A nuclear Iran constitutes a serious threat, not only to the Middle East, but to the entire world. Diplomatic efforts have failed to halt Iran‘s nuclear program. As the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear bomb nears, the threat of using force–and even actual use of force–seem the only viable preventive measures. Middle Eastern states can hardly establish a nuclear”balance of terror” with Iran, and there is no foolproof defense against nuclear tipped missiles. Military action against Iranian nuclear installations involves many risks and complications, but the difficulty is exaggerated, and inaction is bound to bring about far worse consequences.
With each day, Iran grows closer to acquiring nuclear weapons. Tehran has evaded the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards and has built a militarily significant nuclear program. Iran has resisted all diplomatic pressure to discontinue this program and seems intent on producing highly enriched uranium (HEU), which constitutes the final and critical stage in the construction of a nuclear bomb. In mid-January 2006, Iranians decided to break the IAEA seals on some of their nuclear facilities, signaling Tehran‘s determination to proceed with its centrifuge uranium enrichment program.
Official statements by the leaders of western countries indicate growing exasperation with Iran‘s behavior on the nuclear issue and unwillingness to bow to demands that the country abandon its plans to produce fissile material. Even Mohammed ElBaradei, Director General of the IAEA, said that the world is losing patience with Iran.
Within the international community, Israel seems most concerned about the prospects of a nuclear Iran. In December 2005, Meir Dagan, the chief of the Israeli Mossad, warned that Iran‘s strategic decision to acquire the technological basis to become a nuclear power would be realized within a few months. The Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Force (IDF), Lt. Gen. Dan Halutz, offered a similar evaluation on December 4, 2005, while a few days earlier the Chief of the IDF Intelligence Department, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi (Farkash) had warned that March 2006 constitutes the “point of no return,” indicating that after such a date, any diplomatic efforts to curtail the Iranian nuclear program would be pointless. No explanation of the term “point of no return” was offered, leaving it unclear. However, the term “point of no return” probably refers to a certain measure of nuclear technological ripeness.
This article initially reviews Iran‘s nuclear program and presents its strategic rationale. It subsequently analyzes the nature and the magnitude of the Iranian nuclear threat. The article ends with a review of the available options for halting the country’s nuclear program, including the viability of a military strike aimed at curbing Iran‘s nuclear effort.
THE IRANIAN NUCLEAR PROGRAM The Iranian nuclear program began during the reign of the Shah, reflecting Iran‘s perception of itself as a great power and an ancient civilization with hegemonic aspirations in its region. After a period of suspension by the Islamic republic, the program was resumed. Despite the cover-up attempts, a great deal of Iran‘s nuclear infrastructure is known. Many known Iranian nuclear activities are suitable for military nuclear applications, and some activities have little or no suitability for any other purpose. Iran has been constructing a reactor at Arak moderated by heavy water and fueled with natural uranium, a type highly suitable for producing weapon-grade plutonium. This fissile material comprises the core of any nuclear bomb. Iran has also built a uranium conversion facility at Isfahan, to convert uranium core concentrate (Yellowcake) into the uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas suitable for enrichment at the centrifuge enrichment plant in Natanz. Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU) is also fissile material.
There are additional indications that Iran has worked on plutonium separation and on a bomb design. Technology transfer from China, Russia, and especially Pakistan, complemented by purchases of nuclear-relevant components in Western Europe, provided the technical and engineering know-how for the Iranian nuclear scientists to make progress along the nuclear path. While Iran‘s rate of progress is disputed among intelligence services, it could clearly become a nuclear power in the near future. The timetable for assembling a nuclear device is influenced by Iran‘s capability to cross two thresholds: the production of a sufficient amount of fissile material for the bomb’s core and the bomb design itself. Work on the two enterprises can be undertaken concurrently.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has invested tremendous political capital and vast resources in going nuclear. This behavior has added strain in its relations with the United States. The tense relationship was reinforced by the hostility displayed by radical Islamic elements of the regime. Tehran‘s overall anti-American foreign policy has resulted in the inclusion of Iran by President George W. Bush, in January 2002, on his”Axis of Evil” list.
The Iranian sense of vulnerability and threat perception increased following the American military presence in Afghanistan, on Iran‘s eastern border, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq, on its western border. The two invasions caused Tehran to feel encircled by the United States and more exposed to a potential American attack. Tehran‘s assiduous attempts to augment its deterrence stem from its fear of attacks on the part of an imperially disposed America and/or its Middle East allies. In addition, Iran shares a border with Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation since 1998. These factors provide Iran with an additional strong incentive for walking the nuclear path.
From an Iranian perspective, the North Korean example is also a compelling one. While the United States did not hesitate to invade Iraq, which it believed to be striving towards weapons of mass destruction (WMD), it refrained from attacking North Korea that abrogated the 1994 Agreed Framework with Washington, defiantly withdrew from the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty, and announced its possession of a nuclear deterrent. The mere fact that North Korea was much closer to producing a nuclear bomb than Iraq seemed to have constituted a critical difference that moderated the American response to a similar challenge.North Korea‘s more developed nuclear program provided a modicum of deterrence. While the regional context, i.e. the proximity of great powers such as China, Russia, and Japan, probably played no less of a role in determining the U.S. reaction, Iran may have learned the lesson that the nuclear bomb can serve as a good insurance policy against outside intervention.
Accelerating its nuclear program seems the most appealing option for Iran. The country has admitted that it has clandestinely produced small amounts of fissile material (plutonium). It might succeed in acquiring sufficient weapon grade plutonium or HEU, and probably has worked for some time on assembling a deliverable nuclear weapon–though it may stop short of actually testing a nuclear device. Iran could, therefore, rely on interested intelligence agencies and attentive observers to surmise that a weapons capability exists or could quickly be realized. Nuclear opaqueness, which is not an Iranian invention, has its strategic benefits.
