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The next Iran war

Paul Rogers
16 February 2006

Iran's apparent resumption of uranium enrichment at its Natanz nuclear facility, reported on 13 February, does not in itself breach any formal treaty, even if it breaks the voluntary agreement reached in October 2003 with three European Union states designated to negotiate with the Tehran regime (France, Germany and Britain: the "EU3"). Nor is this action necessarily a prelude to the early development of nuclear weapons, as the pilot-scale plant that is being used means that it would take many years for Iran to produce enough enriched uranium for even a basic nuclear device.

In the technical sense, though, the enrichment decision does take Iran one step further along the road to indigenous uranium production for civil-nuclear power while also gaining competences that would enhance a nuclear-weapons programme if that is part of its underlying strategic planning.

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

Paul Rogers has just written a report for the Oxford Research Group on the likely effects of a military attack on Iran:

"Iran: Consequences of a War" (February 2006)

A collection of Paul Rogers's Oxford Research Group briefings, Iraq and the War on Terror: Twelve Months of Insurgency, 2004-05 is published by IB Tauris
(October 2005)

More significant is the political impact of the decision. While there are some mixed messages coming out of Tehran, it is clear that the core intention is to send a message that the government will not bow to threats from Washington, and would even welcome a crisis. This is hardly surprising, given the ideological make-up of President Ahmadinejad's administration – which, though it retains strong support from many of the poorer and marginalised elements within Iranian society, is looked on with disapproval by reformists and with suspicion by many theocrats.

In such circumstances, threats from abroad come in very handy for consolidating support at home, and it is certainly the case that the one thing that would ensure solid support for the regime is an attack on the nuclear facilities, whether from the United States or Israel.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric has increased in Washington, with neo-conservatives urging strident action and press reports surfacing of the Pentagon planning for military action (see Philip Sherwell, "US prepares military blitz against Iran's nuclear sites", Sunday Telegraph, 12 February 2006).

The combination of hardline attitudes in Washington and Tehran creates a destabilising effect in which the potential antagonists seem compelled to ratchet up an atmosphere of crisis in a mutually reinforcing manner.

This shared, febrile political atmosphere does not itself mean that military confrontation is imminent. Indeed, the prospect of the United States taking on another war in the near future seems superficially far-fetched given its problems in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush administration has so far persisted with diplomatic options and initiatives. The decision of Condoleezza Rice's state department to appeal to Congress for $75 million more funding to support media and public-relations projects targeting Iran's people and persuading them to oppose their own government is only the latest of these (see Guy Dinmore, "US will 'actively confront' Iranian policies", Financial Times, 15 February 2006)

But the more fundamental problem will not go away: Iran really is a serious issue for Bush and it may simply not be possible for him to leave it as a legacy to his successor. Despite all the United States's emphasis on Iraq in recent years, Iran has always been the real focus of US concern in the region – with the bottom-line being that Iran cannot be allowed, under any circumstances, to have even the potential to produce a crude nuclear arsenal. Some analysts in the US may now conclude that Washington may have to live with that, but the key people close to the White House regard such a view as anathema. A nuclear-capable Iran would hugely limit US policy in what is now the most important region in the world, given its energy resources – even more important than east Asia.

If the Bush administration left office in January 2009 with a strident Iran close to a nuclear capability, this would greatly transcend the problems in Iraq as a thoroughly unacceptable legacy, damning the whole Bush era for its failure to further the aim of a "new American century". What this means is that both Washington and Tehran may well act in the coming months with decreasing restraint, meaning that a crisis could develop with a rapidity that would surprise and concern European governments.

Iran's military options

Because such a crisis is a distinct possibility, it is appropriate to try and assess what a US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would look like and, in particular, how the Iranians would react. This is the aim of Oxford Research Group's report Iran: Consequences of a War (February 2006). The report reaches three broad conclusions.

