Dealing With Iran’s Nukes: Choosing From Bad Options

A mere three weeks ago, Der Spiegel reported that the United States is seriously considering military action against Iran’s nuclear programs. Reactions trickled in at first but now there is a flood.

David Ignatius contends that the National Security Council principals are seriously weighing their options but that “The goal is not simply to stop the Iranians from making a bomb but to change the character of a regime that under Ahmadinejad has swerved onto a new and dangerous track.” The prefered strategy appears to be to work with allies in something akin to the Containment policy employed against the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

They are apparently pinning their hopes on a theory:

An intellectual benchmark in the Iran debate was a briefing given to officials last fall by Jack A. Goldstone, a professor at George Mason University who is an expert on revolutions. He argued that Iran wasn’t conforming to the standard model laid out in Crane Brinton’s famous study, “The Anatomy of Revolution,” which argued that initial upheaval is followed by a period of consolidation and eventual stability. Instead, Ahmadinejad illustrated what Goldstone called “the return of the radicals.” Something similar happened 15 to 20 years after the Russian and Chinese revolutions — with Stalin’s purges in the late 1930s and Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, Goldstone explained. He argued that Iran was undergoing a similar recrudescence of radicalism that, as in China and Russia, would inevitably trigger internal conflict.

The gist of Goldstone’s analysis gradually percolated up to Rice, Hadley and others. What has intrigued policymakers is the argument that Ahmadinejad’s extremism will eventually trigger a counterreaction — much as the Cultural Revolution in China led to the pragmatism of Deng Xiaoping. Officials see signs that some Iranian officials — certainly former president Hashemi Rafsanjani and perhaps also the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — are worried by Ahmadinejad’s fulminations. Unless the Iranian president moderates his line, wider splits in the regime are almost inevitable, officials believe. They also predict that his extremism will be increasingly unpopular with the Iranian people, who want to be more connected with the rest of the world rather than more isolated.

Fred Kaplan argues that the Russians and Chinese are unlikely to go along with serious Security Council santions and that the utility of a precision strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is at best limited. On the other hand, he believes it “is useful that in this confrontation (unlike the prelude to Iraq), the other major powers and the international bodies at least agree with the basic facts and with the judgment that these facts pose a threat.”

So, what to do? His answer is rather similar to mine: “At this point, I must confess: I don’t know. Neither, it seems, does anybody else.” He invites readers to email him their advice to wa*********@ho*****.com.

Joe Katzman offers this cheery analysis:

I personally believe that we're very likely to see at least 10 million dead in the Middle East within the next two decades, with an upper limit near 100 million. I do not believe pre-emptive action will be taken against Iran. I do, however, believe the extremist mullahs in Iran mean exactly what they say. They are steeped in an ideology that believes suicide/murder to be the holiest and most moral act possible. They have been diligent in laying strategic plans for an offensive Islamic War against Israel, America and the West. Plans backed by 25 years of action, and stated no less clearly than Mein Kampf. I believe that Ahmedinajad's talk of 12th Imam end-times and halos around his head at the UN aren't the ravings of an isolated nut, simply an unusually public (and unusually noticed) expression of beliefs that are close to mainstream within their ruling class. That class of “true believer” imams and revolutionary guard types have been quietly consolidating their control over all sectors of Iranian society over the last few months, and I do not believe anyone in the world today has both the will and the capability to stop them.

He also doesn’t see a collapse from within as all that likely. “Whatever they may think of the mullahs, the Iranian people, and such civil society as they have built in the shadows, have no stomach to seriously oppose them. The mullahs have proven that they are quite willing to kill, with their Basij hitler youth corps and al-Qaeda mercenaries, as many Iranians as necessary. Nonviolent measures like the commendable struggle of decent people like Akbar Ganji or even Ayatollah Montazeri are, in this situation, useless.”

His solution is draconian:

My preferred option for a strike would be to end Iran's oil and gas distribution capabilities, destroy its power infrastructure (critical for nuclear efforts), keep those things down, and hit what targets one can among the weapons programs. Let their economy collapse, let the Europeans and Chinese feel the price of their inaction and encouragement as oil spikes, and promise the Iranians massive reconstruction aid and help if they'll only overthrow the mullahs and renounce their pursuit of nuclear weapons. I'd do this shortly after the 2006 mid-terms, of course – I've read my Machiavelli.

In response to a Hobbesian choice forced on me, I would offer one of my own to the Iranians. Starve in the dark (already closer than one would think for many there, hence prostitution through the roof and other indicators), lose all you have earned (hits the critical Bazaari class), or take the risk and be free and we'll help you. Your call. Meanwhile, lack of power and oil makes it kind of hard to run a weapons program.

Not exactly a strategy aimed at winning hearts and minds. Nor, he acknowledges, is it one the U.S. will muster the political will to implement. Thus, his conclusion is as stark as his opening: “[T]he sword will be drawn. The only questions left as whose, and when, and where.

