Obama and the Persian Dilemma

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a meeting with US President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House.

The question of an attack on Iran has become the subject of intense debate over the past few months. What is puzzling about this debate is that it has not centered on Iran’s nuclear program or whether Iranians seek to obtain a nuclear bomb, but rather on whether Israel or the US (or both) will attack Iran to prevent this. The re-election of Barack Obama to a second term is important, yet the situation vis-à-vis Iran and Israel has not changed significantly. Iran still faces harsh sanctions and its economy is on the brink of collapse; nevertheless, its nuclear program continues to advance unchecked and the regime does not show signs of weakening its grip on power. Likewise, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces elections in January 2013, but is likely to win a resounding victory; Iranians will also go to the polls in 2013 to elect a new president and Majlis (parliament). The outcome of these elections will neither change the overall threat Iran’s nuclear program poses to Israel nor the military threat Israel poses to Iran. Caught between the risk of an Israeli attack on Iran or an Iranian attack against Israel is the United States, desperately trying to avoid the outbreak of an Iranian–Israeli war, the consequences of which are unpredictable.

In an attempt to publicize the costs of such a risky endeavor, an impressive group of former American officials joined together recently to “encourage more informed and objective discussion of the military option by policymakers, the public, and the press,” and produced and released a detailed report entitled Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran. This consortium of former officials has called themselves the Iran Project. Their findings offer plenty of compelling reasons for concern regarding a hypothetical attack on the Islamic Republic.

According to Thomas Pickering, a seven-time US ambassador, former undersecretary of state for political affairs, and one of the report’s authors, the report was conceived in early 2012 when tensions were rising in the Gulf and there was increased talk of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, especially from Israel. At this point, a small group of scholars and diplomats that had been engaged for some years in track two diplomacy with Iran decided that there needed to be a “serious effort to look factually at the costs and the benefits” of this option. In response, the group prepared a paper that was circulated to a wide number of “distinguished, very experienced former officials from the Senate to the national security advisors to military officials to former diplomats and asked them for their comments and their willingness to sign on.” These individuals read the draft report and offered valuable comments that led to a redrafting of the report, which was released in early September. In addition, those who participated in the drafting offered their endorsement of the findings. As Pickering points out:

The report is interesting because it has no recommendations and it has no conclusions. Those are left up to the individual after reading over the factual information. It contains extensive footnotes relating to the expert opinions that have been relied upon to produce the conclusions in the report. Nobody agreed with absolutely everything but everybody agreed with the thrust of the report that there should be an informed and indeed well-articulated debate in the United States before any decision was made to use military force.

Thankfully, there have also been some recent signs that the chances of a military strike on Iran are receding. While there is no question that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in favor of an attack, arguing in contradiction of well-known facts that Iran is building a nuclear bomb, Obama’s attitude has been cautious and the US has taken action behind the scenes to restrain Israel. The Obama administration’s stance is based on the conclusion of the US intelligence community that while Iran continues to enrich uranium, its leadership has not yet decided to build a bomb. Instead, they see Iran as intent on developing nuclear “break out” capacity: obtaining the know-how to build a nuclear bomb, but stopping short of this final stage unless threatened.

American officials have grown increasingly concerned that Netanyahu’s posturing will drag the United States into a war with Iran. Consequently, Obama has bypassed the Israeli leadership by strengthening ties with its security establishment, which has become an increasingly vocal source of opposition to an Israeli-led attack on Iran’s nuclear program. In short, the Obama administration has enlisted a set of powerful allies in Israel, a mirror image of the widely-held belief that an Israeli lobby holds sway in Washington over Middle East policy.

“Red Lines”

While the US and Israel agree on the fundamental objective of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, it is immediately apparent that the two countries differ greatly on the point that Iran needs to cross that would result in the use of military force, the so-called “red line.” On the Israeli side, Defense Minister Ehud Barak has said the world needs prevent Iran from entering what he calls a “zone of immunity”—the point at which Iran’s nuclear facilities would be immune from any potential Israeli military strike because all the necessary components for developing a nuclear weapon would have been moved further underground.

