Options on Iran II

The headline yesterday was “Dealing With Iran a Conundrum for West”:

VIENNA, Austria (AP) – A growing number of countries are backing moves to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions. But with military action all but ruled out and the difficulty of imposing effective sanctions, their tools appear few and flawed.

The main threat for now is referral to the Security Council. But Iran was defiant Friday, vowing to further limit international monitoring of its nuclear activities if hauled before the United Nations.

It was left to some of Tehran’s main critics to tone down the confrontation, with officials from France and Germany saying it was too early to speak of sanctions.

That stance appeared to be a recognition of the lack of unity among the Security Council’s five veto-carrying members, as well as doubts about the effectiveness of economic sanctions, given the world’s thirst for oil.

The United States – the key backer of harsh sanctions against Iran, which it says wants to make nuclear arms – can count on Britain’s backing in the Security Council. France, too, may go along out of frustration with two years of trying – and failing – to persuade Tehran to give up uranium enrichment, a possible pathway to nuclear arms.

But Russia and China, who also have veto power, could prove hard to persuade.

It took a backseat to the Alito confirmation hearings, the daily casualty reports form Iraq, and President Bush’s meeting with newly-elected German Chancellor Angela Merkel but probably the most important story of last week was the collapse of talks between the “EU 3” (Britain, France, and Germany) and Iran on Iran’s nuclear development program. Here’s an excerpt from the E3/EU statement issued on Thursday:

Iran‘s decision to restart enrichment activity is a clear rejection of the process the E3/EU and Iran have been engaged in for over two years with the support of the international community. In addition it constitutes a further challenge to the authority of the IAEA and international community. We have, therefore, decided to inform the IAEA Board of Governors that our discussions with Iran have reached an impasse.

The Europeans have negotiated in good faith. Last August we presented the most far reaching proposals for co-operation with Europe in the political, security and economic fields that Iran has received since the Revolution. These reaffirmed Iran‘s rights under the NPT and included European support for a strictly civilian nuclear programme in Iran, as well as proposals that would have given Iran internationally guaranteed supplies of fuel for its nuclear power programme.


This is not a dispute between Iran and Europe, but between Iran and the whole international community. Nor is it a dispute about Iran’s rights under the NPT. It is about Iran’s failure to build the necessary confidence in the exclusively peaceful nature of its nuclear programme. Iran continues to challenge the authority of the IAEA Board by ignoring its repeated requests and providing only partial co-operation to the IAEA. It is important for the credibility of the NPT and the international non-proliferation system generally, as well as the stability of the region, that the international community responds firmly to this challenge.

Hat tip: American Future

The short version is Iran is developing nuclear weapons, possession of nuclear weapons by Iran is not a tolerable option, there isn’t a great deal we can do about it, and what’s been done by the West to date has been almost completely ineffectual.

In order to come up to speed on the history of Iran’s nuclear development program you should check out NTI (Nuclear Threat Initiative). NTI is headed by former Senator Sam Nunn of Georgia (whom I much admire) and at the link you’ll find an impeccably sourced chronology of Iran’s nuclear development program from the 1950’s to the present. For a sketch of the developments of the last two years see here. It’s too long to include and impossible to excerpt.

That Iran, despite the official denials, is developing nuclear weapons is hardly to be doubted. Paula A. DeSutter, U. S. State Department Assistant Secretary for Verification and Compliance succinctly summarized it this way:

Iran’s attempts to explain why it needs an indigenous nuclear fuel cycle are simply not credible. We are being asked to believe that Iran needs to have the ability to mine, process, and enrich uranium for reactors that do not yet exist and that it is necessary to support its domestic power needs. Yet Iran does not have enough indigenous uranium resources to fuel even one reactor over its lifetime. Moreover, it burns off enough gas at its wellheads to generate electricity equivalent to the output of four Bushehr-type reactors. Finally, and most importantly, if there were truly “peaceful and transparent” reasons for Iran’s acquisition of these technologies, why would Iran hide these activities from the IAEA? In fact, the IAEA only learned of the many hidden Iranian nuclear facilities when the rest of the world heard about it in the press leading to a rigorous IAEA investigation that revealed a range of Iranian nuclear safeguards violations and failures. We and many other countries, fear the consequences of waiting for another press report to further reveal the extent of Iran’s attempts to develop a nuclear weapon.

