Panetta Warns Of Unintended Consequences Of Striking Iran

The Secretary of Defense has some words of warning for those advocating military action against Iran.

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is sounding public warnings about the idea of striking Iran in an effort to take out, or slow down, it’s nuclear program:

WASHINGTON — Military action against Iran could have unintended consequences, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday, sounding the administration’s strongest reservations about a strike since the release of a new report on Tehran’s escalating nuclear ambitions.

Panetta told Pentagon reporters that he agrees with earlier assessments that a strike would only set Iran’s nuclear program back by three years at most.

“You’ve got to be careful of unintended consequences here. And those consequences could involve not only not really deterring Iran from what they want to do, but more importantly, it could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,” Panetta said.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said this week for the first time that Iran was suspected of conducting secret experiments whose sole purpose was the development of nuclear arms.

In response, the State Department said Thursday that the U.S. was looking at ways to increase economic pressure on Iran. Israeli leaders have said that without effective sanctions, they will not take any other options off the table.

Tehran, meanwhile, warned that any strike by the U.S. or Israel would trigger a strong response from Iranian forces. Iran insists it is pursuing nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.

Panetta, a former CIA director, said the IAEA report is in line with intelligence assessments that suggest Tehran is trying to develop its nuclear capabilities, but that there continues to be divisions within Iran over whether to build a bomb.

Asked what will happen if sanctions don’t work, Panetta said, “I think our hope is that we don’t reach that point and that Iran decides that it should join the international family.” He said, however, that the U.S. agrees that military action ought to be the last resort.

That last part is something of a truism, because military action is usually always the last resort (except, perhaps if your name is John Bolton). The question regarding Iran is whether military action, or at least pre-emptive military action should be a result at all. As I’ve discussed before, attacking Iran carries with it the risk of a wider war, terrorism, and a shock to the world’s oil supply that could through us into a recession. Moreover, it seems apparent that, at best, an attack would merely set the Iranians back a few years and, unless it lead to regime change, the possibility of diplomacy being viable in the future would be out the window. We cannot publicly take the military option off the table, of course, because that would make any diplomatic efforts we try to engage in meaningless. Additionally, in the unlikely event that Iran becomes aggressive in the near future, we may need to consider military action in response. However, Panetta is absolutely right to sound a warning call here. Bombing Iran isn’t the cure-all it’s advocates seem to think it is, and it may make things worse.

Jonathan Tobin isn’t pleased:

hat Panetta has done with his statement is to alert the Iranians to the fact that the United States has no intention of doing anything but talk about stopping the Islamist nuclear threat. This comes as no surprise to Iran, because its leaders have long since pegged President Obama as a weakling whom they needn’t worry about. A year of the administration’s comic attempts at “engagement” followed by two more of unsuccessful attempts to forge an international coalition in favor of tough sanctions aimed at Iran have taught the ayatollahs to discount any possibility that Obama will take action against them.

It was bad enough the Iranians already believed this to be true, but by speaking out publicly in this manner in an effort to stop any speculation about Washington still considering the possibility of the use of force, Panetta has given them a guarantee they have nothing to fear from the United States.

Panetta is also sending a message to Israel. Going back to the George W. Bush administration, the U.S. has refused to give the Israelis a green light to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. By speaking of “unintended consequences,” there’s little doubt Panetta is seeking to repeat that signal. While Jerusalem may still hold onto some hope that the U.S. will eventually change its mind when presented with an imminent Iranian threat, the Netanyahu government must be forgiven for believing they are now clearly on their own.

It strikes me that the Iranians are as aware of the difficulties of a military strike as we are, so one has to really wonder how concerned they are about a military attack at the moment. Panetta didn’t really say anything much different than his predecessor did so I doubt that they find anything Panetta said surprising. As for Israel, well, it’s a fact that America’s interest in this matter aren’t necessarily congruous with Israel’s. A unilateral Israeli strike on Iran is likely to set off a firestorm across the Middle East if not the world, causing problems that we will be forced to deal with. Our refusal to green-light an Israeli attack makes complete sense given those facts, and was one of the few foreign policy decisions that President Bush made that I agreed with completely. It’s not Leon Panetta’s job, or the President’s, to let Israel do what ever it wants here, especially when its actions could have consequences that will take years to play out.

