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America's Iranian predicament

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George W Bush's comments on 11 August on United States policy towards Iran have raised fears that his administration might still be prepared to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, despite the huge military, political and environmental risks such action would involve.

In response to questions from Israel's state-owned Channel 1 TV at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, Bush said: "As I say, all options are on the table. The use of force is the last option for any president and, you know, we've used force in the recent past to secure our country."

These remarks may have been directed primarily at Israeli public opinion, perhaps even to discourage the more hawkish elements there that want Israel to go it alone against Iran. In any case, they drew an immediate answer from Germany’s chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and ignited the country’s election campaign into the bargain: "…let's take the military option off the table. We've seen it doesn't work."

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Perhaps more significant was the signal from an official at Britain’s foreign office:

"Our position … has been made very, very clear by the foreign secretary … We do not think there are any circumstances where military action would be justified against Iran. It does not form part of British foreign policy."

Whether or not President Bush had an Israeli audience primarily in mind, there is no doubting the deep-seated belief within his administration that Iran is now the major threat in the region and that it must be prevented from acquiring even the basic means to produce nuclear weapons. This means stopping Iran’s nuclear-fuel cycle, including uranium enrichment – a process integral to a civil nuclear-power programme but involving technologies that could be diverted into a nuclear-weapon programme.

The fuel of enmity

The United States has long seen Iran as the real threat to its own and Israeli interests in the middle east (see “Iran’s nuclear politics”, 2 December 2004), a view grounded in the traumatic events of 1979-80: the fall of the Shah, the Khomeini revolution and especially the hostage crisis.

Many Washington neo-conservatives regard the termination of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq as intrinsically welcome but also instrumentally useful in sending a strong message to Iran: we, the United States, are the dominant regional power, and you, Iran, simply have to live with that. In this vision, US military dominance in Iraq would serve to keep the Iranians in their place while the ultimate aim – regime termination in Tehran – has yet to be worked out.

These strategic calculations are now supplemented by a renewed concern about Iran’s capability and readiness to interfere in Iraq. Washington was particularly worried about the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari’s visit with a powerful group of ministers to Tehran on 16-20 July. This resulted in a series of deals, including over the joint development of some Iraqi oil resources, which serve to underpin an evolving Iraqi-Iranian relationship.

The dilemma for Washington is that the Shi'a majority in Iraq wants such links, partly because a closer partnership with Iran provides Iraqi Shi'a with greater security in a largely Sunni region. The Iranians may have been cautious in getting too closely involved in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, but they have built extensive links with many Shi'a political and paramilitary organisations in Iraq; there is no doubt that Tehran could cause major problems for United States forces in Iraq if it chose to.

Indeed, there are recent indications of a substantial upgrade in Iranian assistance to elements of the Iraqi insurgency, including help with the design of new weapons (see Michael Ware, "Inside Iran's Secret War for Iraq", Time, 15 August 2005). The new shaped-charge explosives capable of penetrating US armoured vehicles (see “A jewel for al-Qaida’s crown”, 11 August 2005) are reported to be based on a template developed by Hizbollah paramilitaries for use against Israeli forces in southern Lebanon, and introduced into Iraq by a group linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Iran thus holds some of the key cards in relation to Iraq. With a new president empowered with a popular mandate, and much of the popular feeling amenable to being turned in a nationalist direction at the hint of external threat, Tehran evidently has the confidence to face down the “EU3” (Germany, France and the UK) over their attempts to negotiate an end to Iranian plans for uranium enrichment.

A triple dilemma

The United States faces three other problems in its attempt to build a case for decisive action against Iran.

First, the US for some years has been claiming that Iran has been developing a clandestine nuclear-weapons programme beyond the purview of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors. The US cited one particular IAEA inspection that found traces of highly-enriched uranium in an experimental centrifuge complex as proof of a nuclear-weapon programme.

But, unfortunately for Washington, it now seems that the IAEA’s technical evidence attributes the traces to contamination already present in the centrifuges when they were obtained from Pakistani sources (see Anne Penketh, "UN nuclear watchdog rebuts claims that Iran is trying to make A-bomb", Independent on Sunday, 14 August 2005.)

