By Iran Review
By Kayhan Barzegar
The forthcoming article in Foreign Affairs entitled, “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option” has had an impact upon the intellectual and policy-making atmosphere of the United States in recent days. Matthew Kroenig, the author of the article, deems the danger of Iran’s nuclear program urgent and encourages the U.S. government to launch a preventive surgical strike on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Such a discourse has existed in the intellectual and policy-making circles of Washington ever since the rise to power of the neo-conservatives and former president George W. Bush (2000-2008), but has rarely been expressed so clearly and publicly.
Though the publication of this article may foster the impression that Washington is preparing itself for military action against Iran, one should think that the main purpose of bringing up such a discourse in the current circumstances is not necessarily to pave the way for a war, but to escalate political pressure on Tehran and flaunt American military might in order to force it into changing its nuclear policy. As such, the move is, in one way or another, the continuation of previous U.S. strategy towards Iran, including the imposition of coercive sanctions, the allegation of Tehran’s intention to assassinate the Saudi Arabian ambassador to Washington, and the intensification of spying and intelligence activities against Iran.
The publication of such an article may be welcomed by both of the major political parties in the U.S. – the Republicans and Democrats – alike, particularly given that the presidential election is within sight and apparently the issue of Iran’s nuclear program will draw the attention of candidates as the principal component of U.S. foreign policy.
For Democrats and particularly those politicians close to Barack Obama, stressing the effectiveness of the policy of imposing harsh sanctions against Iran in order to change its nuclear policy while stopping short of war will prove effective electoral rhetoric for Obama as he can justify his “sanctions for negotiation” policy vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic. Obama’s policy-making team is trying hard to show that the current U.S. approach to deal with Iran’s nuclear program has been successful and one only need wait and see. Meanwhile, Kroenig’s article also sends the message to Tehran that the Republicans are seeking a military conflict and thus Iran should rush to find a solution through nuclear negotiations.
For the Republicans, laying emphasis upon the ineffectiveness of Obama’s policies towards Iran, the urgency of the danger of Tehran’s nuclear program, and the necessity of waging war to attain the sacred goal of preserving the U.S. national interests and security can serve as rewarding electoral rhetoric, an issue which has constantly prevailed in U.S. politics since the Islamic Revolution of Iran over 32 years ago.
Yet, beyond the above-mentioned issues, is the feature of the article in which flagrant errors, paradoxical statements, simplification, and above all, the typical neo-conservative mantra regarding Iran are evident.
Urgency of the Threat
Kroenig argues that mounting international pressure and intelligence activities against Iran to halt its nuclear program have failed and according to the latest report of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran has stepped up its weaponization nuclear activities. The article goes on to argue that in such uncertain circumstances, many countries in the region harbor considerable doubts about the effectiveness of U.S. policy vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear program and have opted for ways of their own to confront it. This will result in the outbreak of a nuclear arms race in the region, increase Iran’s regional power, the passing of nuclear arms to Iran’s proxy groups in the region, and above all the possible nuclear conflict between Tehran and Tel Aviv in the future, which has the potential to bring about a great disaster for American national security. Eventually, “A nuclear- armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East.”
In the author’s view, such threats will inevitably force Washington into adopting the necessary measures to contain Iran. Conventional deterrence will be costly and involve massive political, security, and military capitals for the U.S. in the region while it faces a deep economic recession at home. In addition, such a conventional containment may take decades and in the end fail to achieve the desired results.
Here, the author’s hyperbolic stance regarding the peril of Iran’s nuclear program and portrayal of it as an “urgent” danger are somehow reminiscent of neo-conservative ideas previously circulating the U.S. political establishment as well as uncritical conformity with the Israeli perspective on the issue.
First, the author somehow associates Iran’s nuclear program with a type of “Iranophobia” and the traditional neo-conservative conception which defines the country as the main source of threat in the region and then links the U.S. interest in eliminating such a menace to its responsibility to protect the security of its regional partners.