A nuclear Iran would be a problem, of that there is no doubt. However, as our experiences in North Korea and Pakistan (as well as Israel itself and India) have shown us, it is next to impossible to stop a nation determined to develop a nuclear weapons program from doing so. On the other hand, military action of the type that many people seem to be advocating doesn’t look like it will do much to deter the Iranians, and may just end up inflaming the Middle East even more. A nuclear Iran vs. war in the Middle East? I’m not entirely sure that war is the right choice.

FILED UNDER: Middle East, Military Affairs, National Security, US Politics, World Politics, ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. racehorse says:

    I look for an Egypt – Libya event there soon. Most Iranians are well educated, progressive, and want to move forward. They are tired of having a nut for a leader.

  2. @racehorse:

    That happened in 2009 and was crushed, remember?

  3. Moosebreath says:

    “because military action is usually always the last resort (except, perhaps if your name is John Bolton)”

    Or John McCain. Or Dick Cheney.

  4. Hey Norm says:

    Appointing Panetta to Defense is clearly another example of Obama’s incompetence.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    We are already seeing the economic consequences with oil approaching $100 bbl just on the talk.

  6. Brett says:

    @Doug Mataconis

    That happened in 2009 and was crushed, remember?

    Too true. There is not a lot of support outside of the major cities for regime change – and even within them, the support is mostly concentrated among the young professional class.

    A nuclear Iran vs. war in the Middle East? I’m not entirely sure that war is the right choice.

    I’ll take the nuclear Iran, easily. All this fear-mongering about the “Islamist nuclear threat” and “Iran will nuke Israel tomorrow” is a bunch of nonsense. This is the same regime that sold the Embassy Hostages back to the US for an under-the-table weapons deal, and in any case we already have a heavily Islamist country that has the bomb (Pakistan). It deals with its nuclear arsenal just like any other nuclear-armed country: very carefully.

    What it really comes down to is that the Israelis are afraid of someone being able to hold the threat of complete annihilation over the heads, and the resulting curtailment in what they can do in terms of unilateral military action. Pardon me if I’m not exactly sympathetic to them, considering that the US lived with that for decades in the Cold War.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    I also think that it’s time to mention that preventive war is immoral. It doesn’t meet the standards for a just war. And it’s illegal not that that stops anyone.

  8. Rob in CT says:

    Mostly in agreement with Brett, though I for one worry about Pakistan. My worry doesn’t resolve itself into a desire to invade or try to destroy their arsenal via bombardment, but I worry nonetheless.

    I would worry a bit about Iran. I just don’t think that worry justifies war. Crazy, I know.

  9. David M says:

    @Hey Norm: He complains a lot more about defense spending cuts than I’d like, but this is one area where he’s been pretty good.

  10. ponce says:

    Moreover, it seems apparent that, at best, an attack would merely set the Iranians back a few year…

    A good day to point out that a full scale military invasion of Iran would probably halt its nuclear weapons program.

  11. Hey Norm says:

    @ David M…
    Gotta cut him some slack on that…he’s the head of a major bureaucracy…it’s his job to protect the budget.

  12. anjin-san says:

    A good day to point out that a full scale military invasion of Iran would probably halt its nuclear weapons program.

    Of course there is always that start a depression/start WW3 thing…

  13. PJ says:

    @Brett:

    It deals with its nuclear arsenal just like any other nuclear-armed country: very carefully.

    The are reports that Pakistan is worried about their nukes being seized by the US, so they are moving them around in trucks that aren’t very well defended.

  14. @ponce:

    What justification would the United States have for a full scale military invasion of Iran? I don’t see one.

  15. Brett says:

    For that matter, where would the support for such an attack come? Not the American public, which is already weary of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

  16. Rob in CT says:

    @ponce:

    Sure, I suppose. If we invaded and occupied the country (indefinitely?), we could stop the weapons program.

    You up for that? I’m not.

  17. ponce says:

    What justification would the United States have for a full scale military invasion of Iran? I don’t see one.

    To stop them developing nuclear weapons?

  18. Rob in CT says:

    First, to DELAY them from developing nuclear weapons would be more accurate.

    Second, I find the justification weak either way.

  19. Tlaloc says:

    Nuclear Iran doesn’t worry me. It’s good for nuclear Israel to have a counterbalance in the region and the mullahs have always been extremely practical in their geopolitics (while letting their powerless president rave like a madman). Nuclear Pakistan scares the ^%$# out of me. If offered a choice of which country gets to have nukes, Iran or Pakistan I’d take Iran in a nanosecond.

  20. It would be nice if most other government actions were undertaken with some concern for the unintended consequences, but who am I kidding.

