Page 1 of 2 Conflict or containment in the Persian Gulf?
By Brian M Downing
United States Secretary of Defense Gates recently complained there was no plan
to halt Iran's nuclear research, which is thought to be aimed at building
atomic weapons. It is more accurate to say that plans to halt the program -
both diplomatic and military - are impractical or have grave consequences. In
the absence of a way to halt Iran's nuclear research, worrisome though the
program is, the US might consider a containment policy, or perhaps even a
diplomatic opening with Iran.
The US intelligence community's most recent position holds that Iran has no
weapons program, but neither the previous US administration nor the present one
believes it - a sign of the
community's lack of credibility. If US intelligence cannot adequately assess
the state of Iran's research program, it's unclear it can understand Iran's
intentions. Assessments are filled with group-think and worst-case scenarios
presented as virtual certainties. But there are non-aggressive reasons for a
The most oft-heard rationale is that the weapons are being developed to attack
Israel. A single nuclear explosion over the business center of Tel Aviv, it is
said, would destroy the economy on which the nation is based. This
underestimates the Jewish commitment to their homeland and trivializes the
severity of an Israeli response. Any such attack would lead to devastating
counter-strikes, which would be as proportionate as recent Israeli responses to
rocket attacks from Lebanon and Gaza,
This scenario relies on the view that Iran is governed by apocalyptic mullahs
who would welcome their own destruction, as it would bring the return of the
Hidden Imam and the rule of Islam worldwide. Though this belief is indeed part
of Twelver Shi'ism, there is no indication the mullahs conduct government with
an eye toward imminent destruction and the end of the world. American
Christianity has apocalyptic strains; American foreign policy does not.
In the aftermath of the Ruhollah Khomeini revolution of 1979, calls for Shi'ite
uprisings in the Gulf region resounded from Tehran, but rather than seeking the
apocalypse, the calls looked to consolidate the revolution and spread the
imam's ideas in this world. They led to very little, and since then Iranian
foreign policy has been pragmatic. The mullahs are concerned with day-to-day
government and with strengthening their control after the unrest following last
summer's electoral unrest.
Defenders of the attack-Israel scenario point to the irresponsible rhetoric of
Iran's President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who has repeatedly called for Israel's
destruction. His statements are irksome, but Ahmadinejad has no control over
the military (or much else in government) and so cannot put his words into
Control rests in the hands of superiors on the Guardian Council, whose words
and actions are more cautious. Ahmadinejad's rhetoric seeks to weaken Iran's
Arab rivals by playing to the urban poor who question their leaders' quiescence
vis-a-vis Israel. Ahmadinejad has been criticized by reformists in Iran who
better represent the country's future.
Iran's nuclear program is more likely based on defense concerns. Shortly after
9/11, the George W Bush administration targeted Iran as part of the "axis of
evil" along with Iraq and North Korea. Iran was clearly a candidate for
forcible regime change, though as runner-up to Iraq. Had chaos not erupted in
Iraq following the 2003 invasion - in part due to Iranian actions - US forces
might well have turned east.
Every country looks on the actions of foreign powers through the lens of its
national history. And Iranian history over the past century is a litany of
foreign occupations, coups and various oil and arms transactions of dubious
fairness - all of which stemmed from Britain, the US and Russia.
Today, the US has about 200,000 troops on Iran's eastern and western borders
and keeps one or more carrier groups offshore. Though these forces are
dedicated to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran cannot be certain of
benign intent. The presence of Western-supported insurgencies in the Kurdish
northwest, the Arab southwest and the Baloch southeast - some of whom have
engaged in terrorist bombings - further elevates Iran's concerns.
Rising powers look on their militaries as emblems of national honor, legitimacy
and prestige. In the 19th century, countries such as the US and Germany built
white-water navies, including immense battleships, though they didn't figure
meaningfully in national defense.