The first is that while US military action would not involve a full-scale invasion – with the problems being faced in Iraq and Afghanistan that is out of the question – it would extend well beyond trying to destroy the physical infrastructure at the heart of Iran's nuclear ambitions. One objective would be to kill as many of the scientists, technologists and other key workers who are involved in nuclear activities, since they would be even more important in any reassembling of Iran's nuclear capabilities than the buildings themselves.

Another objective would be to try and pre-empt Iranian responses to a US attack. This would involve attacking air bases, missile launch sites, missile factories and Revolutionary Guard bases close to the Iraqi border. Key targets would also be a range of naval and coastal defence facilities down the Persian Gulf coast that might be used to disrupt tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz. Although the raids on nuclear centres would most probably be done by surprise in a matter of hours, these wider attacks would stretch over many hours or days.

But even with these attempts at pre-emption, the resilience of the Iranian forces and the degree of national unity resulting from the attacks could well mean a solid determination to counterattack, whatever the costs. This is the second conclusion of the report, one that draws on lessons from the Iraq conflict.

Among Paul Rogers's openDemocracy columns on Iran's security policy and the possibility of an extension of the war to Tehran:

"Confident Iran"
(March 2005)

"America's Iranian predicament"
(August 2005)

"The Iran nuclear chess-game" (September 2005)

"Iran in Israel's firing-range"
(December 2005)

"The United States, nuclear weapons, and Iran" (January 2006)

If you find Paul Rogers's weekly column on global security enjoyable or provoking, please consider commenting in our forum – and supporting openDemocracy by sending us a donation so that we can continue our work for democratic dialogue

In Iran's neighbour, the rapid fall of the Saddam Hussein regime in April 2003 seemed a victory, but it actually marked the start of a prolonged conflict. In Iran itself, the initial results might also appear to be a "success" for the United States, but the prospect may seem very different when Iranian forces (such as a revitalised Revolutionary Guard) infiltrate into Iraq, seek to sabotage oil facilities in western Gulf states, and develop low-tech methods to disrupt tanker traffic.

In turn, these forms of retaliation would be met with further air strikes by US forces; this would result, within weeks, in the beginnings of a sustained and complex war, one that could certainly stretch to Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Third, the report points to the near-certainty that any attack on Iran would lead to the country setting out quite deliberately to develop nuclear weapons as quickly as possible, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) forthwith. It would aim to "go nuclear" through dispersed and heavily-protected facilities in a climate of national unity in which even President Ahmadinejad could expect to receive support from across most of the political spectrum. Such a determination to develop nuclear weapons after an initial strike by the United States would mean further US attacks in the months and years to come.

The Israeli connection

While Israel does not have the military capabilities of the United States, it still has enough to attack Iranian nuclear centres, and would be less concerned with Iranian responses except those channelled through Hizbollah in Lebanon. One of the foreseeable aspects of an Israeli assault is that Iran would interpret it as being done in association with the United States and would therefore retaliate against US forces – leading no doubt to a forceful US response. In other words, an Israeli attack would actually result in the United States being drawn into the conflict, and taking action that might (at least in the short term) weaken Iran and benefit Israel.

Whether the United States or Israel launches the initial attack, the central consideration is that once any kind of military action is taken it would be almost impossible to revert to less confrontational diplomatic processes for some years to come. Instead, Iran would join Iraq and Afghanistan as zones of conflict, and the climate across the region would become much more unstable.

From the perspective of Washington, the conclusion to be drawn is uncomfortable: that a military "solution" to the Iran "problem" is too dangerous to contemplate. That is going to mean some very rapid and intensive rethinking of policies and the seeking of alternative ways of dealing with the crisis. It is difficult to say if that will happen, but the indications are not promising. This may be why the Oxford Research Group report, and other analyses from other institutes and think-tanks in the coming months, might just help to concentrate minds. There is time for other approaches to be tried, but the window of opportunity may be measured in months rather than years.

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