The American “red line” is very different. For the Obama administration, the line is drawn at Iran’s acquisition of a functional nuclear weapon, but US intelligence experts have judged with a high degree of confidence that “no such decision [to develop one] has been taken by Iran’s Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Indeed, according to the Iran Project report, the US “has excellent capabilities for detecting any Iranian efforts to build clandestine weapons-development facilities.” A good example is the Obama administration’s exposure of Iran’s secret Fordow nuclear enrichment facility in September 2009, which was first detected in 2007. The report concluded that it would be “extremely difficult for Iran to hide a nuclear program devoted to weapons development.”

US and Israeli differences over red lines have led to an open rupture between the two governments. Take, for instance, the public disagreement that surfaced in early September following one of Netanyahu’s provocative speeches in which he said, “Those in the international community who refuse to put red lines before Iran don’t have a moral right to place a red light before Israel.” In an interview with Bloomberg Radio, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a sharp rebuttal, saying that the US was “not setting deadlines” for Iran and still considers negotiations as “by far the best approach” to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

A few weeks later, Obama and Netanyahu’s speeches to the United Nations General Assembly showed clear differences of opinion on the issue. Netanyahu, after paying lip service to the crippling sanctions that Obama has managed to convince the international community to implement, argued, “At this late hour, there’s only one way to peacefully prevent Iran from getting atomic bombs, and that’s by placing a clear red line on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Red lines don’t lead to war. Red lines prevent war.” He continued, “Red lines could be drawn in different parts of Iran’s nuclear weapons program, but to be credible, a red line must be drawn first and foremost in one vital part of their program—on Iran’s efforts to enrich uranium.” At this point, Netanyahu took out a cartoon image of a bomb and began to explain the logistics of the construction of a nuclear weapon. He explained that “by next spring, at most by next summer, at current enrichment rates, [Iran] will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks, before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.” Netanyahu then took out a marker and drew a red line on his cartoon and argued that Israel cannot allow Iran to complete its enrichment of medium enriched uranium (MEU) to 20 percent. It is important to note that the level of enrichment needed for weapons-grade uranium (WGU) is around 90 percent, which is not technically difficult to achieve once a stockpile of MEU has been built up.

When it was Obama’s turn to give his speech, he was firm on the American position with respect to Iran:

Let me be clear: America wants to resolve this issue through diplomacy, and we believe that there is still time and space to do so. But that time is not unlimited. We respect the right of nations to access peaceful nuclear power, but one of the purposes of the United Nations is to see that we harness that power for peace. Make no mistake: a nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that can be contained. It would threaten the elimination of Israel, the security of Gulf nations, and the stability of the global economy. It risks triggering a nuclear arms race in the region, and the unraveling of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. That is why a coalition of countries is holding the Iranian government accountable. And that is why the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.

Quite clearly, the American red line with respect to Iran is an Iranian decision to acquire a nuclear weapon. It is at this point that Obama would consider an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

However, it seems unlikely that Iran would make this decision under present circumstances and that there would be identifiable signs that the Iranian leadership was moving toward this decision, like withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and expelling International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, who currently have access to Iranian nuclear facilities. As these signs appeared, the international community would respond by ratcheting up sanctions and building an international coalition to approve the use of force against Iran. However, should the Russians or Chinese block such efforts, the US could take the matter to the General Assembly for a vote, which would likely gain widespread support. Even so, given the talk of red lines and the threat that increasing possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike, it is important to assess the military capacity of the Israel and the US and the likelihood of achieving success.

Attacking Iran

One of the reasons for the difference in the American and Israeli stances on the question of red lines boils down to technical capability. The fact is that Israel does not have the capability to destroy Iran’s nuclear facility. According to the Iran Project, if Israel were to launch an airstrike it would have to rely mainly on the Israeli Air Force’s (IAF) long-range strike aircraft and land or submarine-based cruise missiles, which are nowhere near as numerous as their American counterparts, and are not stealth designs. The report also points out that the IAF would be required to cross over Iraqi or Jordanian airspace to carry out such an attack. Another key problem is that the Fordow facility is buried between 200 and 300 feet underground. This is why Israel is so intent on obtaining American support prior to an attack on Iran.

If the US were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities it would likely employ its stealth bombers armed with the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-pound, “bunker-busting” bomb. While experts disagree on whether this option is capable of destroying Fordow, the US can also employ the use of cruise missiles, drones, and special operation forces to destroy some of Iran’s high-value targets. Should the initial strikes not destroy the facility, the US is capable of additional sorties, but this would increase the risk to US forces and increase the duration of the campaign.