His colleague, Marc “Armed Liberal” Danziger, is a bit more optimistic. Of course, it would be hard not to be. He prefaces his strategic analysis with a short history lesson:

We’ve made a series of errors that have gotten us to this place; for convenience’s sake, I’ll start with Carter’s ineffective nonresponse to the taking of our embassy in Iran — which in my mind marks the real beginning of the modern Islamist war against the West. Since then, we’ve done nothing to lessen our dependence on imported oil, across three Presidents. Most recently, I’ll lay blame at the feet of President Bush, who missed two clear opportunities: to build the strength of the military over the last four years — which would have required sacrificing domestic programs plus a real effort to spend political capital building support for the war, and to engage the Iranian regime and reach out to the non-insane citizens and politicians that make up a large part of the Iranian polity.

Regardless, we’re here now. The problem with military action, as is usually the case when it is the World’s Sole Remaining SuperpowerTM contemplating it, is Then what?

Could we smash the Iranian oil infrastructure, depriving them of cash and Europe and China of fuel? Of course. Child̢۪s play. Could we drop the Iranian electricity grid, possibly slowing the centrifuges to a halt? Sure. Could we destroy the Iranian army, and do a smash-and-grab raid on the suspected weapons development sites? Probably.

Then what?

Do we really think that the moderate, pro-Western forces within Iran would survive — I mean physically, not politically — much less be able to take over the country in the face of one of these acts? Do we think that an Iran which had been bombed or invaded would be more or less pro-Western?

What do you think the impact would be on the balance of the Islamic world? How long before someone else starts buying the tools to make a bomb, or buys a completed bomb?

The answers to those semi-rhetorical questions, by the way, are No, No, Furthering the power of the Bad Guys, ASAP, and ASAP.

So, what then? Essentially, bide our time with diplomatic maneuvering while 1) undergoing radical steps to end our dependency on oil, 2) rebuilding our military capacity, and 3) lining up allies to join a possible fight. But, what of Thomas Holsinger‘s dire warnings that our options are diminished inside of a year?

We make it clear that while we are discussing this issue, a nuclear attack on Israel or the US will be met with an immediate potentially-nuclear attack aimed at all the Iranian nuke-producing facilities, their conventional forces (esp. the domestic security forces), their C3, and regime leadership. We need to publicly put the assets in place to enforce that threat. It would be nice if some of those assets has other flags on them, and I̢۪m guessing that given the state of things, they just might.

A hell of a calculated risk, since it presumes at least some degree of rationality on the part of the Mad Mullahs. Then again, they have acted within the general bounds of rationality for a quarter century. Despite public fealty to jihad and martyrdom, none of the guys at the top have shown any real desire to die for Allah, leaving that honor for minions.

Dave Shulman‘s unsatisfying answer may well be the right one. When all of your options are bad, you might be better off not picking one of them.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Herb says:

    As I read this post, I can’t help to wonder just what is the right thing to do with Iran. We have just read, in this piece, and we see several theories and ideas. We see all sorts of so called experts providing their “correct” ideas of what we should do. We also see all sorts of so called experts on TV news channels doing the same thing. I think what this all boils down to is that all these “experts” just confuse the issue. The “correct” action depends on you political view is and what way you lean in the US political spectrum, ie; Democrat or Republican.

    The only thing I really know is that we, are the most generous and powerful nation in the world and have been taking it from Iran for 25 years and I think enough is enough. If we do anything, there will always be someone who will condemn our actions, but, what the hell, they usually condemn everything we do anyway. With Iran rattling the sabres with their “tough talk”, threats, and history of supporting terrorists activity that has killed thousands of innocents, something has to be done and quickly before its to late. Prior to WW11, we seen the same thing with the Nazis and Hitler and look what that got the entire world.

    Lets just Nuke their vital industries and let it go at that. I really don’t care what the rest of the worlds nations think or anyone else for that matter.

  2. G A PHILLIPS says:

    Let me just give a thought on the last option; The last time that we faced an enemy that thought murder and suicide would take them to heaven we had to nuke them to get them to stop what they where doing. So I say “no” to threats or reasoning. But then I do not think you’re going to have to ponder this question much longer. I think that Israel is going to answer it for all of us pretty soon. Sorry, I think that was like four thoughts.

  3. M1EK says:

    This presu,ption that cutting off Iranian oil would hurt the Europeans more than us seems just stupid to me. The Europeans tax petroleum (and other oil products) so heavily that the relative rise in price for the end-use will be far less than it will be here in the U.S. (China, on the other hand, will be hurt at least as badly as the US by such a rise in oil prices, I think).

  4. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: The reason it hurts the Europeans and Japanese more than the U.S. is that we have a whole lot more indigenous oil (the Southwest and Alaska, most notably) plus we get a lot of our imported oil from Latin America, especially Mexico.

  5. Bithead says:

    Not exactly a strategy aimed at winning hearts and minds.

    Perhaps because he senses, as do I, that one arts and minds isn’t the issue. The Intel were seeing is that something on the order of 90% of Iranians want the current “government” removed. We see reports of entire stadiums of people chanting “USA, USA,” so it would appear that mind changing and hard changing is not the issue. The issue is the removal of the current thugs from positions of power.

    With that then, the only remaining question is if we will wait until they chuck a nuclear bomb at us, before we respond.