Most political and media attention this week has remained on the fallout of George W Bush's "stay the course" speech in the context of the continuing dire situation in Iraq. This has tended to divert attention from the unexpected return of an equally ominous issue to the regional agenda: the issue of Iranian nuclear-weapons development.
On Monday, an Israeli news report suggested that Mohammad ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), had confirmed Israel's assessment that Iran could be only a few months away from creating an atomic bomb. A careful reading of his statement hardly supported that, but the impression was given in the Israeli media that this was the real state of affairs (see David Horovitz, No smoking gun in Iran, Jerusalem Post, 6 December 2005).
A day earlier, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's main political rival Binyamin Netanyahu called for Israel to take bold and courageous action against Iran, this being a clearly understood euphemism for a military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. This comment, and the first Jerusalem Post article, was followed by a senior Israeli general smilingly responding to a question on CNN about how far Israel would go to prevent Iran developing nuclear weapons: "2,000 kilometres".
This upsurge of discussion in Israel is in contrast to the manner in which the Iran issue has gone on to the back burner in Washington and London. There have been few further comments from either side since British foreign-office allegations in November about Iran providing explosives technologies for insurgent use against British troops in the Basra area (see America, Iraq, and al-Qaida, 13 October 2005). In Washington, there are even indications that some preliminary feelers are being extended to Tehran to explore ways of improving relations. These would not please many hawks in Washington, but they may involve a recognition that Iran carries a great deal of influence in Iraq, and could cause major trouble there if it wished.
Washington's caution might also stem from the slow realisation that military action against Iran would have to be substantial and might have some very unexpected consequences. The problem is that even if true this might not stop action by Israel, which remains fundamentally determined not to let Iran get anywhere near a nuclear-weapons capability.
Meanwhile, the attitude of the Iranian government is difficult to decipher, not least because of the complex power politics around the formation of the cabinet of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Irans announcement that it plans a second nuclear-power station to supplement the Bushehr plant currently nearing completion is a reminder of its firm intention to build up a civil-nuclear industry carrying the implication that uranium enrichment will go ahead. More generally, unless there is a surprising change in policy, Iran is unlikely to be accommodating to the Europeans on the nuclear issue to the extent demanded by Washington.
The nature of military action
To make sense of current possibilities it is worth recalling the likely aims and possible consequences of military action by Israel or the United States (see Targeting Iran, 7 July 2005). The first point to make is that the overall aim would not be to terminate the regime in Tehran even the most hawkish elements in Washington believe the US is too overstretched in Iraq to try that. It would instead be to set back Iran's nuclear developments by five-ten years, with the possible additional American purpose of "warning off" the Tehran government from interfering in Iraq.
Yet even inflicting a reversal on Irans nuclear programme would not be a simple matter, since Iran's nuclear facilities are widely dispersed unlike the Osiraq reactor near Baghdad that the Israelis destroyed in June 1981. The operation would require air and missile strikes directed at the Tehran Nuclear Research Centre together with a radioisotope production facility, a number of nuclear-related laboratories, and the Kalaye Electric Company, all situated in the countrys capital.
Beyond Tehran, the Isfahan Nuclear Technology Centre, a number of experimental reactors, uranium-conversion facilities and a fuel-fabrication laboratory would be targeted. Pilot and full-scale enrichment plants at Natanz, plus facilities at Arak and the nuclear-power plant at Bushehr itself would also be on the list.
Many of these facilities may have nothing to do with a nuclear-weapon development programme, but they provide expertise and experience for Iranian and expatriate scientists and technologists. One of the key aims of any military action would be to kill as many technically competent staff as possible; this explains the presence of university laboratories and other technology centres that might indirectly support a nuclear-weapons programme to be bombed.
This would be an operation on a far bigger scale than the Osiraq raid. It would stretch Israeli air-force resources over a number of days, although would in principle be easier for the United States with its substantially greater forces closer to Iraq. But if the United States rather than Israel took action, the initial military tactics of the assault would need to include trying to pre-empt Iranian military responses, simply because of the proximity of Iran to American forces in Iraq.
On the principal of "getting your retaliation in first", the United States would attempt to destroy any Iranian medium-range missile capability and any weapons that could be used to interrupt the oil-tanker routes from the Persian Gulf. There might also be attacks on Revolutionary Guard concentrations, especially near the Iraq border, as a way of warning them against any interference in Iraq. US air raids over several days would also probably involve the systematic targeting of Iranian air defences, including the main air bases and headquarters of the western and southern commands of the Iranian air force.
America or Israel?
Even a basic description of what will be entailed in a United States military operation against Iran is enough to sound a note of caution in Washington, and this might be what is prompting the backchannel talks that seem to be underway. Moreover, this brief litany omits other possible Iranian responses such as withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; redevelopment of the damaged nuclear facilities to include a clear-cut weapons programme perhaps located in deep underground shelters; and encouragement of paramilitary actions against Saudi, Kuwait or United Arab Emirates oil facilities, potentially producing chaotic activities on world oil markets. Iran could also make life in Iraq even more difficult for United States forces.
In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here
A collection of Paul Rogerss Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris (October 2005)
These realisations may not have seeped through to the more neo-conservative elements in Washington, and they may certainly not stop US military action against Iran at some time in the future; yet it is clear that the more thoughtful military planners are beginning to realise what is involved in seriously damaging Iranian nuclear ambitions. The problem is that these concerns simply do not apply to Israel, where a potentially nuclear-armed Iran is just not acceptable. With the March 2006 election approaching, a successful Israeli military strike could be very popular, particularly as the only likely direct Iranian response would be against US interests in the Gulf.
Israeli calculation may go further than this to factor in possible Iranian responses. These could include inciting Hizbollah to undertake cross-border raids, perhaps using the longer-range unguided artillery rockets that the militias have acquired in recent years. This would be troublesome, but might also be a political bonus, in that a major Israeli operation including air and missile strikes into southern Lebanon could actually increase the electoral popularity of those responsible (see Hizbollahs warning flight, May 2005).
Furthermore, Israeli planners would recognise that any major raids on Iran would be seen from Tehran as being done in conjunction with the United States, and there would most likely be Iranian retaliation against US forces in Iraq, or against oil-supply routes from the region. Either eventuality would necessitate a strong US military reaction that might weaken Iran.
The implication of this analysis is an emerging picture of Israeli raids on Iranian nuclear facilities resulting in three advantageous outcomes: damage to Iranian nuclear ambitions, the possibility of taking politically popular military action in southern Lebanon, and the involvement of US forces in weakening Iranian military capabilities. Altogether this would be quite a useful outcome in the run-up to an election, the more so since the withdrawal from Gaza and the construction of the wall isolating the West Bank do not seem to be proving as successful in ensuring Israeli domestic security as expected witness the 5 December suicide-bombing in Netanya which killed five people and wounded forty.
What all this adds up to is that the possibility of United States action against Iran may be receding at just the same time as the chances of Israeli action may be increasing. An Israeli attack could well drag the United States in, with consequences for longer-term US/Israeli relations. But from Israel's perspective these can be sorted out later; meanwhile, there is the more immediate issue of an election to win.