A year and a half ago, Iran’s nuclear ambition constituted a threat but not yet a world crisis. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had not yet been elected president of the country, nor begun his declarations that the Holocaust never occurred and that modern Israel must be “wiped from the map.” The mullah-dominated Iranian government was still evasive and uncooperative rather than flatly defiant when the United States and Europe demanded supervision of its nuclear programs by the International Atomic Energy Agency. It might even look favorably on the face-saving compromise the Russian government talked about, under which Iranians could build just about any nuclear power plant they wanted, thereby satisfying their announced desire to move beyond reliance on oil—as long as they left the reprocessing and enrichment of spent fuel, and therefore the potential for building nuclear weapons, in Russian hands on Russian soil.
Will Iran Be Next?
In 2004, James Fallows reported on a war game The Atlantic conducted, simulating preparations for a U.S. assault on Iran.
It was at this time, in September 2004, that The Atlantic sponsored a “war game” to consider what choices the United States might have if the Iranian problem built to a crisis. War games are not a staple of this magazine’s operation, but in light of difficulties in Iraq, we wanted to play out the long-term implications of possible U.S. moves and Iranian countermoves. So under the guidance of Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel who had conducted many real-world war games for the Pentagon, including those that shaped U.S. strategy for the first Gulf War, we assembled a panel of experts to ask “What then?” about the ways in which the United States might threaten, pressure, or entice the Iranians not to build a bomb. Some had been for and some against the invasion of Iraq; all had served in the Pentagon, intelligence agencies, or other parts of the nation’s security apparatus, and many had dealt directly with Iran.
The experts disagreed on some details but were nearly unanimous on one crucial point: what might seem America’s ace in the hole—the ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear installations in a pre-emptive air strike—was a fantasy. When exposed to “What then?” analysis, this plan (or a variant in which the United States looked the other way while Israel did the job) held more dangers than rewards for the United States. How could this be, given America’s crushing strength and wealth relative to Iran’s? There were three main problems:
* The United States was too late. Iran’s leaders had learned from what happened to Saddam Hussein in 1981, when Israeli F-16s destroyed a facility at Osirak where most of his nuclear projects were concentrated. Iran spread its research to at least a dozen sites—exactly how many, and where, the U.S. government could not be sure.
* The United States was too vulnerable. Iran, until now relatively restrained in using its influence among the Iraqi Shiites, “could make Iraq hell,” in the words of one of our experts, Kenneth Pollack, of the Brookings Institution. It could use its influence on the world’s oil markets to shock Western economies—most of all, that of the world’s largest oil importer, the United States.
* The plan was likely to backfire, in a grand-strategy sense. At best, it would slow Iranian nuclear projects by a few years. But the cost of buying that time would likely be a redoubling of Iran’s determination to get a bomb—and an increase in its bitterness toward the United States.