It is highly unlikely that Iran will adopt a policy of nuclear reversal reminiscent of South Africa, Argentina, or Brazil. Its security predicament is very different from the strategic environments of Sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America that allowed nuclear abstinence. Moreover, the stakes of the ruling elite in Iran in the nuclear program are inextricably connected to its political and even physical survival, with an infinitely greater intensity than in the other states mentioned. The regime in Tehran may well have come to the conclusion that the speedy and successful conclusion of nuclear efforts could serve as a guarantee to its future at home. Destabilizing the regime of a nuclear state, which may lead to chronic domestic instability, civil war, or disintegration, is a more risky enterprise than undermining a non-nuclear regime.
In light of the growing widespread concern about its nuclear aspirations, Tehran‘s best option is to continue negotiations with various representatives of the international community. Even after the Iranian matter is brought to the UN Security Council (UNSC), diplomatic negotiations are likely to continue in order to determine the reaction of the UNSC. This amounts to a temporary stalemate. Tehran will try to buy time as discussions drag on or are temporarily suspended between rounds to allow for additional consultations. Such an Iranian strategy of “talk and build” capitalizes on European and American reluctance to escalate. Deciding that negotiations are useless requires alternative action, which is not an enticing option.
Essentially, inconclusive talks preserve a status quo, a tense standoff in which Iran can go on with its opaque, though no longer clandestine, nuclear program. Indeed, a strategy of “talk and build” accompanied by temporary concessions postpones diplomatic and economic pressures and, most importantly, preventive military strikes by the United States. Tehran is undoubtedly watching the developments in Korea, and insufficient American determination to put an end to the Korean nuclear program will encourage Iranian procrastination. Moreover, Iran‘s sense of vulnerability is accompanied by an evaluation that a U.S. embroiled in Iraq is weak, while the higher energy prices enhance the Iranian hand in international negotiations.
Iran‘s nuclear program was initiated with the intention of acquiring hegemony in the region and the ability to play the role of a great power in world affairs. Nowadays, it also seems to be designed to provide a strategic response to American political and cultural hegemony in world affairs. Tehran wants to be able to continue to oppose American policies and to deter possible American action against the radical Islamic regime. Similarly, it wants to block the influence of American culture, which is perceived as decadent and particularly dangerous. Yet Iran‘s current nuclear appetite also stems from theological motivations. Some Ayatollahs also view an Iran armed with nuclear weapons as an instrument in Allah’s hand to impose Islam upon the entire world, believing that they, the Ayatollahs, have been chosen by Allah to carry out His mission. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reported having a vision when defending Iran‘s right to master nuclear technology at the UN General Assembly in the fall of 2005. This ideological dimension of the Iranian nuclear rationale is quite troubling. Indeed, a stalemate that permits Iran to move forward with its nuclear program would pose grave threats to regional security as discussed below.
THE NATURE OF THE THREAT The Islamic Republic of Iran is the greatest, most urgent threat to regional order in the Middle East and a challenge to American hegemony in world affairs. Iran is a revisionist state trying to export its Islamic revolution, a mission intertwined with the nationalistic aspirations for grandeur rooted in a historic awareness of being an ancient civilization. In its behavior, revolutionary Iran largely conforms to what Yehezkel Dror termed a “CrazyState.” Such a state is characterized by far-reaching goals in its foreign policy, a propensity for high risk policies, intensive commitment and determination to implement these policies, and unconventional diplomatic style. If Iran becomes nuclear, these foreign policy features will probably be even more pronounced.
Iran actively supports the insurgency in Iraq against the establishment of a stable, pro-American regime. Tehran encourages radical Shi’a elements in Iraq in order to promote the establishment of another Islamic republic and foments trouble in the Shi’a communities in the Gulf states. It opposes a more liberal regime that could potentially serve as a catalyst for democratization in the area. Iran is allied with Syria, another radical state with an anti-American predisposition, and seeks to create a radical Shi’a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean. Moreover, Tehran lends critical support to terrorist organizations such as Hizballah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. According to the U.S. State Department, Iran is the most active state sponsor of terrorism.
Iran‘s nuclear program coupled with long-range delivery systems, in particular, threatens regional stability in the Middle East. Iran‘s possesses the Shehab-3 long-range missile (with a range of 1,300 kilometers) that can probably be nuclear-tipped and is working on extending the range of its ballistic arsenal. American allies, such as Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Gulf States are within range, as well as several important U.S. bases. The Chief of the IDF Intelligence Department, Maj. Gen. Aharon Zeevi (Farkash) reported that Iran has also acquired 12 cruise missiles with a range of up to 3,000 kilometers and with an ability to carry nuclear warheads.
Further improvements in Iranian missiles would initially put most European capitals, and eventually, the North American continent, within range of a potential Iranian attack. Iran has an ambitious satellite launching program based on the use of multi-stage, solid propellant launchers, with intercontinental ballistic missile properties to enable the launching of a 300-kilogram satellite within two years. If Iran achieves this goal, it will put many more states at risk of a future nuclear attack.
The nuclear ambitions of the Islamic Republic of Iran are, of course, a challenge to the international nuclear non-proliferation regime (NPT). A nuclearIran might well bring an end to this regime and to American attempts to curb proliferation in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.
Indeed, the emergence of a nuclear-armed Iran would have a chain-effect, generating further nuclear proliferation in the immediate region. Middle Eastern leaders, who invariably display high threat perceptions, are unlikely to look nonchalantly on a nuclear Iran. States such as Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and, of course, Iraq would hardly be persuaded by the United States that it can provide a nuclear umbrella against Iranian nuclear blackmail or actual nuclear attack. American extended deterrence is very problematic in the Middle East. Therefore, these states would not resist the temptation to counter Iranian influence by adopting similar nuclear postures.
The resulting scenario of a multi-polar nuclear Middle East would be a recipe for disaster. This strategic prognosis is a result of two factors: a) the inadequacy of a defensive posture against nuclear tipped missiles, and b) the difficulties surrounding the establishment of stable nuclear deterrence in the region.