Second, the analysis suffers from the traditional weakness and flaws of the neo-conservative attitude towards Iran’s nuclear activities, that is, it fails to distinguish between the military (deterrence) and civilian (peaceful) dimensions of the program and conflate them instead. As mentioned by Paul Pillar, the author does not take account of the fact that the latest IAEA report on Iran was politically motivated for the most part, had been framed so as to satisfy the great powers, not least the United States, and finally was aimed at “ratcheting up pressure” on Iran as many Western political pundits admitted.
Third, Kroenig maintains that the chief reason behind the escalation in Iran’s nuclear activities is their linkage with its weaponization program, but fails to realize that Tehran’s recent measures to move its sophisticated centrifuges to the Fordo site in Qom, announce the opening of a new nuclear site, and recently making nuclear fuel rods and plates for the Tehran Research Reactor (TRR) and so on have been taken with the aim of creating “political equality” in the nuclear negotiations with the West. They can also be viewed as a response to the coercive sanctions which place Iran in a weaker position, rather than intensifying the weaponization of its nuclear program.
Fourth, as for the outbreak of an arms race in the region, as was mentioned by Stephen Walt, one should note that even the weaponization of Iran’s nuclear program does not necessarily mean the spread of atomic weapons in the Middle East. For instance, Israel’s nuclear weapons’ program did not lead Saudi Arabia or Egypt to seek access to nuclear weapons despite the two sides’ intense hostility in the 1960s and 1970s.
Fifth, and in this regard, the author focuses on the existing and traditional theme of the “balance of power” in the region, favored by American traditional strategists, as an efficient way of checking Iran’s nuclear program. This theme itself triggers a regional arms race and thus further conflict. Instead focusing on the “balance of threat” can lead to regional cooperation and moving towards the “regional zero” in a Middle East free of nuclear weapons. A recent poll conducted by World Public Opinion.org shows that 64 percent of the Israeli public favors a NWFZ in the Middle East, mostly in response of checking Iran’s nuclear program.
Sixth, with respect to Iran’s desire to supply such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas with nuclear weapons, the author appears to have ignored the track record of Tehran’s behavior and performance in the past. Even accepting the unfounded hypothetical scenario of Iran acquiring nuclear weapon, one may point to the fact that in spite of having the potential to make chemical and biological weapons, Iran has been committed to non-proliferation, that is, not only has it refused to give them to the aforementioned groups, but it has been one of the most active countries seeking to dismantle such weapons on the international scene. Iran is also among the active countries which endeavor to create a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons.
And finally, Kroenig vindicates preventive war against Iran and a possible Israeli strike to preclude an urgent threat as well as the disturbance of the regional balance of power while the latest IAEA report does not specifically and clearly emphasize any deviation in the Iranian nuclear program. Here, the orthodox perspective of the author has been closely aligned with the American neo-conservative thought and the Israeli view about the urgency of the danger, which justifies a quick strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities before it is too late. In other words, and as the Leveretts precisely argue, the military attack is only justified on the basis of the peaceful enrichment activities of Iran, to which it is entitled according to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). One should perceive that such a perspective aims mostly to preserve the nuclear monopoly of the Israeli regime in the Middle East.
Efficacy of a Military Action
While propounding the views of the critics and opponents of military attack on Iran, Kroenig tries his utmost to show why a limited military strike can prove effective in the current circumstances. The opponents of military confrontation first argue that since the United States is not thoroughly aware of Iran’s key nuclear sites and there may be facilities which Tehran has not yet reported to the IAEA, military action cannot not be completely successful as it will not lead to the total destruction or elimination of Iran’s nuclear program.
In response, Kroenig contends that the possibility of unreported nuclear sites existing in Iran is very unlikely. This is mostly because the U.S. intelligence forces, IAEA inspectors, and the regime’s opposition groups have reported duly on them over the past years and because it takes a long while to build new facilities and therefore has enough time to discover and disclose them. Consequently, Iran is very unlikely to proceed with a policy of concealment.