Second, if Iran has been suspicious and tardy in its dealings with the IAEA in recent years, this is something it shares with Egypt and South Korea. Both countries have admitted to activities marginally legal under, if not actually proscribed by, the terms of the 1970 non-proliferation treaty (NPT); both are also strong allies of the United States.

Third, the prospect of referring Iran to the United Nations Security Council is uncertain. Many members of the IAEA governing board would be deeply reluctant to support such a move; even if it went ahead, China would be almost certain to veto any resolution antagonistic to Iran, not least because of the close economic links it has forged with Tehran.

The Tehran lens

There is widespread public support in Iran for a civil nuclear-power programme, which is seen as conferring advanced industrial status on the country. Evidence of support for a nuclear-weapons programme is harder to obtain, though the growing weight of United States military power in the region is unlikely to diminish it.

The US has close to 200,000 personnel in the states surrounding Iran (Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait and Qatar), as well as on the ships of the fifth fleet in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian sea. This encirclement is reinforced by US infringements of Iranian air space by reconnaissance drones (see “Iranian options”, 24 February 2005).

The Bush administration’s clear commitment to modernising its nuclear arsenals includes the probable development of earth-penetrating warheads that could be used for fighting "small nuclear wars in far-off places" such as Iran (see “America’s nuclear stealth war”, 10 February 2005).

All this impacts on the perception of the Iranian regime, which also acutely recalls Bush’s characterisation of it as part of the “axis of evil” in January 2002. But perhaps Tehran’s most pertinent current judgment is that the non-proliferation treaty involves a tacit bargain between the states possessing nuclear weapons and those without (see “America’s nuclear gamble”, 31 March 2005).

Also in openDemocracy about Iran and the United States:

Ramin Jahanbegloo & Richard Rorty, “America’s dreaming” (August 2004)

Charles V Peña, “After Baghdad, Tehran” (November 2004)

Dan Plesch, “Iran: the coming war” (March 2005)

Ardashir Tehrani, “Iran’s presidential coup” (June 2005)

If you find this material valuable please consider supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work and keep it free for all

This bargain, in the eyes of Tehran, involves the latter forgoing the nuclear-weapons option in return for being helped to develop civil nuclear power. Most countries in the NPT accept this bargain; it appears that the United States no longer does. For its part, Iran simply will not accept that Washington has the right to exclude it from the bargain, and the Tehran leadership thinks that any major confrontation with the United States would bring the great majority of the Iranian people fully behind it.

What kind of war?

In these conditions – with the United States intent on forcing Iran to surrender its nuclear ambitions, Iran equally determined not to submit to external compulsion, and with no easy solution through diplomatic or economic pressure – what kind of military confrontation might ensue and what might be the consequences?

A realistic answer to these questions must contemplate the possible role of Israel as well as the United States in future military action against Iran.

An Israeli decision to take action could in principle come at any time, for example as a diversion from the difficult domestic environment facing Ariel Sharon’s government in the light of the withdrawal of settlers from Gaza (see “Targeting Iran”, 7 July 2005).

Israel is concerned both about Iran's newer medium-range missiles such as the Shahab-3, and the longer-term prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. It has the capability for a sustained attack on Iranian nuclear facilities over a number of days, using its newer F-15I and F-16I extended-range strike aircraft; this might also employ the Israeli presence in the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.

But any such Israel attack on Iran would use American equipment and require the at least tacit support of US forces in Iraq, Kuwait and the Persian Gulf. Tehran would clearly see the operation as a combined US/Israel one, and its response would probably be similar to that provoked by a direct US attack.

The United States itself, mired in an endemic Iraq insurgency which it is combating largely through its army and marine corps, has major air and naval forces available to mount a comprehensive operation against Iran's nuclear installations. The US air force would employ a range of strike aircraft, as well as making full use of the B-2 "stealth" bomber. This particular plane, however, has the notable feature of radar-avoidance capabilities that depend on it being housed in expensive climate-controlled hangars.