Missiles are the most effective means of delivering nuclear weapons. While the United States is developing a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system and Russia claims to have a missile intercept capability with its S-300 missile system, only Israel possesses a serious capability to parry a nuclear missile attack. Israel has developed a defensive layer around the Arrow-2 anti-ballistic missile, which is designed to intercept the family of Scud missiles. This program, which began in the late 1980s, benefited from generous American funding and amounts to the only deployed operational anti-ballistic missile system so far in the world. Since 2000, Israel has deployed several operational batteries of Arrow missiles. The interception range is about 150 kilometers away from Israel‘s borders.
On December 2, 2005, Israel launched an Arrow missile that successfully intercepted a mock-up of an Iranian Shehab-3 missile. The goal of the test was to expand the range of Arrow missiles to a higher altitude and to evaluate the interface between the Arrow and the American-improved Patriot missile system, which is meant to go into operation if the Arrow fails to shoot down its target. The interception of a missile armed with a nuclear head at a lower altitude and closer to home by the Patriot system is, of course, problematic. While this test and others have proven that the Arrow does hit its target, no defense system is foolproof. The Arrow-2 provides a certain measure of protection, but it is a first generation weapon system, and even its developers do not claim a one hundred percent interception rate. Moreover, it is not clear how the Arrow would function if enemy missiles were equipped with countermeasures or if the enemy were to use saturation tactics.
Israel has hitherto had the upper hand in the regional technological race, but there are no assurances that this will always be so. The difficulties that Israel faces in dealing with Katyushas, Qassams, and tunnels show that Israeli ingenuity may not come up with immediate adequate responses. This is true of the United States as well. Even if defensive solutions are eventually devised, there may be windows of vulnerability, which could be of catastrophic dimensions in a nuclear scenario.
All Middle Eastern states are so far defenseless against Iranian missiles. Indeed, as the Iranian nuclear program progresses, one can clearly detect a rise in threat perception on the part of most Arab states in the region. Several states within Iranian range, such as Turkey and India, have shown interest in purchasing the Israeli BMD system, whose export requires American approval. However, at present, while Israel is partly protected from Iranian nuclear missiles, the rest of the region remains vulnerable to such a threat.
The Iranian nuclear threat is also to be taken seriously in light of the difficulties of achieving a stable deterrence with Tehran. Unfortunately, there are scholars who belittle such fears by releasing optimistic evaluations regarding a potentially stable “balance of terror” between Israel and Iran, modeled on the relationship between the two superpowers during the Cold War. Such a bilateral relationship, where the two sides deter each other, cannot be easily emulated in the Middle East. A “balance of terror” between two nuclear protagonists is never automatic, and could not be taken for granted even between the United States and the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the situation in the Middle East is even less stable.
A second-strike capability, which allows a state to respond in kind after being subjected to a nuclear attack, is critical in establishing credible deterrence. During the Cold War, submarines constituted the platform for any second-strike capability; the difficulty in locating them under water rendered them less vulnerable to an enemy first-strike attack. Indeed, the Soviet Union and United States relied on the survivability and mobility of submarines, characteristics that would enable them to carry out a second-strike with nuclear-tipped missiles. While the superpowers possessed large submarine fleets, it is doubtful that any Middle Eastern power owns enough submarines equipped to do the job. Israel‘s current fleet includes three Dolphin-class submarines, to be augmented by the end of the decade by two additional vessels recently purchased in Germany. However, it is not clear whether the Israeli submarines carry enough punch to deter adversaries. In this context, it is important to note that no fleet can ever be fully operational. Some vessels are in port for maintenance, while others are en route to the designated area of operations or on their way back to the homeport. Furthermore, the most appropriate launching area in the Indian Ocean is far away from Israel.
More significant is the fact that maintaining a second-strike capability is an ongoing process requiring continuous improvement, which depends to a large extent on the adversary’s actions. Such a process is inherently uncertain and ambiguous. Moreover, before an initial”effective” second-strike capability is achieved, a nuclear race may create the fear of a first-strike nuclear attack, which might in itself trigger a nuclear exchange. This is all the more probable because adequate warning systems cannot be erected when the distances between enemies are so small, as is the case in the Middle East. The influence of haste and the need to respond quickly can have extremely dangerous consequences.
The discussion above has focused on the problems of establishing bilateral nuclear deterrence between Iran and Israel. In a nuclear multipolar environment, achieving stable deterrence would be even more difficult. Deterrence may work in part because a threat is transmitted correctly and not misread by the enemy. Yet, Middle Eastern countries have not established any hotlines or special communication links with Iran and/or each other, which could have serious consequences in a nuclear crisis. In the Middle East, communication is not only a technological problem, but is also a political problem, as several states have refrained from establishing diplomatic links with a number of regional capitals. Middle Eastern powers would also have to establish early warning systems searching in all directions. Moreover, the requirements for an “all directions” second strike force are very complicated. In addition, the rather rudimentary nuclear forces in the region would be likely to be prone to accidents and mistakes. The newly acquired nuclear arsenals would lack the sophisticated technology of the great powers, which reduces such mishaps through devices for locking, fusing, remotely controlling, and releasing nuclear warheads from afar. Nuclear arms in the hands of several Middle East powers would actually increase the possibility of preemptive strikes and catalytic wars.
