we’re serious now and you should be as well.”  “You’ve got three days to come to the table with concessions or the next sets of strikes are coming your way.”

The rhetoric will be inflamed, it already is, has been for years.  The condemnation from the usual suspects will be accompanied with whispers in the dark; “thank you for taking care of those nut jobs.”  Russian and Chinese economic interests are not damaged; in fact they may get to sell Iran more stuff.

The long overdue messages go much further than Iran.  The message would reverse years of failed policy dependant on engagement. The messages?  For North Korea and Syria; there is a price to pay for crossing unacceptable red lines.  We are prepared to walk our talk.  While, diplomatically outmaneuvered by Iran, China and Russia, the final point of diplomatic application is at the end of a gun; it is still a viable option and we are willing to use it to enforce publically stated policy both from ourselves and our beloved Security Council.  For Israel, our traditional commitment to your security remains our policy.  To the Middle East in general, reports of our demise are premature.  To the Russians don’t you dare sell the SA300 missile system to Iran or we’ll do the same to those facilities.  To Europe, “engage this!”                  

No sane person wants all out conflict over a strike on Iranian facilities with questionable odds for full success.  A limited strike, removing the fist that accompanies Iranian rhetoric should make sense to all involved.  No destruction of fragile Iranian infrastructure, no punishment based on attacking oil facilities, no risk of major civilian casualties or of secondary fall out.   

Nothing has worked to stem the tide of the Iranian program.  The Europeans failed, we failed, creative enrichment alternatives have failed, getting Russia and China on board has failed and the U.N. Security Council has failed.  It is hard to imagine a viable diplomatic approach that has not yet been tried. 

There are facts that can be reduced to simple terms.  The Iranian program is dangerous.  They have no reason, yet, to fear international actions.  There has been, to this point, no serious resolve to stop them.  To fail yet again also delivers a set of messages that will resonate for years to come.  Each one of those messages a threat to U.S. and regional security interests.

  • If Israel is threatened I don’t think they’re going to wait for us to hem and haw on the issue. They are going to fight the danger in their backyard since we have the luxury to have some kind of negotiation while we’re still relatively safe from the whackjob and his bombs.

    Either way, massive world unrest and upheaval of the world markets will follow. I could be wrong though, can Russia/China really come to Iran’s defense in this issue?

    These are complex geopolitical questions. Thanks for shedding light on the matter.

  • JD

    Iran has a lot to worry about. Including the politics from within.

  • landreaux

    Nate,

    I think that Russia and China will scream and shout but no military assistance. The standard Kubuki Dance will be in full bloom. If Russian and Chinese economic issues are not harmed by a restriction to military targets they’ll go quiet quickly with a new message in hand.

    I know our professionals do extensive contingency planning, I honestly hope they considered this contingency as low impact and rational.

    The internal opposition has seen an ever growing set of restrictions put on them. It’s temporary, these types of repression usually are……..eventually. It’s just no one knows when eventually will come. If we engage in any strike of any kind absent the capability to communicate our point of view to Iranians we lose no matter how well the military does. They may disagree, but we plant the thought. The dissidents will, if presented with the opportunity, consider the American point of view. They will likely not trust it but a strike followed by information in Farsi could at least cause some questioning.

    We should take every opportunity to fight the war of ideas and we simply don’t.