Critics of military attack also argue that Iran’s nuclear plants have been scattered all over its vast territory and have been built underground in most cases, and so it is quite hard to strike and successfully destroy them. In addition, Iran has constructed its nuclear facilities almost near populous urban centers, which means that any military assault against them will involve massive civilian casualties.
Kroenig’s response to these arguments is that the U.S. should resort to “limited” military strikes and avoid a full-fledged war. Such an attack will succeed in destroying Iran’s enrichment facilities while avoiding heavy civilian casualties.
First, one should point out that the author’s arguments are contradictory. He acknowledges that Iran has a limited capability to construct new sites and conceal them, but keeps insisting upon the urgency of the peril whereas the IAEA has not verified the diversion of Iran’s nuclear activities and its inspectors regularly visit Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Second, and in a similar vein, the author once again falls in the trap of traditional and simplistic self-contradiction typical of the neo-conservative way of thinking which holds that the United States enjoys indefinite military power and can advance its objectives by means of war, a conception which has helped to prolong the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Iraq war alone cost over one trillion dollars for the U.S. and left 4487 American troops dead. Adopting a zero-sum perspective, the author conceives that Washington can launch a military offense against Iran successfully and pull out of the conflict easily without having to suffer any dire consequences.
Third, Kroenig’s attempts to communicate effectively with the American and global public opinion via adopting human rights gestures exemplified by proposals to reduce the human casualties of the attack are self-contradictory, and in fact constitute a major challenge for the neo-conservative forces to start a war against Iran. In other words, a serious dilemma which requires settlement is to persuade public opinion inside and outside the U.S. to accept a military attack against Iran at a time when pro-war tendencies amongst the American public are at their lowest ebb for some time.
Controlling the Possible Challenges in the Region
In this respect, Kroenig tries to show that Washington can afford to control and manage the critical repercussions of a limited war in the region. Then he examines the challenges and ramifications of such a conflict in terms of the threat it can pose to the U.S. national security and the international system, the intensification of the global economic recession, and its impact upon Iran’s domestic politics.
He classifies the views of the war opponents as Iran may retaliate by launching a missile attack on American forces and allies in the region and Europe. Iran can mobilize its proponents and proxies in the region against the U.S. and its allies’ interests. And in the case of military conflict, Iran will blockade the Strait of Hormuz.
Kroenig, however, argues, “None of these outcomes are predetermined and the United States could do much to mitigate them.” He also asserts that, “the United States could make clear that it is interested only in destroying Iran’s nuclear program, not in overthrowing the government,” Following the attack, Washington should immediately move to contain the consequences and reduce the spread of conflict in the region. In this regard, the U.S. can convince Israel, in a similar manner to the first Persian Gulf War (1990), to refrain from responding once it is attacked by Iran referring to the Saddam’s missile attacks on Israel.
Lastly, the U.S. can ease the negative consequences of increased oil prices by opening its strategic crude reserves while persuading its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf to boost their oil production to make up for the deficit and meet existing demand. It is almost definite that countries like Saudi Arabia will bandwagon or join the U.S. as they implicitly favor a military strike on the Iranian nuclear facilities while Washington can reduce the deleterious effects of the potential spread of the crisis to the whole region and beyond by building an international coalition and consensus in support of confronting Iran.
But here again the author turns a blind eye to many realities in his arguments. First, for Iran, a “limited” attack by the United States is almost equivalent to an “all-out” offensive and more broadly means the declaration of war against it in the region. A region where its points of strength lie as it can utilize its capabilities to lead an extensive asymmetric war on a regional scale. Iran’s defense strategy is based on “interconnected security,” which means that insecurity for Iran is equivalent to insecurity for the region. Therefore it is naïve to think that the Iranian establishment will leave a limited U.S. assault unanswered in order to secure its survival, not least if it targets the country’s nuclear facilities which enjoy national legitimacy and geo-strategic significance and thus protection of them is interwoven with the legitimacy of the government.
