Un-nuking Iran, Protecting Israel: Military Strike Best Option?


August 22, 2010

On August 17, John Bolton, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, claimed that Israel had three days to strike Iran’s nuclear energy plant at Bushehr before it came online. As of yesterday morning, with Russian assistance, the Iranians began to insert fuel rods into the reactor. As Bolton had pointed out, because the humanitarian and environmental consequences of an attack would be immense once the plant became operational, the chances of an attack are now miniscule.

The alarmism in Bolton’s statement is characteristic of the hullabaloo surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. From President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in January 2002 to talk of using tactical nuclear weapons against Iran in 2006, doom-and-gloom is no stranger to discussions on how to “un-nuke” Iran.

Other than the actual pace of Iran’s nuclear program, Bolton’s statement is indicative of Republican attempts to increase pressure on President Obama to “get tough” with Iran by “protecting Israel.”

There’s almost certainly going to be a Republican comeback in the midterm elections in the United States this November. If President Obama’s chances for re-election decrease in 2012 because of slow economic recovery (or worse), it’s perfectly conceivable that his administration could get tougher with Iran to shore up domestic support.

Would this mean another Middle East war? It’s hard to tell. But there are good reasons why a military operation would not be the best option to prevent Iran from “getting the bomb.”

After the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union imposed new sanctions on Iran’s gasoline imports (although Iran is a major oil exporter, because of inadequate infrastructure, it has to import gasoline), Iran has agreed to start a new round of negotiations. It seems that targeted sanctions do modify Iranian behavior.

So diplomacy has a decent chance to succeed than alarmist words would lead us to believe.

Unfortunately, that’s not how things appear from Israel (or to some in the United States).

Following his interviews with over 40 former and current Israeli officials, the journalist Jeffrey Goldberg reports that Jerusalem is becoming more restless about hitting Iran before it’s “too late.” For the Israelis, coupled with Iran’s ballistic missile program and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s controversial comments on the Holocaust, Iran’s nuclear program is an unacceptable risk. Apparently, Israeli military planners are contemplating scenarios where they would “go it alone,” without U.S. help.

But would a preemptive military strike actually serve America’s or Israel’s political aims?

The ongoing reconstruction and security efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan are far from complete. It would not be in U.S. interest to resort to the military option so prematurely. Iran has a lot of clout with Iraqi insurgent groups. With the last U.S. combat troops out of Iraq and Iraqi security forces struggling to maintain control with American assistance, an increase in insurgent attacks would undermine the gains made since the 2007 surge.

Tehran wouldn’t mind cooperating with Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (both sides dislike each other because of the Sunni-Shia schism) in case of a U.S. attack either. Remember what a pleasant experience (!) it was for the Soviets to deal with Afghan insurgents armed with U.S.-made Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles in the 1980s? With the U.S. armed forces relying on helicopters for logistics and combat operations in Afghanistan, similar weapons from Iran at the hands of insurgents would be too deadly for the United States.

For Israel, the most dangerous consequence of an attack on Iran would not be backlash from Hezbollah and HAMAS. Attacks from the two groups would be hurtful to Israeli civilians but they could be contained at levels acceptable to Israeli leaders.

The real danger is this: If Israel fires the opening salvoes of an Iran war, even moderate regimes in the region would have to back away from the idea of normalizing relations with Israel. Peace with the Arab world would be out of question for the foreseeable future. Worse, any Arab leader who has normalized relations with Israel – or has tried to do so in the past – would find his seat (and life) in danger. Imagine a few popular revolutions comparable to Iran’s 1979 Revolution toppling the moderate governments of Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia.

This is not to say that the United States should resign from the idea of persuading Iran to “un-nuke.” Even though the United States could live with a nuclear-armed Iran, its regional allies could not: If Iran acquires nuclear weapons, other Middle Eastern countries – especially the Persian Gulf monarchies – would have to either cozy up with Iran or develop their own nuclear capabilities. In either case, the United States, which has tried to “un-nuke” Iran for such a long time, would find its credibility in shambles and the Middle East in a cataclysmic nuclear arms race.

The best way to “un-nuke” Iran is by not giving the Iranian regime any pretext to “get the bomb.” At the moment, Iranian officials are probably uncertain about using their nuclear energy program to produce a bomb.

A U.S. and/or Israeli attack on Iran will change all that: Not only will such an attack convince the country’s ruling theocrats that they need the bomb, worse, it will force the people of Iran into a very unpleasant bind: Support the authoritarian government and defend the motherland or acquiesce in foreign aggression and let Iran turn into another Iraq or Afghanistan. For most Iranians, who faced a similar dilemma when Saddam Hussein attacked in 1980, the choice is most likely to be the former.

At this time, the military option against Iran would simply be counter-productive. Especially if the idea is to protect Israel.

Barın Kayaoğlu is a Ph.D. candidate in history at The University of Virginia. He welcomes all comments, questions, and exchanges. To contact him, click here.

You can follow him on Twitter (@barinkayaoglu) and Facebook (BarınKayaoğlu.com).

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