Iran and the Bomb: What’s the Cost of In/Action?

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Down at the Winds of Change.net, the Armed Liberal and Trent Telenko have been discussing what to do with the Iranian situation. I have made my own comments at WoC, but I am repeating them here because I think laying out the choices in this manner really helps in providing constructive discussion on the Iranian Question.

Weighing the Concequences: Doing some Bombing v. Just Doing Nothing
Note that the “Doing Some Bombing” concequences are mostly short-term issues, while “Just Doing Nothing” are long term issues.

Bomb Iran Leave Iran Alone
  1. With Iran next to Iraq, this will spiral to a wide protracted war in both countries, including severe attack against US forces in Iraq directly by Iran or via Sadr et al; this sets back any progress achieved in Iraq by the US. Israel and Lebanon are also at great risk.
  2. The cost of this war would be great; how long before Iran and Iraq become America’s Afghanistan (Soviet Invasion)?
  3. Potentially galvanize Iranians to side with the regime.
  4. Oil prices will skyrocket due to M.E. instability and Iranian cutting off their supplies.
  5. High oil prices will EMPOWER Hugo Chavez, Saudi Arabia and Russia even more than now.
  6. Attacking yet another Muslim country, an Islamic State, in such a short time span will only lend credence that the “West is against Islam” line we keep hearing.
  7. Any attack by the US will be met by an attack on Israel. Then we would have to step-in and help fight with the Israelis. This just adds to point 6.
  1. Iran may decide to take out Israel or Iraq (and US forces in Iraq) at any time, fulfilling Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s many threats against the West and Israel.
  2. Secretly hand the bomb to a third-party for detonation via some tanker in a port city – virtually untracable to Iran
  3. If declared openly nuclear weapons, may help Arabs and Muslims rally around the Shiite Iranians as the vanguard of the "Islamic Revolution"
  4. If declared openly nuclear weapons, it will spark a nuke race in the Middle East to counter the non-Arab Shiite state of Iran and because US takes a nuclear Iran more seriously than them.
  5. Iran exports technology to other countries, like Venezuela which was recently discussed.
  6. Continued nuclear weapons development by Iran effectively kills any weight of the NPT, providing further proof that 1) NPT enforcement is a joke; 2) States against the US and the West should follow Iran’s footsteps.


What’s Realistic from the List Above?
From the “Bomb Iran” column, I believe that the question of how Iranians would react is the most iffy one. The regime has no support, but would attacks really rally Iranian support around their hated government? Or will they blame the government for the war and demonstrate? But everything else – the destabalization of Iraq, Lebanon and Israel (?) to causing oil prices to sky rocket – are definately “on the menu” if the US and its allies strike against Iran.

From the “Leave Iran Alone” column, I think that the first one – “get nukes and use’em” – makes no sense. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may sound crazy but you dont get to be the national leader without being intelligent or at least have a lot of smart and powerful backers that are the real bosses behind the scenes. Also, any open use of nuclear weapons would be suicidal for the Iranian state and as much as suicide bombers like to kill themselves, I dont that everyone in the Iranian military and in other powerful positions believe in putting their own lives on the line like that.

The greatest risk is that a nuclear Iran will spread it know-how and pass a nuclear weapon to a third-party group like Al-Qaida. But how high is this risk? Proliferation, as we have learned via A.Q.Khan virtually unstoppable, so how confident are we that the proper investment in intelligence and WMD detection systems can help tremendously lower the risk of a loose Iranian nuke detonating in Antwerp or anywhere near a cargoship at a Western port city?

Conclusion: No Easy Choice
The fact of the matter is that doing something and doing nothing both lead to very bad outcomes. Strikes against Iran has immediate short-term concequences, but the doing nothing have severe long term concequences. I honestly cannot offer any good recommendations on paths to take – faced with these set of binary choices the U.S. is in a lose-lose situation.

Beyond Binary: Thomas Barnett’s So-Crazy-It-Might-Just-Work Idea

Turning to Thomas Barnett, as StrategyUnit appearingly so often does, we get an interesting third-choice with Iran. He proves that when you dont like either choices, you try to make you own – a third way. Barnett’s recommendation is to try a path towards thoughtful engagement with Iran, but its one long hell of a Hail Mary:

So if Tehran is going to get the bomb no matter what, the question shifts from “What can the United States do to prevent it?” to “What does the United States get out of it?”

If Iran was our natural security partner in the past for a lot of good reasons, then most of those reasons remain today, simply obscured by the continuing dictatorship of the mullahs (of which we have some very bad memories).

Our natural goal with Iran, then, is to marginalize that religious leadership while capturing the same security partnership we once enjoyed.

Our grand bargain with Iran is not hard to imagine. Iran gets the bomb, diplomatic recognition, the lifting of sanctions and the opening of trade, and its removal from the axis of evil.

In return, what Iran must offer the United States is long-term support for both the two state solution in Palestine and a stable Iraq dominated by a Shiite majority, the cessation of its support for terrorist groups in the region, joint pressure on Syria for an end to its hegemony over Lebanon (removing their troops is only a nice start) and — most symbolically — its recognition of Israel diplomatically and its formal declaration of that country’s right to exist.

Tell me, since Iran is getting the bomb anyway eventually, would you feel less comfortable about this possible scenario if Iran were to open up to the West or if it remained isolated and surrounded by hostile American troops?

In which scenario do you think Tehran might risk it all by sponsoring a terrorist WMD strike against Israel or the West — when it has something to lose or nothing to lose? If America wants Iran to act responsibly in the region, it needs to give Iran some responsibility for regional security.

The downside is that such a path would make the US and the West weak (the paper tiger) in the eyes of the world and without any promise that Iran will fulfill its part of the deal. It hopes to wedge between the conservative Iranians who welcome an economic opening with the West and the non-compromising hardliners. But will such – dare I say “appeasement” - work? If it fails do we still have the opportunity to strike Iran? How do we know when it fails and can we convince the world it has?

Barnett hasnt provided any answers for this yet, but his suggestion is worth a serious look if only because the other two paths we have are so undesireable.

One comment

  1. Wrong analysis. How would the Arab and Islamic world stand by Iran, if we don’t even view Iran as being islamic??? The great majority of the Islamic world is Sunni and we (sunnis) do not view Shia as muslims and neither do they view us as muslims. To me there is no difference between an Shia and an Christian.