The B-2 could until recently be deployed only from two locations: its home base at Whiteman in the United States, and Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean, where portable hangars had been erected. But in late 2004, a $19 million programme completed seven months ahead of schedule saw two new permanent hangars for the B-2 opened at RAF Fairford in Gloucestershire, England. This means that any US attack on Iran would almost certainly involve planes flying from Britain.

The core aim of US military action against Iran would be to set back Iran's nuclear- and missile-development programmes by several years, and thus serve notice on the Tehran authorities that any further developments would not be tolerated. Any immediate Iranian military reaction might well entail further US raids targeting elements of the Iranian leadership and economy in hope of destabilising the regime.

Such a prospect, in the context of the United States’s intractable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, may seem remote; but it should be remembered that many analysts were saying that a war with Iraq was highly unlikely even three months before it started.

Moreover, the deep unease within the Bush administration that it is beginning to lose its grip on the region – with increasing Iranian influence in Iraq a major factor – should not be underestimated. At such a moment, a real shock to Iran would readily be seen in some Washington circles as a way of re-establishing US dominance. How then might the Iranians respond?

Iran’s military options

Any United States attack could have the immediate effect of unifying most shades of Iranian opinion in support of the civil, religious and military leadership. It is highly unlikely, contrary to much opinion in Washington, that the Tehran regime itself would be threatened. In such conditions, it would have a wide range of political and military options to exercise in response to a US assault.

The US air operations would very likely be directed against Iran’s medium-range missile batteries, airfields and command and control systems as well as nuclear facilities. Iran’s planners will factor in the likelihood that all these systems would be damaged, if not destroyed, in a matter of days. What remains to them are four options, each of which could have a significant impact.

First, Iran could encourage Hizbollah units in southern Lebanon to engage in attacks on northern Israel, using the huge numbers of unguided short-range missiles that have been accumulated there. Israel would almost certainly respond with overwhelming force; this in turn would cause outrage across the region, not least among the majority Shi'a communities in Iraq.

Second, Iraq itself could become a second centre of operations, with numerous Revolutionary Guard units from Iran entering the country to join Shi'a militias in opposing the US occupation. This would create a massive additional problem for the already overstretched American forces. The US is likely to retaliate with multiple air strikes against Iranian military targets and transport and communications systems; this further escalation of the war would almost certainly unite the Iranian population even more firmly behind the leadership.

Third, Iran has many ways of disrupting Persian Gulf oil exports. They include the capacity to close the Straits of Hormuz using anti-ship missile batteries acquired in recent years from China. Iran also possesses up to 2,000 naval mines, including some very modern types (see Michael J Maazarr, "Strike Out", The New Republic, 6 August 2005).

In addition, irregular Iranian units could infiltrate western Persian Gulf states – including Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi – intent on sabotaging oil facilities down the coast. With oil prices already at a singularly high level, any such disruption would have worldwide economic effects.

Fourth, Iran could exploit its potential influence in Afghanistan to intensify the United States’s already increasing difficulties there (see “Afghanistan bleeds”, 23 June 2005). This, however, is likely to remain a subsidiary theatre to Iraq, where the capacity for Iranian action is far more potent and immediate.

Against such prognoses, it might be argued that the Iranian leadership would be reluctant to engage in a major armed conflict with the United States. But a counter-argument is much more persuasive. From the point of view of Tehran, it runs like this.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

The United States is emphatically opposed to Iran developing a nuclear industry; thus, an attack at some stage is more or less inevitable. A failure to respond forcefully to such an attack will create a United States presumption that it can act repeatedly and with impunity against any future Iranian attempt to reconstitute a badly damaged nuclear and missile infrastructure. There is only one option: to respond to military action with maximum impact, and exploit the overstretch of US ground forces.

The risk

Much of the foregoing analysis may seem excessive, even scaremongering. It is hard to contemplate the Bush administration choosing to become embroiled in yet another major military conflict, or even enabling the Israelis to do so. What makes it essential is two unavoidable facts.

First, the bottom line of the Bush administration is that Iran cannot be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Second, and rapidly growing in importance, is the spreading influence of Iran in Iraq. That trend is becoming more evident week by week. It may eventually be the “tipping-point” that leads Washington onto the highly dangerous route of military action against Iran.


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