Second, raising the point that the United States will not pursue the policy of regime change in Iran, Kroenig tries to portray Iran’s nuclear program as a solely governmental and state-sponsored initiative, whereas according to the latest statistical surveys conducted by Western institutions, the majority of Iranians support the country’s peaceful nuclear activities. Relevantly, the author completely fails to take into consideration the public mobilization and popular reaction against a foreign attack as he also fails to discern that for the Iranian government is no better means to create national solidarity at home than by confronting a foreign aggressor.
Third, he overlooks the geopolitical and political aspect of Iran’s nuclear program and highlights its military feature, unaware of the fact that “regionalization” of the venture is pursued precisely with the aim of influencing the regional politics and achieving “political-security deterrence.” Therefore, contrary to his analysis, military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities will have serious regional and global implications and despite what the author argues the U.S. will not be able to control them easily or swiftly.
Fourth, contrary to the contention of the author, a military strike against Iran will not serve U.S. interests or protect its national security as it leads to instability in the region at a time when Washington has pulled its military forces from Iraq and plans to withdraw from Afghanistan by 2014, unless Kroenig believes that increasing instability and tension in the region preserves U.S. national interests. He also contends that Washington can convince Israel to avoid attacking Iran, but fails to take account of the region’s political realities, that is, Iran is not Iraq and Tel Aviv considers Tehran’s nuclear program as a so-called “existential threat” unlike how it formerly viewed Iraq. Here Iran’s retaliatory attack against Israel arguably constitutes its major leverage to influence regional developments as Iranian leaders have emphasized it all the time.
Fifth, he regards as quite unrealistic the coalition of Arab regimes in the region with the U.S. at the time of military confrontation. It is right that the conservative Arab regimes have serious reservations about Iran’s nuclear activities, but initiating a war in the region would be a red-line for them, as this has the potential to engage and entangle them directly and lead to regional instability and the flow of capital out of the region. As such, they will most likely support stricter sanctions against Iran as they benefit economically too.
Additionally, under the current circumstances Arab regimes, particularly Saudi Arabia, are themselves concerned about the grave impact of the unrest and instability caused by the Arab Spring upon their domestic politics and thus it is unlikely that they will back Washington’s new military adventure, which could in turn lead to greater regional instability. The problem results from the author’s failure to take cognizance of how the Arabs will react to the developments in an atmosphere of high tension and instability. For instance, while conservative Arab regimes back in 2003 initially welcomed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, they started calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces from the region after the exacerbation of anti-American sentiment amongst the region’s public, which challenged their legitimacy.
Sixth, the author has a simplistic conception of the global coalition and consensus that may emerge out of a potential U.S. military strike on Iranian nuclear sites and has intentionally refused to recognize that if an international consensus was to be achieved on initiating a military solution, it would have been thus far. This most probably stems from his dramatic failure to fathom the limitations of American power at the global level and the fact that the major reason behind the opposition of the international community to the use of force by the U.S. is its determination to prevent Washington’s “unilateralism” which itself is a grave threat to global security. It is precisely on such grounds that the author throughout the article does not mention the role of the EU, the key ally of the U.S., in potentially resolving the issue. Because the author does not believe in such a role at all let alone Russia and China as part of the P5+1. In fact, Kroenig propagates American unilateralism at a time when the entire world is strongly inclined towards multilateralism.
Time of the Attack
Kroenig believes it is high time to take action now. In this part, he puts forward the arguments of war critics who insist that a military strike on Iran’s nuclear sites will fall short of completely dismantling the country’s nuclear program and that the United States does not have the political and military capital to launch another raid. Meanwhile, the consequences of such an attack are not predictable and, more importantly, a military strike could incite Iran towards weaponization. “If that happens, U.S. action will have only delayed the inevitable.”