While it can be argued that Middle East leaders behave rationally, many of them engage in “brinkmanship” leading to miscalculation. Even of greater consequence, their sensitivity to costs and their attitudes to human life hardly conform to Western values. Iranian leaders have said that they are ready to pay a heavy price for the destruction of the Jewish state. For example, on December 14, 2001, the Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani declared that the use of a nuclear bomb against Israel would destroy the Jewish state, producing only “damages in the Muslim world.” Moreover, while Arab leaders issued similar statements in the past, the historical animosity between Persians and Arabs could also produce motivations to use nuclear weapons under extreme circumstances. Strong mutual mistrust, a basic feature of Middle Eastern political culture, creates a psychological environment that is conducive to rigidity and inflexibility. These are highly dangerous qualities in a nuclear situation, where it is important to leave the enemy a way to retreat, what Thomas Schelling calls the “last clear chance.” The “dialectics of the antagonists” in the Middle East can hardly turn a “balance of terror” into a “balance of prudence,” in which each adversary exerts maximum caution and consideration, permitting coexistence. Nuclear deterrence is probably harder to achieve than deterrence theorists had believed, because there is great variation in how people calculate their interests and react to threats.
Furthermore, as the nuclear taboo is eroding at the interstate level, Iran, or a faction, or even individual officials in the government may decide to pass a nuclear device to a terrorist organization, such as Hamas or Hizballah, to be used against Israel or a “heretic” (Muslim or Christian) regime. This possibility is intensified by the fact that the weapons are apparently institutionally under the control of hardliners even in the context of the Iranian government, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The “crazy state” posture may be conducive toward Iranian nuclear largesse to other radical Islamic groups operating outside the Middle East. The Iranians have used proxies to carry out attacks against their enemies in the past. An indirect mode of operation would put many capitals in the world in danger and make Iran a somewhat less likely subject to retaliation. In any case, a nuclear Iran might provide emboldened global Jihadist terrorist groups a haven where they think they are immune to Western reach.
A nuclear Iran would also enhance Iranian hegemony in the strategic energy sector, by its mere location along the oil-rich Persian Gulf area and the CaspianBasin. These two adjacent regions form the “energy ellipse,” which holds over 70 percent of the world’s proven oil and over 40 percent of natural gas reserves. Giving revolutionary Iran a better ability to intimidate the governments controlling parts of this huge energy reservoir would further strengthen Iran‘s position in the region and world affairs. Such a position would also make Iran‘s containment even more difficult and would necessarily embolden Islamic radicals everywhere.
For Israel, a nuclear Iran constitutes an existential threat. The tripartite combination of a radical Islamic regime, long-range missile capability, and nuclear weapons is extremely perilous. Due to its small and dense population, Israel is exceedingly vulnerable to a nuclear attack. In December 2005, Israel‘s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon termed the Iranian program”a grave threat” stressing that Israel “cannot accept a nuclear Iran.” This statement is a reflection of a long-held high-threat perception of a large part of Israel‘s strategic community. Indeed, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (1992-95) already perceived Islamic Iran, which was engaged in acquiring a nuclear capability and in sponsoring terror, as Israel‘s arch-enemy, while all of his successors maintained this assessment. While Israel was pleased with the change of tone in Tehran toward the United States after Ayatollah Mohammed Khatami was elected as president in 1997, Tehran continued to retain its anti-Israeli policy.
Iranian President Ahmadinejad, elected in June 2005, has contributed to Israel‘s fears by issuing a series of inflammatory statements. On October 26, 2005, he called for”Israel to be wiped off the map.” On December 14, 2005, in a speech that was televised live, Ahmadinejad denied that the Holocaust had ever happened, suggesting that Israel‘s Jews be relocated to Europe or even to Alaska. Such statements from high-ranking officials cannot be dismissed as pure rhetoric; they reflect a policy preference. An Iran strengthened by a nuclear arsenal may pursue such a policy.
In summary, an Iranian nuclear bomb would bring about additional nuclear proliferation in the region, enhance the power of a “crazy state,” and embolden Islamic radicals elsewhere. In addition, the technological uncertainties of a defensive system and the possibility of establishing stable nuclear deterrence lead to the inescapable conclusion that regional security is best served by denying Iran a nuclear bomb.
BLOCKING IRAN‘S NUCLEAR ASPIRATIONS There are several ways to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge. These options are discussed below. Diplomacy For many years, Iran deceived the IAEA, violating the safeguards agreement and failing to report the full scope of its nuclear activities. Finally, Iran was asked to freeze its uranium enrichment program, and to sign the Additional Protocol to the safeguards agreement with the IAEA, allowing for more intrusive international supervision. An October 2003 high-profile visit by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom (EU-3) signaled the European attempt to apply heavy diplomatic pressure. For two years, the Europeans conducted negotiations with Iran in attempt to reach an agreement. The European approach, which Washington decided to go along with for a while, was to create a political atmosphere that delegitimized the Iranian quest for a nuclear bomb and to provide incentives for Iran to cooperate on the nuclear issue.
Yet, after several suspensions in the talks with the Europeans, the Iranians have rejected the European “carrots” offered to them. In all probability, the West has nothing to offer that can dissuade Iran from going nuclear, particularly since the nuclear program is viewed as the best insurance policy for the current leadership and is probably the single most popular policy associated with this regime. Iran is a clear case where all means of persuasion, short of the use of force, are ineffective. “Soft power” has its limitations.
The United States probably decided to go through the motions required by the Europeans in order to secure European support for a tougher approach when diplomacy has run its course. The United States even lent its support to the Russian offer to conduct the enrichment of Iranian uranium on its soil for the same reason. Washington preferred to raise the issue of Iran at the UN Security Council (UNSC) in order to impose economic sanctions and eventually secure international legitimacy for military action against the nuclear installations.
Iran’s intransigent behavior and growing impatience on part of the international community, combined with U.S. pressure, convinced the IAEA to finally recognize Iran’s non-compliance with its treaty obligations in September 2005, although the Board of Governors of the IAEA that met again in November 2005 postponed the referral of the Iranian case to the UNSC in order to allow more time for negotiations. This postponement served Iranian interests in gaining time within its “talk and build” strategy. Only in February 2006 did the United States finally win approval from all key players in the IAEA, especially Russia and China, to send the issue of Iran’s highly suspect nuclear program to the UNSC.