As its empire gradually gave way in the decade and a half after the end of Word
War II, France embarked on a nuclear weapons program as a means of restoring
lost prestige, especially after the loss of Algeria. In some respects, nuclear
weapons are the battleships of our age: impressive, dangerous, but of little
Doubtful effectiveness of sanctions
The US is seeking to organize a sanction regime on Iran, but it is unlikely to
meet with success. It will need the support of Russia and China, both of whom
have votes on the UN Security Council and important trade and geopolitical ties
The history of sanctions does not inspire confidence in their effectiveness.
Numerous countries, including Saddam Hussein's Iraq, endured over a decade of
sanctions without political change. Smuggling is far from unknown in the Gulf
region, many tribes there specialize in it, and the Shi'ite leaders in Iraq
will facilitate illicit trade with the country that helped them during Saddam's
oppressive rule. There is little to prevent smuggling from the Caucasus region
to Iran's north, where such activity thrived even under Soviet rule.
Sanctions are not effective in the best of circumstances. Russia and China both
benefit from trade with Iran. China buys oil and Russia sells armaments there.
Sanctions are unlikely to impact a country that sells huge quantities of oil
and buys equally large quantities of weaponry. Even several years of sanctions
are unlikely to have an appreciable effect on the nuclear program, except
perhaps to stimulate it in the face of foreign pressure.
Unlikelihood of a US attack
The US routinely used to threaten to attack Iran. Its fighters and ships probed
Iranian defenses, and at times there were three carrier groups in the region
instead of the one in support of operations in Iraq. In 2006, Washington
trumpeted an upcoming simulation of a nuclear strike on a deep rock stratum in
Nevada that was, uncoincidentally, the same depth as the rock stratum above
Iran's underground research center at Natanz. (The test was called off due to
At the same time, Iraq was in civil war. Sunni and Shi'ite militias fought
vicious battles, and Shi'ite political parties and their associated militias
fought only somewhat less viciously. Both militias inflicted unexpectedly high
casualties on US troops. US policy there was in a shambles and the public was
In early 2008, however, fighting fell off markedly, and not only in the Sunni
areas where the "Surge" was taking place. Shi'ite attacks on US forces and on
each other dropped as well. Antagonistic political parties reached agreements.
Perhaps most surprisingly, US threats to attack Iran disappeared at the same
Iran, in the person of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps General Qassem
Suleimani, had brokered agreements that brought peace to Iraq and relief to
Washington. The diplomatic history of the region would suggest a secret deal
between the US and Iran, probably with the complicity of Sunni-Arab states,
especially Saudi Arabia and the smaller Sunni states that balance the
Unilateral Israeli attack?
Threats of attack still come from Israel, where a hawkish government reflects
on a national history of fear of destruction and makes policy accordingly.
Israel has demonstrated the willingness to use devastating air power on Lebanon
and Gaza, the ability to defeat Iran's Russian air defenses in a strike on
Syria, and the capacity to travel significant distances to reach targets in
Tunisia and Iraq.
The distances to Iran and back are greater than anything the Israeli air force
has undertaken. Refueling would be necessary. Reports and rumors swirl of
securing refueling facilities in Georgia or pre-positioning fuel bladders in
remote parts of Yemen. Failing that, Israeli fighters could ditch over the
Indian Ocean near waiting Israeli ships.
Other critical questions remain. Can Israel defeat Iranian air defenses without
help from the US? Can nuclear facilities buried deep underground or burrowed
into mountains be destroyed, or would they merely be knocked offline but
brought back into operation in a few months by a vengeful government? Would
attacks rally reformist groups to the government at a time of flagging support
for the mullahs?
The US developed and bruited a new generation of bunker-busting weapons while
directing dire warnings at Iran. These weapons would be needed to strike
underground targets such as the nuclear facilities near Natanz and Isfahan. But
after fighting declined in Iraq, little has been said of them. The US has
refused to sell the new bunker-busters to Israel or even position them there
for contingencies, as it does with many other weapons.