U.S. Planning a Military Strike on Iran’s Nukes?
The English language edition of the esteemed German newsweekly Der Spiegel compiles a review essay of reports from the German press that, together, show strong signs that the United States is planning a preemptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Recent reports in the German media suggest that the United States may be preparing its allies for an imminent military strike against facilities that are part of Iran’s suspected clandestine nuclear weapons program.
It’s hardly news that US President George Bush refuses to rule out possible military action against Iran if Tehran continues to pursue its controversial nuclear ambitions. But in Germany, speculation is mounting that Washington is preparing to carry out air strikes against suspected Iranian nuclear sites perhaps even as soon as early 2006. German diplomats began speaking of the prospect two years ago — long before the Bush administration decided to give the European Union more time to convince Iran to abandon its ambitions, or at the very least put its civilian nuclear program under international controls. But the growing likelihood of the military option is back in the headlines in Germany thanks to a slew of stories that have run in the national media here over the holidays.
The most talked about story is a Dec. 23 piece by the German news agency DDP from journalist and intelligence expert Udo Ulfkotte. The story has generated controversy not only because of its material, but also because of the reporter’s past. Critics allege that Ulfkotte in his previous reporting got too close to sources at Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the BND. But Ulfkotte has himself noted that he has been under investigation by the government in the past (indeed, his home and offices have been searched multiple times) for allegations that he published state secrets — a charge that he claims would underscore rather than undermine the veracity of his work. According to Ulfkotte’s report, “western security sources” claim that during CIA Director Porter Goss’ Dec. 12 visit to Ankara, he asked Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to provide support for a possibile 2006 air strike against Iranian nuclear and military facilities. More specifically, Goss is said to have asked Turkey to provide unfettered exchange of intelligence that could help with a mission. DDP also reported that the governments of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman and Pakistan have been informed in recent weeks of Washington’s military plans. The countries, apparently, were told that air strikes were a “possible option,” but they were given no specific timeframe for the operations.
In a report published on Wednesday, the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel also cited NATO intelligence sources claiming that Washington’s western allies had been informed that the United States is currently investigating all possibilities of bringing the mullah-led regime into line, including military options. Of course, Bush has publicly stated for months that he would not take the possibility of a military strike off the table. What’s new here, however, is that Washington appears to be dispatching high-level officials to prepare its allies for a possible attack rather than merely implying the possibility as it has repeatedly done during the past year.
The piece cites similar speculation in the Turkish press and a Sy Hersh piece from January (I blogged about that here) as additional pieces of the puzzle.
As noted after the Hersh piece, my main concerns with attacking Iranian facilities are tactical rather than strategic. So long as the strikes were successful and avoided significant civilian casualties, the fallout would be minimal; no one is the region is anxious to see the Iranian mullahs get nuclear weapons. The tactical questions are 1) can the facilities actually be located and destroyed using aerial strikes and 2) what impact will the Iraq deployment have on planning for an Iran mission?
I don’t have hard answers to either of those. A good starting point, though, is a December 2004 Atlantic Monthly entitled, “Will Iran Be Next?,” wherein James Fallows details an elaborate war game conducted by national security experts assessing a war with Iran.*
While the Israelis successfully took out the Osirak facility in Iraq two decades ago, most reports that I have seen in the last couple of years indicate that the Iranian facilities are much better protected. And, while there have been advances in weaponry to counteract that possibility, we recently canceled the “bunker buster” program. Fallows’ group assessed the issue thusly:
The problem is that Iran’s nuclear program is now much more advanced than Iraq’s was at the time of the raid. Already the U.S. government has no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran has, or how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would buy in doing so. Worse, it would have no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of such a strike. A strike might delay by three years Iran’s attainment of its goal — but at the cost of further embittering the regime and its people. Iran’s intentions when it did get the bomb would be all the more hostile.
Here the United States faces what the military refers to as a “branches and sequels” decision — that is, an assessment of best and second-best outcomes. It would prefer that Iran never obtain nuclear weapons. But if Iran does, America would like Iran to see itself more or less as India does — as a regional power whose nuclear status symbolizes its strength relative to regional rivals, but whose very attainment of this position makes it more committed to defending the status quo. The United States would prefer, of course, that Iran not reach a new level of power with a vendetta against America. One of our panelists thought that a strike would help the United States, simply by buying time. The rest disagreed. Iran would rebuild after a strike, and from that point on it would be much more reluctant to be talked or bargained out of pursuing its goals — and it would have far more reason, once armed, to use nuclear weapons to America’s detriment.
The fact that a sizable chunk of the American military is deployed to or fatigued from our operation in Iraq also limits our options to some degree. While John Aravosis‘ prediction of “350,000 Irani army members . . . swarming across the boarder into Iraq as a counterpunch” strikes me as unlikely, there are a lot of variables.