Economic Sanctions As the diplomatic option is being exhausted and in the absence of a clear unequivocal nuclear reversal on part of Iran, the United States will try to prod the UNSC into eventually imposing a strict set of sanctions against Tehran that include economic and political isolation combined with a military quarantine tightly controlling what flows in and out of Iran. While, the Europeans may join the United States in mandating and applying sanctions, China and Russia, which have veto power in the UNSC, are less likely to cooperate in engineering an American-sponsored campaign against Iran. They have their own economic interests in Iran and want to play a role in the region rather than defer to American leadership. Eventually, the UNSC may decide on sanctions, whose content effectiveness is primarily dependent upon the need to forge an international consensus. Clearly, China and Russia have no strategic interest in a nuclear Iran and would eventually join the sanctions, but they prefer Iran to respond to their proposals rather than to American initiatives.
There are also a number of specific factors discouraging countries from supporting sanctions against Iran, ranging from fear of Tehran‘s sponsorship of terrorism to economic costs, or desire to gain Iranian cooperation on other issues. U.S. sanctions against Iran have also long been in place without forcing Tehran to change policy.
While economic sanctions would certainly hurt the Iranian economy, which is much dependent upon refined oil products, economic pressures are not the best means to stop Iran from going nuclear. The international studies literature displays serious skepticism regarding the effectiveness of economic sanctions. Often, such sanctions merely serve to make a point and to keep an issue alive in the absence of the political will to take military measures to remedy the situation. Moreover, in the past, societies and regimes have demonstrated great resilience in the face of economic sanctions and capacity to withstand pain.
Islamic Iran, which seeks a nuclear bomb primarily to gain regional hegemony and to allow it to oppose a Pax Americana, is ready to pay a high price for its foreign policy orientation. Actually, external pressure has been used more than once as a focal point for rallying domestic support for the embattled regime. Another major problem with economic sanctions is that it takes time to put them in place and to make them felt in the target country. In the case of Iran, time is of critical importance, particularly if Iran wants to present the world with a nuclear fait accompli.
Indirect Pressure on Iran The Iranian challenge could also be dealt with by adopting an indirect strategy. This might require focusing on Syria–the weak link in Iran‘s strategic outreach–possibly even leading to the demise of that regime–and on Iran‘s client Hizballah group in Lebanon. The Ba’th regime is under increasing international and domestic pressure. Cornering Tehran‘s regional allies will weaken and isolate Iran possibly making the Islamic republic more susceptible to Western pressures.
Another aspect of the indirect approach on the nuclear issue, though in this case dealing with Iran itself, would be to encourage regime change inTehran. This is particularly difficult in police states, such as Iran, where suppression is effective in paralyzing any meaningful political opposition.Nevertheless, such situations are not stable, and Iran has a history of popular uprisings. If it is true that human beings prefer to live in freedom than in fear and that many are ready to take personal risks to realize this dream,Iran could be ripe for removing the yoke of the mullahs. Being more advanced than Arab states according to almost every socio-economic criterion, Iran could be a better candidate for democratization. American diplomacy aimed at strengthening the dissenting voices in Iran might be successful in fostering an effect similar to the one that brought about the Soviet empire’s disintegration.
The indirect strategy is advantageous, as it rests on regional and domestic dynamics while minimizing a popular Iranian antagonism towards the American activist approach. Yet even if it were to be successful, such a strategy may again take too much time. International procrastination and past diplomatic failures to delay the Iranian program may leave no other choice but the military option to prevent a nuclear Islamic Republic of Iran.
Coercive Measures Covert operations to block the Iranian nuclear program, if ever used, have clearly failed. U.S. Ambassador John Bolton declared in October 30, 2003, when serving as under secretary of state for arms control and international security, that the United States was actively seeking to curb proliferation. “Rogue states such as Iran, North Korea, Syria, Libya and Cuba, whose pursuit of weapons of mass destruction makes them hostile to U.S. interests, will learn that their covert programs will not escape either detection or consequences,” he warned. “While we will pursue diplomatic solutions whenever possible, the United States and its allies must be willing to deploy more robust techniques, such as the interdiction and seizure of illicit goods, the disruption of procurement networks, sanctions, or other means.”
While Israel was more taciturn about the issue, as threat perception increased, Prime Minister Sharon decided in November 2003 to place the responsibility for an integrated strategy to prevent the nuclearization of Iran in the hands of the Mossad. Its head, retired Major General Dagan, who has a rich history in combating terror, was appointed in September 2002 to hone the skills of this organization in covert operations. The declarations of Israeli senior officials in the winter of 2005-2006 indicated greater alarm than before, meaning, inter alia, that whatever means were taken failed to achieve the intended results.
One variant of covert operations is to focus on the highly skilled elements of those working for the Iranian program. The Iranian nuclear program has a limited number of scientists whose contribution is critical to its successful completion. The interested intelligence services have probably already identified the key scientists who keep it moving. Removing these scientists would also affect the possibility of renewing the nuclear efforts in case a freeze of the Iranian program were to take place. Therefore, serious offers of refuge and a professional career in the West should be extended to these scientists. Alternatively, they should be intimidated from further cooperation with the Iranian nuclear program. It would not be impossible to organize a well-orchestrated campaign to do so against those who prefer the patriotic option of continuing to serve their state. In fact, the mere beginning of such a campaign of carrots and sticks may deter others from cooperating with the Iranian nuclear program and hasten their exit from Iran.
Another coercive option is a blockade on Iranian oil exports to signal to Iran that the United States and the West mean business. With oil selling at over $60 per barrel (February 2006), oil exports are the source of enormous wealth used by the ayatollahs to buttress the regime and pursue its nuclear program. Denying a hefty income constitutes a threat to the regime. A blockade may indeed escalate into a tanker war as witnessed in the last years of the Iraq-Iran war, which ended in Iran backing down.