There are plenty of reasons that it’s credible that Iran would want nuclear weapons:

  • Possession of nuclear weapons gives the regime leverage it would not otherwise have.
  • Possession of nuclear weapons increases Iran’s prestige in the Middle East.
  • Possession of nuclear weapons is an insurance policy against invasion by the United States.
  • Possession of nuclear weapons provides a deterrent against attack by Israel which is presumed to have nuclear weapons.

This last “balance of power” notion seems to me particularly farfetched: I don’t recall Israel ever threatening Iran directly but Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel:

Iran yesterday defiantly showed off six of its new ballistic missiles daubed with anti-US and anti-Israel slogans in a move sure to reinforce international concern over the nature of its nuclear programme.

At the climax of a military parade marking the outbreak of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, the enormous Shehab-3 missiles were rolled out painted with the messages, “We will crush America under our feet’ and “Israel must be wiped off the map.”

There are also perfectly good reasons to consider Iran’s possession of nuclear weapons a threat:

  • Iranian officials have publicly speculated about the acceptability of a nuclear exchange with Israel (I can’t put my hands on the citation for this but I remember it vividly).
  • The United States has a substantial military deployment in Iraq—within easy striking distance of Iran—that could potentially be at risk.
  • Iran’s ties to terrorism are well-known and there’s concern about the likelihood of an Iranian nuclear weapon making its way into the hands of a terrorist who might use the weapon against the United States or Israel.

Not everyone believes this last is a genuine threat. Daniel L. Byman of The Brookings Institution notes:

Yet despite Iran’s very real support for terrorism today, I contend that it is not likely to transfer chemical, biological, nuclear, or radiological weapons to terrorists for three major reasons. First, providing terrorists with such unconventional weapons offers Iran few tactical advantages as these groups are able to operate effectively with existing methods and weapons. Second, Iran has become more cautious in its backing of terrorists in recent years. And third, it is highly aware that any major escalation in its support for terrorism would incur U.S. wrath and international opprobrium.

My concerns are somewhat different than those addressed by Dr. Byman. First, I’m concerned about any unstable regime’s possession of nuclear weapons and I consider the current Iranian regime unstable. Who knows what could become of an Iranian nuclear arsenal as the regime collapsed regardless of what the regime’s official policy was? Second, I don’t have much confidence in the Iranian regime’s ability to control its own members or to control its own nuclear arsenal. As long as they have nuclear weapons and anyone who has access to them has the will to injure the United States or Israel it seems to me it’s not an acceptable risk. Third, does the current Iranian regime really care about “international opprobrium”? What is the value of the opprobrium in Euros? And, of course, “U. S. wrath” against Iran hasn’t done much for the last 25 years or so.

What, then, are the alternatives for halting Iran’s development of nuclear weapons? As I see it in increasing degree of severity a number of alternatives are available:

  • Moral suasion alone.

    This appears to be the course of action that the EU3 have undertaken so far and, to the best of my ability to determine, it has had little if any effect. I can’t see how this approach can ever be particularly effective in dealing with any regime that is really determined to follow its present course of action. Swaying public opinion is more effective in influencing democrats than it is in deterring autocrats.

  • Moves aimed at strengthening the current regime.

    This might seem counter-intuitive but, if your concern is as mine is with the vagaries of an unstable regime, then one way of dealing with the problem would be to help the regime maintain control. Measures might include non-aggression pacts, de-militarizing the areas adjacent to Iran, aid, closer diplomatic ties, and abandoning the rhetoric of democratization.

    The problems, of course, with doing any of these things are that the current regime is truly heinous, we have little assurance as to their good faith, and doing this would undermine what the Bush Administration has been trying to do in the Middle East. But it does bear mentioning for the sake of completeness.

  • Condemnation by the U. N. Security Council.

    I expect that this will be the next move. I also believe that it’s about as much as the Russians and Chinese will tolerate and not nearly enough to motivate the Iranians. Cf. my comment above about democrats and autocrats.

  • Limited sanctions by the U. N. Security Council.

    By this I mean some limitations on trade but not a complete cessation. I can’t imagine anything but the most namby-pamby of sanctions being approved by Russia, China, and France and I can’t imagine such sanctions having any effect.

  • U. N. Security Council-led boycott.

