Stopping Iran's Bomb
WASHINGTON—Both President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama have tried hard to prevent Iran from developing and deploying nuclear weapons. The preferred strategy for achieving this objective has been to work closely with key European allies and to put pressure on Russia and China to support tough UN sanctions against the Iranian regime, all in order to get Teheran to come clean about its nuclear activities. The latest report from the International Atomic Energy Agency makes it clear that it has evidence Iran has made considerable progress in pursuing a nuclear weapons program that would allow Teheran to put warheads on surface-to-surface missiles. But both Russia and China have rejected calls for tougher sanctions.
For this reason there has been a growing debate in Israel and the United States about using force as a last resort to stop the program, or at least to set it back several years. Several of the top Republican contenders to challenge President Obama in 2012 — most notably former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich — are on record as supporting the use of force if more vigorous sanctions are ineffective in changing Iranian behavior. They argue that the Obama administration has failed to slow down Iranian nuclear developments and, if elected, they would pursue a much more aggressive policy. The very public debate in Israel is unique in that it pits former senior military and intelligence officers who explicitly reject the use of force against the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his minister of defense, Ehud Barak, who are both more open to an Israeli preemptive attack. Yet a use of force would have many downsides.
Not the least of them is that there is no certainty it would be successful, given the dispersal, redundancy, and hardening of Iran’s numerous nuclear facilities. Furthermore, any pre-emptive attack would probably require targeting those Iranian air and naval assets that pose a threat to U.S. or Israeli air and maritime forces. Iran has many ways in which it can retaliate against what it would regard as an act of war. It could attack U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, could fire thousands of rockets and missiles against Israeli cities. Perhaps the strongest argument against the use of force concerns the impact a new war in the Gulf would have on oil markets. Following any attack, the price of oil would spike to new highs, rising to perhaps $150 or even $200 a barrel. The fear would be that Iran might, in retaliation, target Arab oil producers and try to disrupt tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz.
The longer the war, the more uncertainty there would be in the markets and the more protracted would be the price rise. Coming at a time when the world economy is still suffering from the 2008 crisis and the current crisis in the euro zone, such price rises could plunge the world into a new recession or even depression. There are ways to limit the long-term impact of oil disruptions in the Gulf, but these would not happen immediately, and, to be effective, close cooperation among all major producers and consumers of petroleum would be required. Unless there is some international consensus that war with Iran was necessary, such cooperation will not happen. At this time, indeed, there is almost universal rejection of the use of force, with the exception of Israel and possibly the key Arab Gulf countries, including Saudi Arabia, who fear an Iranian bomb, though they would prefer to be associated with a U.S. rather than an Israeli attack.
Russia, China, France, and Germany have spoken out against military action. And even the overstretched U.S. military establishment appears to harbor no wish to engage in yet another war with a Muslim state. Most experts who talk to Iranian opposition leaders, especially those in the Green Movement, believe that an attack on Iran would strengthen an unpopular regime, not weaken it. It can be safely predicted that the upcoming election season in the United States will include an acrimonious debate about Iran policy, and how the administration is handling relations with Israel. The Obama administration will support greater military cooperation with Israel while pushing strongly for tougher sanctions against Iran’s financial institutions. But it will resist pressures to contemplate the military option absent a major provocation by Iran.
Geoffrey Kemp is a Fellow of the Transatlantic Academy and Director of Regional Security Programs at the Center for the National Interest.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.