  21. ponce says:

    You up for that? I’m not.

    Not really, but a full scale invasion that will solve the problem seems more “moral” to me than an air strike that will just make the situation worse.

  22. michael reynolds says:

    As Dave Schuler has pointed out elsewhere, this isn’t likely to end up being just a raid, this will end up being a war. A real war. I don’t see the country really being in quite the mood for that.

  23. PJ says:

    Iran is four times the size of Iraq with two and half times the population. Tehran is twice the size of Baghdad.

    Iraq really worked out well, so why not try to invade Iran.

    /Sarcasm

    Maybe it will fix the unemployment?

    /Sarcasm 2

  24. Tlaloc says:

    Not really, but a full scale invasion that will solve the problem seems more “moral” to me than an air strike that will just make the situation worse.

    How exactly does a full scale invasion stop the “problem.” Will it magically erase the knowledge of nuclear physics from the minds of the Iranians? Will we do so much damage to their infrastructure that they simply won;t be able to rebuild?

    Or is it just another jerk off excuse to kill brown people?

    Yeah, rhetorical.

  25. ponce says:

    Or is it just another jerk off excuse to kill brown people?

    Haha, that’s usually my line.

    I don’t honestly believe America would launch an invasion of Iran because we really don’t care whether Iran has nuclear weapons or not.

  26. Ron Beasley says:

    @Tlaloc: Most of the Iranians may be Muslim but they are not really brown people. They are Caucasians.

  27. Franklin says:

    I’m really confused here. Besides normal military readiness exercises and scenario playing, is somebody *really* seriously talking about attacking Iran? Who? I want names and addresses so I can send the following open letter:

    Dear neocon idiot,

    Sorry, you have already spent America’s goodwill and resources in Iraq and Afghanistan. If you thought that striking Iran would have been more useful, you should have thought of that earlier. Now please go away, preferably forever.

    Yours truly,

  28. mike says:

    @Tlaloc: I can’t tell if you are joking or not. Maybe high as a kite. I really hope you are joking. A counterbalance to Israel? You would rather Iran have nukes than Pakistan? (really I would prefer neither have them). Oh please be joking, please be joking; for your sake.

  29. JohnMcC says:

    Necessary to remember that one of the objectives of any policy is that it tend to advance the date of the end of the world. By that criterion, war against Iran makes a lot of sense.

  30. ponce says:

    I really hope you are joking. A counterbalance to Israel?

    Name another Middle Eastern country that has attacked more of its neighbors than Israel.

  31. anjin-san says:

    They are Caucasians.

    I seriously doubt that your average wingnut has a clue that Persians are not Arabs, or that Parthia, The Persian Empire, or the Ottoman Empire ever existed.

  32. mannning says:

    Beliefs:
    1. Israel will make war with Iran.
    2. They will use nuclear weapons, especially the EMP type to disable electronics and electrical systems all over Iran.
    3. They will do their best to destroy as much of Iran’s military equipment as possible.
    4. They will use their C-130 aircraft to haul MOABS to the nuclear sites, and will keep on bombing the sites until they are satisfied that the sites are destroyed.
    5. Iran will fight back, using their surrogates worldwide to sabotage facilities, including many US owned facilities.
    And, they will close the straits of Hormuz to tankers using their surface to surface missiles. Even US vessels will be hit.
    6. The US will be forced to relaliate to open the Straits, and to stop Iran’s attacks at the core, while ensuring that Iranians in the US are not a threat.
    7. If this is perceived as a highly probable scenario, the US may well decide to join the Israeli attack up front.
    8. US forces would take only the Western and Southern parts of Iran to choke off their oil, and to destroy the hidden missile sites threatening the Straits. If Iran tried to attack US forces in those open plains without transport or tanks or artillery (mostly lost by the IAF arracks), our forces would obliterate them.
    9. There would be regime change in Iran.

  33. Iran has been suffering for decades. They have little access to banking & credit. Their infrastructure is poor. Inflation has been a problem for a long time. Their oil wealth doesn’t do the people much good. In addition to this they’ve spent untold amounts supporting over a million Afghan refugees since the Soviet invasion 30 years ago. Iran also has to deal with a growing number of opium & heroin addicts due to their unfortunate geographical position.

    America, other than restraining Israel, should stay out of Iran’s affairs. It’s bad enough over there as it is. This whole Iran & nukes hysteria sounds a lot like the late 2002 hysteria about Saddam Hussein & WMD – it’s exaggerated & untrue.