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Opening Pandora’s Box
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Assessing the “Military Option” for Countering Iran’s Nuclear Program

Volume 2, Issue 8, June 10, 2011

Neither sanctions, cyber sabotage, nor off-and-on multilateral diplomacy has yet convinced the government of Iran to end its pursuit of activities that could give it the capability to build nuclear weapons some time in the next few years.

Iran continues to produce and stockpile low enriched uranium in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions that have repeatedly called for a suspension of its sensitive nuclear fuel cycle activities while a diplomatic solution is pursued. Despite increasingly tougher international sanctions, Tehran is expanding its nuclear infrastructure without fully complying with its International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards obligations. On June 9, Tehran announced its intent to accelerate its enrichment of uranium at the 20% level, substantially closer to that needed for bomb material.

Not surprisingly, some policy makers and commentators argue that the United States should consider-or threaten-the use of force to stop or damage Iran’s nuclear program. However, a closer examination of the limitations and severe costs and consequences of “the military option” suggest that for all intents and purposes it is neither serious nor prudent.

Military Experts Advise Against

It is no accident that some of those who have had to professionally consider the option of using a “preventive” attack to counter Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons are among the least enthusiastic about seeing it exercised. Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, referred last month to the possibility of an Israeli Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”[1] Dagan later claimed that Israel’s last military chief of staff and the just-retired director of internal security were like-minded in opposing any such “dangerous adventure.” [2]

U.S. military leaders and senior defense officials, who possess many more assets than Israel to apply to such a task, sound no more enthusiastic. Former CENTCOM Commander Adm. William Fallon was conspicuously opposed while he had responsibility for U.S. forces in the region. Continued advances in Iran’s nuclear program have apparently not changed Fallon’s mind. He said at an American Iranian Council symposium June 7 that the best strategy would be to set aside the use of force against Tehran. [3]

While serving as 5th Fleet commander in the Persian Gulf, now retired Vice Adm. Kevin Cosgriff also warned publicly about the negative consequences of a preventive attack. Moreover, it is no secret that outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen and outgoing Secretary of Defense Robert Gates have expressed strong reservations about resorting to the “military option.” Members of Congress and the public would be well advised to take heed.

Unfortunately, “leaving all options on the table” has become standard political trope in Washington with regard to Iran’s nuclear program. In this context, the “military option” means an unprovoked “preventive” attack to eliminate Iran’s future nuclear weapons capability. But such an attack would not stop Iran’s program, and the international consequences would be severe.

It Won’t Work

The first point to consider in evaluating the military option is whether or not an aerial assault would be able to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire of the Institute for Science and International Security noted in a 2007 article that such a scenario was built on “a false promise because it offers no assurances that an Iranian nuclear weapons program would be substantially or irreversibly set back.” [4] There is even less doubt today that Iran would retain its relevant human capital and production base following an attack, and would still be able to launch a crash program to develop a bomb.

Experts differ on how long an aerial assault would set Iran back-from a couple of years to as much as five years-but most agree the setback would not be permanent. This reality helps explain why Vice JCS Chairman Gen. James Cartwright agreed with Sen. Jack Reed’s statement in 2010 Senate testimony that: “(T)he only absolutely dispositive way to end any (Iranian nuclear weapons) potential would be to physically occupy their country and to disestablish their nuclear facilities.” [5]

In this context, it is instructive to look anew at the conventional wisdom about Israel’s 1981 raid on Iraq’s Osirak reactor. Generally regarded as a spectacular success, the attack did indeed delay Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program. But Iraq’s determination to succeed was strengthened, its commitment of personnel and resources skyrocketed, [6] and its success at hiding its activities from the IAEA and Western intelligence collectors increased.

Of course, 2011 is a far cry from 1981 and Iran is not Iraq. But in most respects, Iran is considerably less vulnerable to a single strike than Iraq was and much further along in mastering the nuclear fuel cycle. So it is realistic to assume that an attack on Iran can offer only delay, not prevent acquisition of nuclear weapons.

A Complex, Costly Operation

Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is not limited to one well-defined facility that could be damaged with a quick, surgical strike. Because Iran’s nuclear facilities and support network is extensive and geographically dispersed, any military operation against it would probably require a “major air campaign,” lasting days or weeks, according to Jeffrey White, Defense Fellow at the Washington Institute and former career analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking at an Arms Control Association briefing on June 7.

White added that the target list would likely extend far beyond Iran’s 25 declared nuclear facilities and related sites to include air defense sites, command-and-control nodes, and ballistic and cruise missile launchers. Beyond the strike assets, additional resources would be required for personnel recovery and post-strike battle damage assessments. A campaign of this magnitude would necessarily involve phases, allowing some Iranian assets not initially hit to be removed and hidden before being struck. The United States would soon confront difficult decisions concerning the need to go back in and re-attack surviving facilities or to disrupt the reconstruction of those that had been destroyed.

