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.
That was the situation nearly two years ago. Everything that has changed since then increases the pressure on the United States to choose the “military option” of a pre-emptive strike—and makes that option more ruinously self-defeating.
About Iran’s intention to build a bomb, there is no serious disagreement among Russia, China, France, and the United States. Iran has dropped its pretense of benign intent. It refused the compromise that Russia formally proposed late in 2005 (though a new round of negotiations was announced early in March). Last year’s elections, the most democratic in that nation’s history, transformed the leadership—by making it more anti-Western and harder-edged. The attainment of an Iranian bomb might provoke Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other neighboring countries to begin nuclear programs of their own, and might make the terrorist groups Iran supports throughout the region feel they can attack with greater impunity. Dealing with Iran is now considered an international crisis.As it has watched Iran’s evolution, the United States has delivered more and more studied warnings that “all options remain open”—code to the Iranians that they should worry about an attack. In different ways, George W. Bush and two aspiring successors, John McCain and Hillary Clinton, have expressed this view. Government officials in Israel have been more explicit still, with the defense minister saying that Israel “will not accept” Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. Intellectuals, activists, and out-of-power politicians from Newt Gingrich to Benjamin Netanyahu have all urged their leaders to stand firm.
The biggest change has been in what Soviet strategists used to call the “correlation of forces.” Every tool at Iran’s disposal is now more powerful, and every complication for the United States worse, than when our war-gamers determined that a pre-emptive strike could not succeed. Iran has used the passing time to disperse, diversify, conceal, and protect its nuclear centers. Instead of a dozen or so potential sites that would have to be destroyed, it now has at least twice that many. The Shiite dominance of Iraq’s new government and military has consolidated, and the ties between the Shiites of Iran and those of Iraq have grown more intense. Early this year, the Iraqi Shiite warlord Muqtada al-Sadr suggested that he would turn his Mahdi Army against Americans if they attacked Iran.
Economically, Iran also has far greater leverage than before. Through 2004, the price of a barrel of oil averaged less than $40. In 2006, it has been above $60, an increase of more than 50 percent. Rising demand from China, India, and, yes, the United States has left virtually no slack in the world’s oil markets. OPEC’s “spare” production capacity—the amount it could quickly supply beyond current demand—is about 1 million barrels a day. Iran now supplies about 4 million barrels a day. If it chose to, or had to, remove much of its oil from the market, a bidding war could send the price of a barrel of oil above $100. Eventually, everyone would adjust. Eventually, the Great Depression ended.
Perhaps the American and Israeli hard-liners know all this, and are merely bluffing. If so, they have made an elementary strategic error. The target of their bluff is the Iranian government, and the most effective warnings would be discreet and back-channel. Iranian intelligence should be picking up secret signals that the United States is planning an attack. By giving public warnings, the United States and Israel “create ‘excess demand’ for military action,” as our war-game leader Sam Gardiner recently put it, and constrain their own negotiating choices. The inconvenient truth of American foreign policy is that the last five years have left us with a series of choices—and all of them are bad. The United States can’t keep troops in Iraq indefinitely, for obvious reasons. It can’t withdraw them, because of the chaos that would ensue. The United States can’t keep prisoners at Guantánamo Bay (and other overseas facilities) indefinitely, because of international and domestic challenges. But it can’t hastily release them, since many were and more have become terrorists. And it can’t even bring them to trial, because of procedural abuses that have already occurred. Similarly, the United States can’t accept Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power, but it cannot prevent this through military means—unless it is willing to commit itself to all-out war. The central flaw of American foreign policy these last few years has been the triumph of hope, wishful thinking, and self-delusion over realism and practicality. Realism about Iran starts with throwing out any plans to bomb.