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Sep 28, 2009 | 01:55 GMT

5 mins read

The Complications of Military Action Against Iran

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
U.S. SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES INSISTED, in an interview broadcast by CNN on Sunday, that on the issue of Iran, "The reality is, there is no military option that does anything more than buy time." This statement encompasses a number of complications with the American military option against Iran. The first is that Washington is attempting to balance the political positions of multiple countries. The White House is looking to ratchet up pressure on Tehran ahead of negotiations over its nuclear program, and to convince Iran that the United States is serious when it talks about considering the military option. But Washington is also moving to constrain Israel. Though the Jewish state is also looking to ratchet up pressure against Iran ahead of the negotiations, Israel's threshold for an attempt to strike at Iran's nuclear program is considerably lower than Washington's. Though it would be far less effective than a strike coordinated with or even conducted unilaterally by the United States, a unilateral Israeli strike against Iran quickly could implicate Washington in the conflict — especially if Tehran began targeting commercial maritime traffic in the Strait of Hormuz. Military efforts against Iran present profound difficulties. They begin with the costs of an Iranian reprisal following these strikes. Thus, the United States is trying to hold the middle ground. There is a considerable divergence between U.S. President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s positions, domestic political incentives and sense of urgency. Washington must convince Tehran that the final line has already been crossed (hence the warnings sparked by Iran’s recent disclosure of a second enrichment facility near Qom) and that if Iran does not seriously negotiate now and make considerable concessions, air strikes are imminent. But it also must convince Israel to allow time for negotiations — and sanctions that appear increasingly likely — to work, even if such a prospect is limited in and of itself. But aside from this delicate navigation of the middle ground, Gates also has a more objective point: Military efforts against Iran present profound difficulties. They begin with the costs of an Iranian reprisal following these strikes. Not only is there the threat of Tehran attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz (Iran's real "nuclear" option), but even a failed attempt to close the strait could short-circuit the economic recovery that now appears to be under way. Even before the current economic crisis emerged, the potential consequences for global oil prices due to an American strike on Iran were a real concern. Right now, this aspect of Iran's deterrent is perhaps at the height of its credibility. In addition, Iran has proxies and influence from Beirut to Kabul. Whatever damage might be achieved in an air strike, Tehran still would be able to ignite or intensify conflicts across the Islamic world — and perhaps even carry out terrorist strikes beyond it. In addition to concerns about Israel, where Tehran's influence with Hezbollah and Hamas could create flare-ups, the U.S. position in both Iraq and Afghanistan could be considerably eroded. In short, even though the military imperative is to strike first once hostilities appear to be inevitable — so as to attempt to preempt any Iranian action in the Gulf and Strait of Hormuz — if there is a compelling way for Washington to avoid an air campaign against Tehran, the United States has considerable incentive to continue to hesitate. The bottom line is that there is considerable uncertainty even with a full-scale U.S. air campaign. Though Iran's nuclear campaign inevitably will be degraded, the U.S. intelligence picture of Iran's program is at best incomplete; the facility at Qom is a case in point. Indeed, Tehran has done everything it can to create a very serious intelligence problem for Israel and the United States. With only limited situational awareness and understanding of Iran's undeclared nuclear efforts, any bombing campaign inevitably would miss some elements of the program. Though those elements might be insignificant (as they were with 1998’s Operation Desert Fox against Iraq, which some now think effectively marked the end of Baghdad's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs), Washington cannot put much confidence in that prospect, since its intelligence capabilities in Iran now are more limited than those it had in Iraq in the late 1990s. In addition, air strikes would only harden Iran’s interest in establishing a nuclear deterrent, and likely would be used by the current regime to consolidate domestic support — which is currently divided (though not as divided as some Western governments might like to believe). So while the United States is absolutely capable of striking at Iran militarily and doing considerable damage to Iran's nuclear program, a military strike is not an option that the White House can or will pursue lightly.

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