    I believe in my own Pollyanna-ish way that this is one measure short of war that could actually work. Completely cutting Iran off from foreign trade would make things miserable enough in Iran that the Iranian people would overthrow the regime. I also believe it’s impossible since China and Japan get much of their oil from Iran. If the boycott is porous, it would be ineffectual. It’ll never happen.

  • Announcement of an official policy of regime change in Iran and associated support for opposition groups in Iran.

    This measure, similar to the position taken towards Iraq under the Clinton Administration in 1999, is something that should have been done five years ago. There isn’t enough time now for measures in this vein to prevent the mullahs from developing nuclear weapons and it would probably motivate them to accelerate their efforts if possible.

  • Blockade.

    This is well within our abilities and uses resources that aren’t already committed. It wouldn’t make us any friends in Europe or Asia for the reasons mentioned above. Once again it could be effective but it will never happen.

  • Special forces raids on nuclear development facilities.

    Iran has a large number of nuclear development facilities cf. here and they can be presumed to be both hardened and guarded. There will be casualties in such an operation. Is this politically possible under the current circumstances? Do we know where all the Iranian nuclear development facilities are?

    IMO this is much more possible for Israel than it is for the United States right now. I believe they have the political will to do it. The connections made between the Kurds in northern Iraq and the Israelis are highly suggestive in this regard. Are the Israelis establishing forward bases for such an operation?

  • Bombing of nuclear development facilities.

    This is what a lot of people are talking about right now. Clearly, we have the ability to do it. I doubt that we have the political will under the present circumstances.

    There’s also been discussion of the Israelis conducting such an operation. I doubt that this will happen for a number of reasons. First, examine a map. Re-fueling issues aside, Israel simply can’t get to Iran without crossing the airspace of one or more of the following countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, Russia. I can’t imagine them getting the go-ahead. In addition we have effective control of the airspace over the Gulf. Consequently, Israel needs at least our tacit approval before conducting such a raid. As I see it that means that there’ll be the same political costs for U. S. complicity as there would be for a U. S. raid.

    I’ve also expressed my concern that the amount of civilian damage caused by such bombing raids would be enormously greater than anticipated.

    Source of graphic: Stratfor

  • Invasion in force.

    This was war-gamed some time ago and the results were reported in The Atlantic Monthly in December 2003. The article has disappeared behind their firewall but the associated Powerpoint presentation is still available. I commented about it here. The Reader’s Digest version is that it’s unworkable. Iran is bigger than Iraq and hasn’t been softened up by a destructive war and ten years of sanctions. The counter-argument is that all you need to do is a decapitation and the Iranians will take care of the rest themselves. That’s what they said about Iraq.

In my predictions for 2006 I said that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon in 2006 and we wouldn’t do much about it. I’m sticking to that.

Over the Christmas holidays I had a conversation on the subject of Iran with my very bright brother-in-law in which I was reminded that lots of people make little distinction among things that are physically impossible (things we can’t do), things that are politically impossible (things that are hard to do), things we shouldn’t do, and things we don’t want to do. They are different and there are quite a few things we can do about Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, it’s not completely clear (at least to me) that we should do any of them, and not one of them is particularly palatable.

UPDATE: Joe Gandelman of The Moderate Voice has a media round-up on the burgeoning crisis and commentary of his own.

30 comments… add one
  • Excellent and well thought out post. I agree with much of what you posted above. If, though, regime change in Iran is a U.S. policy and is actually instituted, there is a chance that by the time we arm enough groups who are willing to overthrow the regime in Iran that they would have acquired a nuclear warhead, assuming of course they don’t already have one. If that happens, the entire country would be in at least temporary turmoil therefore known terrorist groups, those loyal to the ousted regime, suppliers of the black market, etc. would have relatively easy access to these materials. Even if they do not have a nuclear warhead, they would have radioactive material that could be used in a dirty bomb.

    No solution is good, which makes it all the more questioning why the subject of Iran is not the lead story in the U.S. media. It is a top story in England and some parts of Europe however, which is good, but our media is playing the part of the shunned child after no WMDs were found in Iraq after they pumped them up for almost a decade.

  • Tom Powell Link

    “I said that Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon in 2006 and we wouldn’t do much about it. I’m sticking to that.”