Woven in and out of this discussion was a parallel consideration of Iraq: whether, and how, Iran might undermine America’s interests there or target its troops. Pollack said this was of great concern. “We have an enormous commitment to Iraq, and we can’t afford to allow Iraq to fail,” he said. “One of the interesting things that I’m going to ask the CentCom commander when we hear his presentation is, Can he maintain even the current level of security in Iraq, which of course is absolutely dismal, and still have the troops available for anything in Iran?” As it happened, the question never came up in just this form in the stage of the game that featured a simulated centcom commander. But Pollack’s concern about the strain on U.S. military resources was shared by the other panelists. “The second side of the problem,” Pollack continued, “is that one of the things we have going for us in Iraq, if I can use that term, is that the Iranians really have not made a major effort to thwart us Ã¢€¦ If they wanted to make our lives rough in Iraq, they could make Iraq hell.” Provoking Iran in any way, therefore, could mean even fewer troops to handle IraqÃ¢€”and even worse problems for them to deal with.
Kay agreed. “They may decide that a bloody defeat for the United States, even if it means chaos in Iraq, is something they actually would prefer. Iranians are a terribly strategic political culture Ã¢€¦ They might well accelerate their destabilization operation, in the belief that their best reply to us is to ensure that we have to go to helicopters and evacuate the Green Zone.”
Given that even a strained U.S. military could easily defeat the Iranian military in conventional warfare, this threat seems exaggerated. Still, there’s not much doubt the involvement of Iranian forces would seriously complicate an already tenuous situation.
Regardless, though, Fallows’ planners noted that the window for a preemptive strike was narrow:
One response to imperfect data about an adversary is to assume the worst and prepare for it, so that any other outcome is a happy surprise. That was the recommendation of Reuel Gerecht, playing the conservative Secretary of State. “We should assume Iran will move as fast as possible,” he said several times. “It would be negligent of any American strategic planners to assume a slower pace.” But that was not necessarily what the DCI was driving at in underscoring the limits of outside knowledge about Iran. Mainly he meant to emphasize a complication the United States would face in making its decisions. Given Iran’s clear intent to build a bomb, and given the progress it has already made, sometime in the next two or three years it will cross a series of “red lines,” after which the program will be much harder for outsiders to stop.
Iran will cross one of the red lines when it produces enough enriched uranium for a bomb, and another when it has weapons in enough places that it would be impossible to remove them in one strike. “Here’s the intelligence dilemma,” Gardiner said. “We are facing a future in which this is probably Iran’s primary national priority. And we have these red lines in front of us, and we”Ã¢€”meaning the intelligence agenciesÃ¢€””won’t be able to tell you when they cross them.” Hazy knowledge about Iran’s nuclear progress doesn’t dictate assuming the worst, Gardiner said. But it does mean that time is not on America’s side. At some point, relatively soon, Iran will have an arsenal that no outsiders can destroy, and America will not know in advance when that point has arrived.
The main fallout from the Iraq War, moreso even than the troops on the ground, is the inevitable intelligence debate parallels:
Despite Gardiner’s emphasis on the tentative nature of the intelligence, the principals said it was sufficient to demonstrate the gravity of the threat. David Kay, a real-life nuclear inspector who was now the DCI at the table, said that comparisons with Iraq were important — and underscored how difficult the Iranian problem would be. “It needs to be emphasized,” he said, “that the bases for conclusions about Iran are different, and we think stronger than they were with regard to Iraq.” He explained that international inspectors withdrew from Iraq in 1998, so outsiders had suspicions rather than hard knowledge about what was happening. In Iran inspectors had been present throughout, and had seen evidence of the “clandestine and very difficult-to-penetrate nature of the program,” which “leaves no doubt that it is designed for a nuclear-weapons program.” What is worse, he said, “this is a lot more dangerous than the Iraqi program, in that the Iranians have proven, demonstrated connections with very vicious international terrorist regimes who have shown their willingness to use any weapons they acquire” against the United States and its allies. Others spoke in the same vein.
So, while it may be a “slam dunk” that the Iranians have a nuclear program, it will likely be very hard to persuade world opinion of that.
Ultimately, the group concluded:
A realistic awareness of these constraints will put the next President in an awkward position. In the end, according to our panelists, he should understand that he cannot prudently order an attack on Iran. But his chances of negotiating his way out of the situation will be greater if the Iranians don’t know that. He will have to brandish the threat of a possible attack while offering the incentive of economic and diplomatic favors should Iran abandon its plans. “If you say there is no acceptable military option, then you end any possibility that there will be a non-nuclear Iran,” David Kay said after the war game. “If the Iranians believe they will not suffer any harm, they will go right ahead.” Hammes agreed: “The threat is always an important part of the negotiating process. But you want to fool the enemy, not fool yourself. You can’t delude yourself into thinking you can do something you can’t.” Is it therefore irresponsible to say in public, as our participants did and we do here, that the United States has no military solution to the Iran problem? Hammes said no. Iran could not be sure that an American President, seeing what he considered to be clear provocation, would not strike. “You can never assume that just because a government knows something is unviable, it won’t go ahead and do it. The Iraqis knew it was not viable to invade Iran, but they still did it. History shows that countries make very serious mistakes.”
So this is how the war game turned out: with a finding that the next American President must, through bluff and patience, change the actions of a government whose motives he does not understand well, and over which his influence is limited. “After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers,” Sam Gardiner said of his exercise. “You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work.”
Not a good set of options, I’m afraid.
*Yes, the link is to a Free Republic archive of the piece. The Atlantic’s site was down at the time of writing. Plus, their version would be available only to subscribers.
Correction: Iran/Iraq typo in original has been fixed.