In the first decade of the 21st century, the U.S. naval and air forces can police the Hormuz Straits in order to prevent Iranian oil from reaching the market. While smuggling oil would still be possible, most Iranian oil exports would be affected. Concern about the overall effect on oil markets and supply would be a major factor deterring such a strategy, but this approach may well be the only alternative to either a direct attack or accepting Iran‘s possession of nuclear weaponry.
The final option is the use of force. Presumably, the United States already has contingency plans and training assets for an attack against Iran‘s nuclear facilities. Israel conducted such a strike in 1981 against Iraq‘s nuclear reactor, which effectively ended Saddam Hussein’s nuclear potential. In a similar fashion, prior to concluding the 1994 Agreed Framework with Pyongyang, the Clinton Administration contemplated surgical strikes to end the North’s nuclear weapons program.
While it is probably true that intelligence services cannot provide military planners with a full and comprehensive picture of the Iranian nuclear program, what we know seems to be enough to allow identification of the main targets. The military capability to hit all targets is important, but a partial destruction would be enough to cripple Iran‘s ability to build a nuclear bomb in the near future. Moreover, no large-scale invasion is needed in order to do the job, but only a sustained bombing campaign with commando strikes.
While Iran has spread out its nuclear facilities and built a large part of the nuclear complex underground in order to protect it from conventional air strikes, technological advances in penetration of underground facilities and increased precision might allow total destruction. The difficulties in dealing a severe military blow to the Iranian nuclear program are generally exaggerated. A detailed analysis of the military option is beyond the scope of this paper, but the American military definitely has the muscle and the sophistication needed to perform a preemptive strike in accordance with its new strategic doctrine, as well as the capability for a sustained air campaign, if needed to prevent the reparation and reconstruction of the facilities targeted.
American declarations on this issue indicate a willingness to consider all options. In January 2005, U.S. Vice-President Dick Cheney expressed concern that Israel might attack Iran: “Given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards,” he said. This statement actually legitimized such action and subtly threatened the Iranians that the United States might not be able to stop Israel from acting unilaterally. In August 2005, on the eve of a trip to Europe, President Bush insisted that he wanted a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the Iranian nuclear problem but refused to rule out military action. On several occasions, Bush repeated this viewpoint. Several U.S. senators also recognized that a military strike on Iran must be a foreign policy option.
Despite the difficulties faced by the administration with regard to its Iraq policy, American public opinion could conceivably be enlisted to back a military strike on Iran if a clear-cut case is made that all other options have been exhausted in the quest to prevent a very dangerous development, especially in the period following a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The changing atmosphere toward Iran in Washington’s corridors of power affects the national mood. Indeed, a Los Angeles Times poll of January 27, 2006 indicates that 57 percent of Americans back an attack on Iran if defiance persists.A Pew Research Center poll, released February 7, 2006, showed that public concern over Iran’s nuclear program has risen dramatically in the past few months. Today, 27 percent of Americans cite Iran as the country that represents the greatest danger to the United States. In October, just nine percent pointed to Iran as the biggest danger to the United States, while there was far more concern over Iraq, China, and North Korea. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) believe that Iran’s nuclear program is a major threat to the United States, placing it on par with North Korea’s nuclear program, and far ahead of China’s emerging power among possible threats to the United States. Overwhelming numbers believe that if Iran were to develop nuclear weapons it would likely launch attacks on Israel (72 percent), and the United States or Europe (66 percent). There is even greater agreement that a nuclear-armed Iran would be likely to provide nuclear weapons to terrorists (82 percent). Even if these trends do not hold for long, second-term presidents such as Bush are less susceptible to the vagaries of public opinion. The personality of the current president and his worldview well suit such an approach.
The American perceptions of Iran reflect a global phenomenon. A major BBC World Service poll exploring how people in 33 countries view various countries found not a single country where a majority has a positive view of Iran’s role in the world (with the exception of the Iranians themselves). Indeed, the United States is not alone in considering the use of force. British Prime Minster Tony Blair warned that the West might have to take military action against Iran after worldwide condemnation of Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s call for Israel to be”wiped off the map.” France also seems to realize that use of force may be necessary. Washington has been trying to gain Ankara’s support for U.S. policy toward Tehran’s nuclear program. By one report, CIA Director Porter Goss visited Ankara in December 2005 and asked Turkey to help the United States deal with the Iranian nuclear issue. As the threat perception in Turkey increases, the country is more likely to cooperate.
If military action is to be taken, the timing of an attack must be sensitive to collateral damage, particularly after the nuclear program has reached a stage where nuclear radiation and contamination might occur. Moreover, it would be preferable for the attacks to precede the consummation of the Russian sale of 30 Tor-M1 air defense systems to Iran (to be delivered in the 2006-8 period), as well as upgrades of the Mig and Sukhoi fighter jets used by Iran. This $1 billion arms deal will bolster Iran‘s capabilities to exact a higher price from the adversary’s preemptive strike.
However, in reality, military action may not prove necessary. An ultimatum that includes an unequivocal American threat to use force might be enough to convince the Iranians to freeze their nuclear program and wait for better times to complete it. Such an ultimatum could be accompanied by force concentration along the borders of Iran (in Afghanistan and in Iraq), naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean, and reconnaissance flights over Iranian air space. The threat of military force should be preceded by intensive American efforts to explain the danger of a nuclear Iran and active public diplomacy to gain international approval for military action. Israel and Turkey can add to this atmosphere by things like conducting civil defense and military drills. Since Iran practices brinkmanship as a regular part of its policy, only the threat of imminent American military action will define the boundary that the Iranian leadership does not want to cross.