    I find it hard to believe that the Bush Administration, given its record, would refuse to act. Even the Europeans, as pacifist as they are, recognize their national interest is severely threatened by a hostile Iran armed with nukes. We will also have the support of Arab governments also, if not the people. Their self-interest demand it.

    If I can venture my own prediction, all the options you listed will be implimented, with the exception of a physical invasion, although not by the same international players. There will be countries out there offering the carrot but I think we’re gearing up for a multiple-vector approach against Iran aimed at changing the regime. It’s not going to be easy or clean, that’s for sure.

  • Ron Link

    Europe is dead. Europe is not part of the equation. If action is taken, it will be by the US or Israel. It will not be Israel.

    If action is taken, it will not be a physical invasion. It will be a staged series of air attacks over a period of time. Targets will not be limited to uranium enrichment facilities, but will include any and all Iranian military targets. Infrastructure, including electric generating and transmission facilities, and oil production, refining, and pipeline/loading facilities will also come under threat. If Iran is attacked, it will be mandatory to reduce Iran’s capacity to counter-attack in any conceivable and meaningful way.

  • All Things Beautiful TrackBack The Rules Of Engagement

  • I don’t recall Israel ever threatening Iran directly but Iran has repeatedly threatened Israel:

    You really are quite absurdly naive when it comes to the MENA region. And ill informed, but no matter.

  • Please, Lounsbury, enlighten me. I’m eager to learn. I’m being sincere.

  • On reflection perhaps I should clarify what I meant. I meant to say “issued an explicit threat”. Without question Iran has issued explicit threats against Israel; has Israel ever done the same against Iran? I would genuinely like to know.

    I think the U. S. has issued some pretty-thinly veiled threats against Iran over the years. The “Axis of Evil” crack comes to mind especially since the invasion of Iraq.

  • Tripp Link

    I think you are little pessimistic in your riposte to Dr. Byman. Your comments are much applicable to Pakistan, which is much more unstable and potentially not in control of its nuclear weapons or even its nuclear weapon industry (see Dr. Khan).

    I think the regime is relatively stable and that the United States has, in the past, responded with appropriate force given Iranian provocation. The hostage rescue mission failed, but it was attempted. The undeclared tanker war led to the devastation of the Iranian navy and was at least partially responsible for the end of the Iran-Iraq war. I don’t think the Iranian leadership is irrational enough not to realize that a nuclear attack would get a nuclear response.

    I think your first two risks are very real, but the third is just a little weak. A coup or failed regime would change that, but again Pakistan is a much bigger risk for that.

  • It’s possible I could be wrong in my assessment of the stability of the Iranian regime, Tripp. One of the virtues of pessimism is that every surprise is a happy one.

    The reasons that I believe the Iranian regime to be unstable is that the economy is deteriorating and they appear to be using an ever-increasing level of repression to maintain their hold. Dissatisfaction with the economy and dissatisfaction with the repression create a positive feedback system—and that’s unstable.

    Again, I could well be wrong.

  • Elrod Link

    One problem with air strikes is that the US doesn’t have any spooks in Iran. We’ve had virtually no contact with that nation since 1979 so we’d have to rely on foreign intelligence to carry out such a strike. Obviously Israel has good intel on Iran, but that would require a degree of open collaboration that might damage our relations with other Arab nations.

    Another fact to consider is the reaction of Iraq’s new Shi’ite government. Many of Iraq’s leaders (not all, mind you) view Iran as the new benefactor of Iraq. Both religious and wartime connections lead people like Abdul Aziz Al-Hakim and even President Jalal Talabani to see Iran as an important ally. Joining an offensive against Iran may seriously complicate the US’s relationship with Iraq. Maybe the Sunni insurgents will become our allies in the next great fight…

  • angela Link

    Given the extent of Irans’ related facilities most serious strategic observers seem to think it unlikely that Israel has the resources to do significant damage.

    It is likely that the Israeli hope is one of those bromides designed to make difficult situations sound easier.

    Our level of intelligence in Iran is rightly unknown, but the records from Iraq and elsewhere gives the public grounds for pessimism. One of the known sources is a bunch of Marxist/Islamic nut s whose leader is the new prophet.

    Currently we have large numbers of troops with supply lines exposed to Shiite militias who often have strong ties to Iran. Military action could unloose a lot of trouble for us in Iraq and the tight world oil supply means the loss of Iranian suppiles and possibly those of southern Iraq along could push prices to crisis levels.