While an American attack has a much greater chance at success than an Israeli one, the destruction of Iran’s enrichment facilities is not guaranteed. Indeed, as the Iran Project concluded, “An Israeli air strike is unlikely to succeed in destroying or even seriously damaging the Fordow enrichment facility and the stockpile of MEU that is stored there.” Even worse, the report concludes that even a successful Israeli attack would only set back Iran’s nuclear program by up to two years.

Many risks, few rewards

In assessing the viability of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program it is important to take into consideration both the benefits and costs of such action. The report does this brilliantly. The most obvious benefit of a US attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities will delay Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon by “up to four years,” but this would require sustained US airstrikes. The report suggests that the basis for this estimate is reflected by the time that it took Iran to build the Fordow facility deep underground and how long it took to then bring it online. Second, an airstrike may do permanent damage to key nuclear infrastructure that would be very difficult to replace under the current sanction regime, but experts dispute Iran’s capability to procure replacements. Third, in addition to striking Iran’s nuclear facilities, a sustained campaign would require the US to destroy key military infrastructure, including Iran’s air defenses, air force, command and control facilities, and communications networks. The US would also likely attack military bases, missile and rocket launching sites, and the facilities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). These attacks would have a much more lasting effect on Iran’s overall military capabilities. A fourth benefit to an attack on Iran is that it would serve as a deterrent to other nations considering obtaining a nuclear capacity. Indeed, “if Iran’s nuclear program were set back, key regional players … would feel less pressure to pursue their own nuclear programs.” Finally, military action would offer broader geopolitical benefits for the US, since it would disrupt government control over the populace, deplete the Iranian treasury, raise internal tensions, and, perhaps weaken the regime. This last point, however, is a matter of contention, since many experts believe that an attack would strengthen the regime by creating a “rally around the flag” effect.

It is clear from the report that the costs of military action against Iran will be very high.

The most obvious repercussion of a US or Israeli military strike against Iran is retaliation, which would cost lives and cause damage to US property and assets throughout the region. In the event of an attack, Iran could retaliate directly at several targets: US forces in the region, Israel, and the Strait of Hormuz. The Iran Project members argued that a US strike would lift any restraint that Iranian officials have had with respect to attacking US forces in the region, particularly the US naval base in Bahrain or US vessels in the Gulf. Iran could make use of its ballistic missile capability to launch missiles at Israeli cities, and possibly Israel’s nuclear complex at Dimona. In both these cases, the scale of damage inflicted would likely be blunted by US missile defense systems deployed in the region. Finally, Iran could finally follow through with its threat to close the Strait of Hormuz. While Iran is capable of achieving this for a few days or weeks, this tactic could easily backfire by starving itself of crucial oil revenues and alienate important allies like China.

In terms of indirect retaliation, Iran has a number of assets that it can utilize, including the mobilization of its proxy forces. As the report argues, “If Hezbollah (and perhaps Hamas) were to decide to take action, they could inflict significant damage on Israel with their extensive rocket and missile arsenals.” This would likely result in Israeli retaliation, but this, in turn, could kill civilians, inflict property damage, and set back the Israeli economy. At the same time, Iran could activate its covert assets worldwide. As the report points out, while the “extent of Iran’s ability to conduct . . . a covert campaign is unclear, given some recent failures and missteps . . . the success of the bombing in Bulgaria [earlier this year] does indicate some ability to attack soft targets well outside the Middle East.”

Another major cost would be that military action would lead to a major escalation in tensions between the US and Iran, the consequences of which are unpredictable but include the possibility of a full-scale war breaking out: “Given the ‘fog of war,’ high levels of distrust, the absence of communication among regional combatants, and the ability of events to overtake even the most careful planning, miscalculation and uncontrollable escalation to full scale combat cannot be discounted.”

There are also a number of potential regional and global costs of a US attack on Iran. The most obvious is that there would be a break down in global solidarity against Iran’s program. To date, the Obama administration has proven apt at rallying nations to agree to the harsh sanctions imposed on the country, including a number of Security Council resolutions that were difficult to obtain, given Iran’s ties with the Russians and Chinese. Certainly a US attack on Iran without widespread international backing would unravel these gains, since Iran would justifiably be viewed as a victim of aggression. This would be a significant setback to US interests in the region.