This series of steps is exactly what most Arab states in the region expect. None of them wants a nuclear Iran, as it threatens them and their interests. It is worth remembering the support most Arab states lent to Baghdad during its long war with Tehran (1980-88). Indeed, the danger to the Arab world is more immediate than it is for the United States or perhaps even Israel. Only the actual use of nuclear weapons by Iran would endanger Israel or American forces, while the mere possession of such weapons–and their use for leverage and intimidation–could force Arab countries to submit to Tehran‘s demands. Consequently, most Arab leaders–except for those in Syria–hope to see the hegemonic superpower take a resolute stand on the matter. Whatever public reaction may surface in the region, in private the majority will savor such an American demonstration of leadership and determination in obstructing the Iranian nuclear program.
If the United States does not act in accordance with its international responsibilities as a superpower, Israel will have to face the difficult choice of how to respond. Since June 1981, Israel‘s position has been that a military nuclear program implemented by a hostile state constitutes a casus belli warranting preemptive action. With more to lose if Iran becomes nuclear, Israel would have more incentive to strike than the United States.
Israel can undertake a limited preemptive strike. Israel certainly commands the weaponry, the manpower, and the guts to effectively take out key Iranian nuclear facilities. Capable of carrying as much ordnance as a World War II heavy bomber, the F-15I can also deploy precision-guided munitions and penetrate enemy air space at low levels and high speeds. Israel‘s submarines can launch cruise missiles at long distances, and its commandos have a very good record of operating at great distances from home.
The air strike route is of course problematic, as Israeli airplanes would have to fly over Arab airspace. Although Israel and Turkey have a well-developed strategic relationship, it is unlikely that an AKP-ruled Ankara would allow the use of its airspace in an attack on Iran, but damaged Israeli aircraft or gunned-down Israeli air crews would have a chance of landing or surviving in Turkey or in the Kurdish areas of Iraq. While it would be very difficult for Israel to carry out a sustained air campaign, creative solutions could be devised to increase Israeli projection of power at distances of over 1,000 kilometers. Israel‘s leaders are likely to enjoy domestic support in the event that Israel decides to launch military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. Such support may erode, however, if the military operations are unsuccessful and if the toll of casualties is very high.
Any decision to use force must take into consideration the Iranian reaction to a military strike and prepare for it. The Iranians can interfere with the flow of oil from the Gulf, and launch a counter-attack with ballistic missiles (probably using conventional warheads) against its neighbors and Israel. They can also instigate Shi’a revolutions in the Gulf States and use proxy terrorist organizations to attack the United States and its allies, in particular Israel. The Gulf States are likely to prefer facing any Iranian challenge before it goes nuclear. Probably, the West can bear the limited cost likely to be exacted by Iran. The cost issue is not really relevant for Israel, because it will suffer the wrath of Iran even if the United States alone bombs the Iranian installations.
Conventional missile attacks on America‘s allies are unlikely to cause much damage, although they could partly paralyze their economic activities. The results would probably resemble those of the Iraqi missile attacks on Israel and Saudi Arabia in 1991. Acts of terrorism could create greater damage, although more intensive intelligence efforts and higher alerts of the internal security forces could limit the effectiveness of such operations. In any case, military strikes against Iran need to be accompanied by preemptive measures against terrorist cells and Iranian personnel involved in supporting and activating terrorist activity.
Damaging oil fields and installations in the Gulf, as well as meddling with the oil flow, is a major affront to the well-being of the international community and would put Iran in conflict with most of the world. Interruptions in the export of Iranian petroleum would also negatively affect the Iranian economy and subsequently the regime survivability. In any case, an Iranian decision to attack the oil routes, before the state has acquired the bomb, might be deterred by a clear American commitment to use its military power to assure the security of these routes. However, even without such a commitment, America would act if confronted by Iranian attempts to block the Hormuz Straits. While revolutionary Iran may become bold and adventurous with a nuclear arsenal at its disposal, before acquiring such awesome weapons it is unlikely to estrange the whole international community by causing serious damage to the supply of a critical commodity such as oil. The determination of the West, displayed by the use of force against Iran‘s nuclear installations might even have a paralyzing effect on the regime. In any case, to counter a scenario where Iran brings about serious supply shortages in oil supply, the U.S. can exploit its Strategic Petroleum Reserve, as well as the oil strategic reserves of its allies to allow for replacement of the Iranian crude oil output in the world oil markets for some time.
CONCLUSION A nuclear Iran poses a serious threat to the Middle East. Moreover, a nuclear bomb in the hands of such an extremist regime may have widespread repercussions, far beyond the region. Iran‘s deeply rooted ideological hostility towards Israel coupled with its emerging military capabilities puts the Jewish state in a particularly vulnerable spot. Diplomacy is doomed to fail and economic sanctions are usually ineffective, leaving only the threat to use force and the actual use of force as viable options to delay the completion of the Iranian nuclear program. Resolute action against Iranian nuclear installations involves many risks, but inaction, it seems, will have far more serious repercussions.
If the United States refrains from action, Israel will face the difficult decision of whether to act unilaterally. While less suited to do the job than the United States, the Israeli military is capable of reaching the appropriate targets in Iran. It remains to be seen whether Jerusalem will be forced to act in accordance with its strategic doctrine. If, despite local and/or international efforts the Islamic Republic of Iran succeeds in emerging with a nuclear arsenal, however, it will not be the end of the current crisis, but rather the beginning of a new and far more dangerous one.
*Efraim Inbar is Professor of Political Science at Bar-IlanUniversity and the Director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. The author appreciates the comments of an anonymous reviewer and the research assistance of David Leitner and Tamara Sternlieb.
“Dagan: Iran will be become independent in its nuclear program within months,” Haaretz, December 28, 2005, p. A12.
For the quest of nuclear weapons of the Islamic Republic, see Patrick Clawson and Michael Rubin, Eternal Iran. Continuity and Chaos (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), pp. 139-46; for a backgrounder and chronology of the nuclear program, see http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Iran/1819.html.
For a comprehensive review of the nuclear program, see Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological and Chemical Threats (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), 2nd edition, pp. 295-314. See also the fact sheet at http://www.armscontrol.org; and Douglas Frantz,“Iran Closes in Ability to Build a Nuclear Bomb,“Los Angeles Times, August 4, 2003.