Little International Support

Few other countries would support a U.S. preventive attack and even fewer would participate in it, according to Career Ambassador Thomas Pickering at the June 7 Arms Control Association briefing. “Aside from Israel, no countries would be waiting in line to join (a U.S. attack),” said Pickering, who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Israel and five other countries, including Russia and India. Even those Arab governments that would welcome a diminution of Iranian power, including most of Iran’s Sunni neighbors in the Persian Gulf, would keep their enthusiasm well under wraps, avoiding provocations to popular sentiment in the face of yet another U.S. attack on a Middle Eastern Muslim country.

All of the countries whose continuing logistical support is critical to U.S. combat capabilities in the region-Afghanistan, Iraq, Russia, and Pakistan-are strongly opposed to a U.S. attack on Iran.  A precipitous reaction to an attack from any one of them could easily cripple U.S. war efforts. China, which has increased its trade with Iran even after the imposition of UN sanctions, as well as Russia, would strongly oppose use of force and likely would block any effort to secure UN Security Council authorization for military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Creating All the Wrong Incentives for Iran

According to Rand Corporation analyst Alireza Nader, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, currently absorbed in a huge and divisive power struggle between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, would be quickly reunited by an outside attack.

Nader, who also spoke at the June 7 Arms Control Association briefing, noted that Iran’s “very nationalistic” population, which is overwhelmingly supportive of Iran’s nuclear program and jealous of Iran’s sovereignty, would likely demand retaliation for a Western attack.

Such retaliation could take a number of forms, from ballistic missile attacks against U.S. military bases in the region and the cities, ports, and oil terminals of U.S. allies in the Gulf to missile and rocket attacks against Israel. The Jewish state could be attacked by Iran directly or indirectly through Tehran’s ally Hezbollah and ally of convenience, Hamas. Iran could also use the IRGC to attack U.S. troops indirectly by aiding and provoking Shia militias in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Energy Insecurity

A more direct target would be the petroleum tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz, which carry nearly 40% of the world’s total traded oil. Iran’s regular and IRGC Navy elements have several methods for laying mines in the shipping channels of the narrow strait. Iran’s mobile anti-ship missiles on its Persian Gulf coast could do “a lot of damage” to shipping and be very difficult to hunt down, according to the Washington Institute’s Jeffrey White. Restoring safe passage for shipping could take days or weeks.

Delays and uncertainties in the supply of oil from the Persian Gulf and spiking insurance rates for tankers passing through the Strait of Hormuz would exert strong upward pressure on the price of oil-with a potential of quadrupling prices at the pump in the United States, according to some experts. Although Iran would have a disincentive for hurting the oil traffic on which much of its economy depends, it seems unlikely that it would tolerate military action against Iranian vessels without striking back at those ships vital to the economies of the United States and its Persian Gulf allies.

A Third Ground War?

As noted by Pickering, even a military attack on Iran with the narrowly defined objective of incapacitating Tehran’s nuclear weapons capability would run a serious risk of mission creep. Once engaged militarily, there could be pressures for incursions of U.S. ground forces to deny territory for missile launches against shipping, to rescue captured pilots, to aid anti-regime uprisings, or to secure nuclear materials. For the U.S. Army and Marine Corps, already stressed from a decade of conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, such additional commitments would raise serious questions about long-term sustainability and personnel retention.

If using military force cannot foreclose Iranian nuclear weapons potential and the consequences of a preventive attack are so onerous that security officials have already taken this option off the table, it makes no sense to pretend otherwise. Indeed, as Fallon warned at the June 7 American Iranian Council event, extended public discussion of the military option against Iran could harm prospects for alternative resolution to the nuclear problem. [7]

Sit on the Box and Use Your Head

U.S. security officials continue to testify to Congress that Tehran’s leaders have not yet decided to build and deploy nuclear weapons. Iran experts, like RAND’s Alireza Nader, believe it is not too late to dissuade Iran from taking such a course. Sanctions are in place, which impose heavy costs on Tehran’s refusal to open Iran up to more transparent cooperation with the IAEA, and they have been sustained while maintaining solidarity among the Permanent Members of the Security Council.

The United States needs to continue looking for diplomatic pathways to expanding IAEA access to Iranian nuclear capabilities and personnel, and stop rattling Pandora’s box as if it contained a key to the Iranian nuclear puzzle.-GREG THIELMANN



1. Yossi Melman, “Former Mossad chief: Israel air strike on Iran ‘stupidest thing I have ever heard’,” Haaretz, May 7, 2011.

2. Ethan Bronner, “Former Spy Chief Questions Israeli Leaders’ Judgment,” The New York Times, June 3, 2011.

3. Elaine M. Grossman, “Former Diplomat, Admiral See U.S. Strike Against Iran as Unlikely,” Global Security Newswire, June 8, 2011.

4. David Albright and Jacqueline Shire, “A Witches’ Brew? Evaluating Iran’s Uranium-Enrichment Progress,” Arms Control Today, November 2007, p. 10.

5. Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 14, 2010.

6. See, for example: Bennett Ramberg, “Preemption Paradox,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 2006, p. 51.

7. Elaine M. Grossman, “Former Diplomat, Admiral See U.S. Strike Against Iran as Unlikely,” Global Security Newswire, June 8, 2011.