A US attack could also significantly increase the likelihood that Iran would actively seek the acquisition of a nuclear bomb. This view is not novel to US policymakers. In fact, it was a primary reason why the Bush administration refused the sale of technology to Israel that was likely to increase the success of an Israeli attack on Iran. An attack on Iran would likely convince the Iranian leadership that regime change is really the goal of US policy and that only the acquisition of a nuclear weapon could head off any future or sustained military action. Iran could also have withdrawn from the NPT, expelled IAEA inspectors, and ultimately cut the US and international community off from important intelligence on its nuclear program.

An attack would also increase global instability. Certainly a US–Israeli attack could embolden radical elements throughout the region and turn back some of the democratic major gains of the Arab Spring. In particular, an Israeli attack would strengthen radical elements inside Egypt, which could then lead to pressure on the Muslim Brotherhood to withdraw from its peace treaty with Israel. This would be a major blow to the region. It could also increase hostility toward US personnel, diplomats, and civilian contractors inside Iraq, which has a large Shi’a population that identifies itself on a religious level with Iran. Finally, an attack would certainly lead to a spike in the price of oil, which could potentially have a devastating impact on the already-struggling world economy.

The circumstances of any attack on Iran could have a varying impact on America’s global standing. If Israel were to attack Iran against the advice of the US and the Obama administration was forced to help defend it from retaliation, then American influence would not be significantly harmed. However, if the two nations were to act together, it could easily be construed as an attack on Muslims worldwide, being the fourth attack on a predominately Islamic country in just over a decade (with Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya preceding it). The result would be a significant decrease in US stature throughout the Muslim world, which could also lead to further radicalization.

Finally, if it was clear that Iran was actively seeking a nuclear weapon, the US could seek authorization for the use of force through the Security Council, though it seems unlikely that Russia or China would approve. In that case, the US could either form an international coalition, take the matter to the General Assembly, or attack unilaterally. In this event, US influence would still come under intense criticism and its regional influence would suffer, though much less than if there was no evidence that Iran was actively seeking a nuclear weapon.

Expert views

US foreign policy experts are largely in agreement with the Iran Project’s conclusions. As it stands, at least 35 influential former US officials have endorsed the report, including Zbigniew Brzezinski (national security advisor to Jimmy Carter), General Brent Scowcroft (national security advisor to Gerald Ford and George H. W. Bush), General Anthony Zinni (former CENTCOM commander), former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE), and Representative Lee Hamilton (D-IN), among many others.

Brzezinski gave an interview with Newsman TV in July, in which he warned, “A war in the Middle East, in the present context, may last for years. . . And the economic consequences of it are going to be devastating for the average American. High inflation. Instability. Insecurity. Probably significant isolation for the United States in the world scene.” He then asked rhetorically, “Can you name me any significant country that’s going to be in that war together on our side? That’s something no one can afford to ignore.” It is clear that Brzezinski is more worried about what will happen once the war begins. “Rushing to war is not a wise course of action. You can always start a war, and you know pretty much what happens when you start it. But you don’t know how long it will last, what its consequences will be—and they will be certainly very costly for the United States.”

Another US analyst, Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution, a former CIA and National Security Council official, added that he would go a step further than the report’s conclusions:

I think the downsides of military action against Iran, whether it is American, Israeli, or joint, so outweigh the potential gains that it would reckless in the extreme to resort to military action. I think the last think the world needs is another war in the Middle East, certainly the last thing the global economy needs is another war in the Middle East, and that is why I think we need to find a way out of this that avoids conflict.

With such widespread support for the report’s findings among top US officials, it seems clear that a consensus has been reached among US policymakers that the risk of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program far exceeds the threat of Iran’s nuclear enrichment. As a consequence, the US has initiated steps aimed at strengthening ties with Israel’s security establishment, while simultaneously stressing the consequences to Israel’s special relationship with the US if premeditated action were to be taken without American approval.

Reassessing the question of Iran

Since the release of the report, a number of positive developments have undermined calls for war. Netanyahu addressed the Israeli public in a televised speech on 9 October, announcing that because of the political impasse concerning the passage of his proposed budget, he had decided that it was in Israel’s best interests to hold an election as early as possible.