    So there is very real danger. Any attack must be accompanied with patriotic actions of massive conservation such as pushing freeway speeds back down to 55 mph and the rest. Consumption should be cut 10% and ideally 20% or 25%. Our allies already have much tighter systems using half as much energy per dollar of GNP. We are the only ones with much slack to reduce demand to levels that might compensate for the reduction that could accompany war.

    Such actions of sacrifice are completely against the grain of those most likely to urge the waging of war. they believe the proper domestic policy is to cut taxes and urge spending. I’m not talking just the administration here, it reflects the consensus of the right on this issue.

    Similarly beefing up troops and other preparations for a rapid doubling of insurrection in Iraq including government units around the Green Zone is politically disliked because it prepares for problems rather than denying their possibility.

  • angela Link

    Incidently a different but sane view of the nature of the Iranian situation can be found in a number of posts at:


  • angela, I think cernig’s post is a good one but contains some plain errors. First, he takes Iran’s statements about its program at face value too eagerly. The explanations they’ve offered, alone, cannot explain their actions. But either actually having a program for the development of nuclear weapons or wishing to be perceived as having such a program (whether they have one or not) would. See my earlier post The game of rat and dragon for an explanation of why this might be.

    Second, drawing an equivalence between Iran’s regime and the liberal democracies of the West is simply an error. Simply stated the Iranian regime is a thuggish authoritarian oligarchy. If George Bush had executed homosexuals for the crime of being homosexuals or women for having been raped, expelled the Democrats forcibly from Congress and banned the party, and sent gangs of hired foreign thugs into universities to suppress dissent by beating (and in some cases killing) demonstrators and the many other examples of despotic behavior that are quite well-documented, he’d have a point.

    Let me be very clear: I have consistently called into question the advisability of the use of force against Iran in favor of subversion of the mullahocracy and replacement by a more democratic (or at least a sane) one. I also believe that the available evidence strongly suggests that either Iran is developing nuclear weapons or wants to be perceived as doing so.

    I don’t think that very much can (or will) be done at this juncture. I believe that the U. S. should re-state its policy of nuclear deterrence (I’ve written on this subject a number of times).

  • I like it that we believe we have no “spooks” in Iran. Come on…there are probably more pro-American Iranians than there are natural born good ol’ Americans…as you mention, we distract ourselves with stories that are minor in comparison while this is going on…

    [I see “the Lounsbury” never returned after his/her hit-‘n’-run. There oughta be a law…actually there is one: Dymphna’s Law of Common Courtesy, which goes like this (more or less): “If you appear on my post and make an assertion which you do not back up with fact, and further, do not reappear when I request clarification, then you are deleted into the outer darkness that you richly deserve.”]

    Thanks for the excellent graphic and post. I’m not sure I concur with your final conclusion on the subject, though I understand your hesitation here. However, I am less inclined to think they’re crying wolf, which one could infer from your opinion…

  • Never mind the British moron known as “Lounsbury”. It’s largely due to know-it-all British idiots like him that we’re all in this boat to begin with. Go read his site, the smug self-righteousness and the “I’m brilliant!” tone is a real winner.

  • Debra Link

    What I don’t get is why we aren’t furious with China and Russia. It seems to me that the reason they aren’t supporting the west against Iran, N. Korea, etc., (and are in fact supplying materials) is that they love threatening the west using a third party. Of course, these things could easily come back to bite them (particlularly Russia). Why don’t I hear a lot of screaming about this. Are China and Russia really the long term root problem here?

  • Good questions, Debra, and the answers on Russia and China are different for the two countries. I think Russia’s opposition is probably overstated. The big gainer if Iran is weakend (particularly if their oil production is affected) is Russia. Russia is a major oil exporting country and the higher the price of oil gets, the better it is for Russia. And Iran has a good-sized border with Russia. They’ve been enemies for a long time.

    China is a different kettle of fish. IMO mercantilist realist policies continue to dominate our relationship with China (when used in this context “realist” has nothing to do with reality). I believe that negotiating with China is key to being able to construct a reasonable policy towards Iran (and North Korea).

  • Ian Campbell Link

    One option was missed; and it will be the one used if all the others fail, of which there is a fair chance. And it will be a catastrophe for all concerned:

    Turn Iran into a radioactive desert.

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