Tom Pickering at the BESA Center: Use No Force

By November 14, 2012

The following rapporteur’s summary is based upon a lecture at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies on November 14, 2012.

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: The best course of action in halting the Iranian nuclear program is a combination of Western sanctions and military threats. Military force should be the last resort taken by the US, and probably not at all. Though a “Grand Bargain” between the US and Iran will not happen, it is imperative that both sides continue negotiating in the hopes that there will be a breakthrough.

The current diplomatic standoff between the US and Iran is between two powerful and globally important nations. Though the US has been an important world power for decades, Iran is emerging as a significant regional and global actor. It is strategically located in central Asia, with trade ties to Europe and Asia, rich with energy resources, and in control of global shipping lanes. It is clear that there is a lot at stake here.

There are three aspects of the Iranian situation that the US must take into account before deciding on how to best deal with the Iranian threat.

The first aspect is the relationship, or lack thereof, between the two nations. America and Iran have not had ties since the Shah’s ouster in 1979. Since then there have been sporadic incidents of military, or near-military, conflicts in the Gulf area, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s: an American attempt to protect oil flow from Kuwait, and the accidental firing upon an Iranian civilian plane by a US naval ship. While there was an Iranian attempt to reach out to the US in 2002 regarding the rebuilding of Afghanistan, the US did not respond to the Iranian overtures. In short, the relationship between the two nations is one of mistrust and misunderstanding.

The second aspect involves several issues surrounding Iran’s nuclear program. First of all, you have to consider the status of the program itself. The intelligence communities of the US and Israel agree that, while no concrete decision has been made by the Iranian leadership to produce a nuclear bomb, the civilian program definitely has the potential to be converted into a military program. For example, Iran has only one nuclear power plant, a result of an agreement with Russia to help develop peaceful nuclear energy. Second of all, you must take into account American concern that an Iranian nuclear weapon could spark a regional nuclear arms race involving Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and perhaps Egypt. A third issue is the Iranian regime itself; while the US might ideally hope for a regime change in Tehran, the current xenophobic, hierarchal, and theological government will prove tough to dismantle. On top of that, America has a bad track record with trying to produce regime change, and it is hard to imagine that a new regime would be open to Western democratic values. A fourth issue is that an attack on Iran could spark a regional or global war involving attacks by Iranian proxies, such as Hizballah, or terror agents.

The third aspect is a solution to the current standoff. These solutions are based on discussions between American and Israeli academics and attempt to take all possible considerations into account.

The first possible solution is for America to step out of the way and let Iran proceed as it chooses. Should Iran succeed and build the bomb, the US and its allies will have to prepare proper containment and deterrence contingencies to ensure that Iran doesn’t use its weapon against American targets. This option is on the table, though nobody is seriously considering pursuing it. It opens the door to further nuclear proliferation by other nations, increasing the threat of global nuclear war. The bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945 should remain the last time that nuclear weapons are ever used during war.

A second possible approach is the use of military force, which has its own benefits and costs. The benefit of an American attack on Iran is that an extensive operation – involving air, sea, ground, cyber, and covert operations – would cause a delay of four years, if not longer, of the Iranian nuclear program. In contrast, an Israeli strike would at best buy only two years. In addition, an American attack would send a strong message to American allies in the region that the US is committed to doing whatever it takes to stop Iran from producing a nuclear weapon. Finally, it would act as a stern warning to any other nation thinking about engaging in nuclear proliferation.

The costs of a military operation are difficult to gauge because they depend on judgment calls made by critical decision-makers as well as Iran’s response. In any event, they break down into short-term and long-term consequences. An expected short-term cost is the heavy financial strain on the US, as an operation would cost more than the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined. A successful US attack would take weeks and would involve an extensive ground mission. Another short-term cost is an Iranian response, which could take the form of attacks launched by the Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah, or small terror cells operating against American citizens across the globe. In addition, Israel would be expected to bear the brunt of an Iranian response.

There are numerous long-term ramifications as well. The first is an increase in oil prices around the world. Iran’s ability to block the Straits of Hormuz, coupled with the current global economic situation, would cause oil prices to skyrocket. Another long-term cost is that a military attack would only increase Iran’s drive to produce more nuclear weapons. A third cost is the potential damage to America’s reputation in Islamic countries around the world. Likewise, such an operation could strengthen the Iranian people’s loyalty to the government. A strong tradition of Persian nationalism has shown us that when the Iranians are pressed to the wall, they unite and fight back. Finally, the general scope of the mission could mandate a US ground occupation of Iran for an extended period of time, should the US government feel that regime change or a complete shutdown of the program is unattainable.

Ultimately the best course of action to is a combination of sanctions and military threats. Military force should be the last resort taken by the US. Global developments, particularly relations between two countries in conflict, often unfold slowly. It took seven years for the US and China to move between first contact to diplomatic relations. Though a “Grand Bargain” between the US and Iran will not happen, it is imperative that both sides continue negotiating in the hopes that there will be a breakthrough.

This rapporteur’s summary was written by Eitan Rapps.

Ambassador Thomas Pickering

Ambassador Thomas Pickering is the former US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.