Netanyahu’s call for an early election allowed tensions within Israel over the question of an attack on Iran, which had been bubbling under the surface for months, to break into the open. Graham Allison, the director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and Shia Feldman, the director of Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies, wrote an article on the situation published in the New York Times on 13 October (not long after the election was called). According to their article, Netanyahu accused his defense minister, Ehud Barak—who had long supported the prime minister’s position on Iran—of conspiring with the Obama administration to stave off an Israeli attack again Iran. “The public row with Mr. Barak illustrated the magnitude of Mr. Netanyahu’s retreat and his difficulty in explaining it. He was left with implying that he had been undermined, if not betrayed by, his own defense minister,” wrote Allison and Feldman. Their article goes on to explain that Netanyahu’s about-face was the direct result of a “long-building revolt by Israel’s professional security establishment against the very idea of an early military attack, particularly one without the approval of the United States.” Indeed, former and even serving senior Israeli defense and intelligence officials have publicly opposed Netanyahu’s case for war for months; the most notable of whom is former Mossad chief Meir Dagan, who said in a TV interview that attacking Iran was “the stupidest idea I have ever heard.”

Significantly, the New York Times article points out that the revolt within Israel’s defense and intelligence communities was no coincidence, but rather part of the Obama administration’s strategy to undermine Netanyahu’s reckless push for war. In effect, the US administration established a US lobby among Israeli security professionals, which has forced the Israeli prime minister to back down:

[Behind] the scenes, the Obama administration [has been] conducting a quiet campaign that would strengthen the view, already circulating among Israeli security professionals, that prematurely attacking Iran would not advance Israel’s interests and would damage Israel’s relationship with America. Instead of holding Israel at bay or threatening punitive action, the administration was upgrading American security assistance to Israel—so much so that earlier this year Mr. Barak described the level of support as greater than ever in Israel’s history.

The Obama administration built this lobby by expanding intelligence sharing programs, assisting with Israel’s missile defense shield, and by engaging in joint cyber operations against Iran’s nuclear program. These efforts have expanded the importance of Israel’s security relationship with the United States and ensured that key Israeli officials have “a strong interest in continuing the close partnership.” Indeed, as Allison and Feldmen observe, “It is no accident that the security institutions have become among the most vocal opponents of attacking Iran. No one knows better than they what is at stake if they ignore Washington’s concerns.”

A final important development occurred on 20 October, when the New York Times revealed that US and Iranian officials had “agreed in principle” for the first time to one-on-one talks over Iran’s nuclear program. While American and Iranian officials have issued denials, it seems likely that both sides are awaiting the outcome of the election before proceeding further. In an interview, Riedel observed, “I think the prospects of a diplomatic solution have gone up a little bit in the last week with the news that the United States and Iran are considering a direct bilateral negotiation process. Although both sides have denied that, I don’t find either of their denials particularly compelling.” Either way, there is little question that the prospect of US-Iran bilateral talks will not sit well with Netanyahu, since it would limit Israel’s ability to influence a final agreement.

Regime change?

In the end, the conflict between the US and Israel over the question of Iran’s nuclear program in has been complicated by personal rivalries and the US presidential elections. Some say that Netanyahu does not wish to see Obama re-elected and believes that Mitt Romney, an old friend and former colleague from his days as a management consultant in the US, would be more sympathetic. His preference is reportedly an open secret, and will undoubtedly lead to greater tension between the two leaders should Obama be reelected. Many observers already agree that Netanyahu and Obama do not see eye-to-eye, to say the least. In the words of Bruce Riedel, “I think they despise each other. I think if you wanted to know what Netanyahu’s real number one foreign policy goal is today, it is regime change on the banks of the Potomac. But he has very little mechanism for making that happen.”

On the question of an attack on Iran’s nuclear program, the Iran Project makes clear that while Israel is capable of inflicting significant damage, it can only slow Iran’s enrichment of uranium temporarily. The US, on the other hand, has much more sophisticated weaponry, but can merely delay Iran for longer. In either case, as the report makes clear, the repercussions far outweigh any benefits of such an attack.

Fortunately, the Obama administration’s diplomatic offensive aimed at convincing senior officials in Israel’s national security establishment that a unilateral attack against Iran is not in Israel’s best interests seems to be paying off. At the same time, the Netanyahu government has collapsed due to infighting over his proposed budget, which has brought tensions over the Iran question into the open. Finally, the revelation that the US and Iran have agreed in principle to bilateral talks suggests that the diplomatic impasse that has plagued relations between the two countries since the Iranian Revolution could possibly come to an end, and resolve the nuclear issue diplomatically.


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