Here, he contends that in any case, Iran has taken significant steps towards weaponiziation of its nuclear program according to the latest IAEA report, and will only be stopped when the U.S. takes action and destroys its entire nuclear infrastructure. The author goes on to argue that “time is a valuable commodity” as “military action could…delay Iran’s nuclear program by anywhere from a few years to a decade, and perhaps even indefinitely,” as was the case with Israel’s attack on the nuclear facilities of Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007.
Then Kroenig discusses the impact of the attack on Iran’s domestic politics. He refers to the argument of critics who believe that a military confrontation with Iran will consolidate the political position of hard-liners. However, he asserts they are already at the top echelons of power. “An attack might create more openings for dissidents in the long term…giving them grounds for criticizing a government that invited disaster.” Yet “the United States must not prioritize the outcomes of Iran’s domestic political tussles over its vital national security interests in preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.”
In this section too, the author does not present a realistic analysis of the issue in question and makes egregious mistakes in some cases.
First, he underestimates the reaction of regional and international public opinion to military action while wrongly believing that the U.S. can easily attack Iran and steer clear or pull out of the ensuing crisis. He totally ignores the fact that Tehran’s peaceful nuclear program enjoys a degree of legitimacy in regional and global public opinion.
Second, the author puts excessive emphasis upon the alleged weaponization dimension of Iran’s nuclear program. He also states that a military action against the country will prompt Tehran to withdraw from the NPT and move towards attaining nuclear deterrence whereas this potential measure is not in keeping with the policies of Iran, which indeed wants to abide by the IAEA and NPT regulations as they legitimize Iran’s nuclear activities.
Third, referring the cases of Iraq and Syria for delaying or completely stopping Iran’s nuclear program, Kroenig does not pay due attention to the great importance and scale of Iran’s nuclear program, which is not to be compared with the nuclear achievements of those countries in terms of its technological advancement, indigenous know-how, trained forces, and so on. When he seeks to highlight the urgency of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program, he acknowledges that Iran’s nuclear program is very advanced and has somehow reached to the point of no return and that Iran has acquired the “capabilities” it needs.
But the utmost criticism to Kroenig in this regard is his failure to understand Iran’s domestic reaction to foreign aggression. Undoubtedly, Iranian opposition groups will not welcome a military solution to the country’s nuclear program mostly because of its national and geo-strategic value. No Iranian dissidents will welcome foreign intervention in Iran’s internal affairs. Any informed analyst of Iranian domestic affairs realizes that the support of dissident forces in favor of foreign intervention is tantamount to a “political suicide” for them. Kroenig is not aware at all of the importance and sanctity of fighting foreign aggressors in Iran’s national culture, which manifested itself very clearly in the case of the U.S. alleged terror plot against the Saudi ambassador to Washington.
Here another paradoxical argument that the author puts forward is that on the one hand, the United States should take advantage of opposition forces inside Iran and on the other it should give priority to its national interests and never sacrifice them for Iranian dissidents. Here the author is once again entrapped in the traditional paradox represented by the U.S. neo-conservatives who fail to marry American interests and values, and as usual favor the preservation of U.S. interests over values.
At the end of his essay, Kroenig concludes that launching a preventive attack at the present time is better than bearing the pain of seeing a nuclear armed Iran. “Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war. Faced with that decision, the United States should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis.”
In conclusion, Kroenig underscores his simplistic and zero-sum analysis. It is not clear how the United States might launch a military assault while trying simultaneously to check Iran’s retaliatory measures and prevent the spread of the crisis in the region. Moreover, the author regards war as an inevitable development, turning a blind eye to the importance of diplomacy and interaction in resolving the issue. He advocates war while the international community including the EU, Russia, China, and emerging powers such as Turkey, Brazil, India, and even the current U.S. government – through its own specific methods though – are calling for dialogue and a diplomatic approach for resolving international controversy over Iran’s nuclear program.
Kayhan Barzegar is Director of the Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of the Islamic Azad University in Tehran