China Radio: Will the US Attack Iran?
On Thursday morning, I was on China Radio International talking about the Iranian nuclear program and whether the US and its allies will resort to military action in the foreseeable future to prevent Iran from developing an atomic bomb. I was honored to appear along with Hua Liming, the former Chinese ambassador to Iran, who was there during the 1979 revolution and the ensuing hostage crisis. You can listen to the program or download it here (click on the first hour).
During the course of the discussion, I noted that — assuming Iran is working to develop nuclear weapons — the United States has four basic options, each of which is problematic in its own way:
- Military Action. The most direct way to “stop” Iran’s nuclear program would be to launch airstrikes on its nuclear facilities. But as US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has noted, there is no guarantee such strikes would be effective and they would probably just “buy time,” delaying Iran’s development efforts but not stopping them (nobody is seriously talking about invading and occupying Iran, and there’s no evidence that the massive preparations that would require are underway). If the U.S. did attack, Iran has a potentially effective ways to retaliate. First, it could try to close the narrow Straits of Hormuz, the main route for exporting oil and natural gas from the Persian Gulf. It’s not certain that Iran’s armed forces could succeed, and in the medium-term such a step would severely damage Iran, by cutting off its own supply route for importing gasoline. But even an unsuccessful attempt could send shock waves through an already fragile global economy. Second, Iran could fairly easily stir up instability in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, putting U.S. forces and interests at risk. And third, Iran could use Hezbollah to launch terrorist attacks on American targets around the globe, including in the U.S. itself. For all these reasons, U.S. military planners are reluctant to contemplate an attack on Iran.
- Economic sanctions. One alternative to military action would be for the U.S. to persuade its European allies, and the rest of the U.N. Security Council, to impose economic sanctions on Iran. The U.N. already has approved several rounds of mild sanctions, and the U.S. has had a great deal of success in using diplomatic pressure to isolate Iran’s banking system. But to apply the kind of tough sanctions that might actually change Iran’s mind — choking off business to companies owned by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, for instance, or cutting off gasoline imports — would require sign-on from Russia and China, and the chance of getting that approval look slim. With each “deadline” that slips by without any agreement on taking action, the sanctions threat loses more and more credibility.
- Acceptance. If the U.S. doesn’t like its military options, and finds itself stymied on the diplomatic front, it may have little choice but to accept a nuclear Iran — for the moment at least — and try to adjust to that reality (focusing, for instance, on developing regional anti-missile systems with its allies). That is essentially what the U.S. has done in relation to North Korea. The concern, however, is that Iran’s development of a nuclear bomb could set up a nuclear arms race in the region, with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states developing their own bombs as a counterweight to Iran. Such a free-for-all could seriously threaten regional stability and increase the chance of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.
- Grand Bargain. Alternatively, the U.S. could move in bold new direction and try to strike a broad-ranging deal with deal with Iran that set aside ideological differences and included diplomatic recognition and possibly a presidential visit. The model for this, of course, would be Nixon’s trip to China in the early 1970s. Many feel that ideological differences (over human rights, for instance) cannot and should not be set aside, but assuming they were, this route would still present two main difficulties. The first is the deep mistrust between the two sides — striking a deal would involve considerable political risks on both sides. The second would be the reaction of existing U.S. allies in the region — not just Israel, but also Saudi Arabia and the UAE — who would find their interests threatened (we tend to forget how negative the initial response of US allies in Asia was to Nixon’s China trip).
Despite what some critics have claimed in recent years, the United States is not “bent on” war with Iran. To the contrary, just as in North Korea, it finds itself on the horns of a very tricky and unwelcome dilemma.