Natural uranium consists mostly of the uranium-235 isotope, with about 0.7 percent by weight of uranium-235. The uranium 235 isotope is fissionable material. Enriched uranium is uranium whose uranium-235 content has been increased through a process of isotope separation. The fissile uranium in nuclear weapons usually contains 85percent or more of uranium-235, known as weapon-grade.
For such a posture, see Benjamin Frankel, ed., Opaque Nuclear Proliferation: Methodology and Policy Implications (London: Frank Cass, 1991).
For an analysis of denuclearization, see Ariel E. Levite,“Never Say Never Again: Nuclear Reversal Revisited,“International Security, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Winter 2002/03), pp. 59-88.
 Mordechai Kedar, “Nucleotheism,” Jerusalem Post, December 14, 2005, p. 13.
 See Yehezkel Dror, Crazy States (Lexington: Heath Lexington, 1973), chapter 2. For an early reference to “rogue states,” see Anthony Lake, “Confronting Backlash States,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No. 2 (March/April 1994).
For the rationale of state-supported terrorism and for Iran’s links to the Hizballah, see Daniel Byman, Deadly Connections. States that Sponsor Terrorism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 21-52; 79-116.
Kathleen J. McInnis, “Extended Deterrence: The U.S. Credibility Gap in the Middle East,” Washington Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Summer 2005), pp. 169-86.
For the Arrow program, see Uzi Rubin, “Meeting the ‘Depth Threat’ in Iraq – The Origins of Israel’s Arrow System,” Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 2, No. 19, Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (March 5, 2003). The United States and Israel have also shown interest in the Boost Phase Intercept option (BPI), when missiles are slow and have a big electronic signature. This option is of particularly appealing if the missile carries a nuclear warhead that could explode immediately after launch in the vicinity of the launcher. This weapon system is still in a development stage, and it is not clear if it will be operational by the time Iran goes nuclear.
For the formative argument that nuclear deterrence is context–dependent, see Albert Wohlstetter, “The Delicate Balance of Terror,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 36, No. 1 (January 1959), pp. 211-34. For an application of this argument to the Middle East, see Yair Evron, “Nuclear Weapons in the Middle East,” in Asher Arian (ed.), Israel: A Developing Society (Assen: Van Gorcum, 1980), pp. 105-26. For a similar argument about the Indian sub-continent, see S. Paul Kapur, “India and Pakistan’s Unstable Peace: Why Nuclear South Asia Is Not Like Cold War Europe,” International Security, Vol. 30, No. 2 (Fall 2005), pp. 125-52. The counter argument that nuclear proliferation might bring stability is extremely problematic. For a recent formulation of this thesis, see Kenneth N. Waltz, “For Better: Nuclear Weapons Preserve an Imperfect Peace,” in Scott D. Sagan and Kenneth N. Waltz, The Spread of Nuclear Weapons: A Debate Renewed (New York: W.W. Norton, 2003).
One reason for the Israeli interest in cooperation with India is to facilitate a naval presence in the Indian Ocean. See Efraim Inbar,“The Indian-Israeli Entente,“Orbis, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Winter 2004), pp. 99-100.
Thomas C. Schelling, The Strategy of Conflict, Fourth ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 37.
Raymond Aron uses this phrase to emphasize that the dialogue between the participants in a conflict establishes the meaning of the action. See his War and Peace: A Theory in International Relations (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1966), p. 167.
The author thanks Steven David for bringing this point to his attention. For a balanced discussion of nuclear terrorism, see Robin M. Frost, Nuclear Terrorism After 9/11, Adelphi Paper No. 378 (London: IISS and Routledge, December 2005).
The term energy ellipse was coined by Geoffrey Kemp and Robert E. Harkavy, Strategic Geography and the Changing Middle East (Washington: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 1997), p. 113.
“Interview with PM Rabin,“Bamahane, September, 23, 1992, p. 9. For Rabin’s attitude toward the introduction of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, see Efraim Inbar, Yitzhak Rabin and Israel (Washington: Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), pp. 118-24.‘s National Security
For Iranian attitudes toward Israel, see David Menashri, “Iran, Israel and the Middle East Conflict,” Israel Affairs, Vol. 12, No. 1 (January 2006), pp. 107-122.
For the notion of “soft power,” see Joseph S. Nye, Soft Power. The Means to Success in World Politics (New York: Public Affairs, 2004).
See Farah Stockman, “US and Allies Eye Sanctions on Iran,” Boston Globe, February 21, 2006.
 Mel Levine, Alex Turkeltaub, and Alex Gorbansky, “3 Myths About the Iran Conflict,” Washington Post, February 7, 2006, p. A21.
See Robert A. Pape,“Why Economic Sanctions Do Not Work,“International Security, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Fall 1997), pp. 90-136; Jean-Marc F. Blanchard and Norrin M. Risman,“Asking the Right Question: When Do Economic Sanctions Work Best?,“Security Studies, Vol. 9, Nos. 1/2 (Autumn 1999- Winter 2000), pp. 219-53.
“‘All options are on the table’, President George W. Bush on Iran,” Disarmament Diplomacy August 12, 2005. From Yaron Deckel,“Interview of the President by Israeli Television Channel 1,“ Israeli TV Channel 1, Bush Ranch, Crawford, Texas, August 11, 2005. http://www.acronym.org.uk/docs/0508/doc04.htm.
 Carol Giacomo, “US Senators say military strike on Iran must be an option,” Reuters, January 15, 2006.
“57% Back a Hit on Iran if Defiance Persists“ – from LA Times – January 27 – based on LA Times poll, http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-na-fornpoll27jan27,0,5687029.story?coll=la-home-headlines.(And another presentation of BBC poll results: http://www.globescan.com/news_archives/bbcpoll06-3.html).