Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ leaked memo to National Security Advisor General James Jones (U.S.MC Ret) that said the United States does not have an effective long-range policy for dealing with Iran’s continuing movement towards a nuclear weapon capability raised some eyebrows. And so it should. But neither the American people nor the White House should need a memo to alert them to this reality. As Fredrick the Great said “Negotiations without arms are like notes without instruments.” The Obama administration’s Iran policy has no melody because it has no threat of arms.
U.S. military planners have a range of general options for the use of military force against Iran. General options, however, are not well-planned, ready-to-execute options; and a credible threat of military force against Iran requires much political and diplomatic groundwork with friends and allies even if it doesn’t accrue much support in the UN.
As a practical matter there are only two military options that offer reasonable chances for success, and, therefore, provide credible threats, if you exclude covert action, sabotage, or a blockade which have low probabilities of success.
Covert action and sabotage make great fiction. Vince Flynn presents an interesting scenario for sabotaging Iran’s nuclear weapons program in Protect and Defend, one of his Mitch Rapp novels. In reality, however, they require ironclad secrecy and plausible denial—nonexistent entities in today’s Washington. Furthermore, the chances of covert action or sabotage destroying large and complex targets, such as Iran’s nuclear facilities, are small.
Comparisons with the Cuban Missile Crisis make a blockade sound like an attractive option because that crisis was resolved without military conflict. It would seek to take advantage of Iran’s lack of refineries, cut off its gasoline imports, and cause internal strife that would lead Iran’s leaders to abandon its nuclear program or the people of Iran to overthrow the theocracy.
A U.S. naval blockade of Iran, however, is likely to spark a military conflict without preventing Iran from continuing to process enriched uranium or acquiring a nuclear weapon. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard surely would challenge it. And because a blockage would involve stopping ships of other countries, it further complicates what is highly uncertain to begin with.
The first practical military option, therefore, is the surgical strike. That’s what Israel did when it took out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981 and Syria’s short-lived nuclear project in September 2007. You destroy the facilities essential to the reprocessing of enriched uranium before Iran has enough to build a bomb. Assembling a nuclear weapon is the easy part. Acquiring or producing enough weapons-grade nuclear material for one is what’s difficult.
A surgical strike minimizes collateral damage and seeks to take out Iran’s enrichment capability without resulting in an outright war. Iraq and Syria did not retaliate because they weren’t prepared for a wider war. Iran, however, is not likely to behave as they did. Indeed, many observers believe that Iran, with its leaders’ Jihadist mentality, would welcome the provocation to strike out openly against Israel and the U.S. either directly or through its Hezbollah and Hamas surrogates.
Another problem with this option is that Iran’s nuclear facilities aren’t as vulnerable to a surgical strike as Iraq’s and Syria’s were. Iran has taken the trouble to move them underground and harden them against air attack. That’s why an Israeli surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, with the weapons systems currently available to them, likely wouldn’t do the job. The U.S. Air Force’s new 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, specifically designed for such missions, should do the job, requiring the U.S. not Israel to do it, but the problem of Iranian retaliation remains.
Option two involves comprehensive air strikes against both Iran’s nuclear facilities and its armed forces in order to reduce its capability to retaliate. All that’s necessary to envision how the U.S. would go about this is to look at what we did before we expelled Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991 and what we did before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities are accompanied by massive air attacks on Iraq’s command-and-control and air-defense networks followed by air attacks on its air force and air and sea attacks on its navy. No ground combat with Iranian forces is necessary unless Iran attempts to attack Iraq—something a large-scale attack is more likely to deter.
To be sure, this option is high-risk. It requires large-scale military deployments and preparations, risks a prolonged war with Iran, and would cast the U.S. in the roll of an aggressor in the eyes of many nations in the international community. For the Obama administration it invites comparisons with President George W. Bush and the alienation of its liberal-Democrat base.
Ironically, however, it is only the threat of large-scale military action by the U.S. that is likely to make Iranian leaders pause and consider meaningful negotiations. Only the threat of U.S. military action that portends catastrophic results for Iran is likely to have the desired effect; and if it doesn’t, only large-scale military action would indefinitely set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program and significantly diminish the capability of its armed forces to retaliate.
Supporting the Iranian people when they were demonstrating in the streets in opposition to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs might have helped overthrow the regime and made all this unnecessary, but President Obama failed to take advantage of that opportunity.
It is no wonder, then, that the Obama administration has no long-term policy for dealing with the Iran nuclear problem other than seeking whatever modest sanctions it can obtain in the UN that Russia and China will go along with or imposing unilateral sanctions to uncertain result. Many administration critics believe President Obama is neither willing nor capable of wielding the necessary threat of force as a negotiating tool. They doubt he would carry out such threats if necessary. And they believe he has resigned himself to a nuclear-armed Iran that the U.S. will cope with through a policy of containment.
Containment of a nuclear-armed Iran, however, is an illusion. It will use its nuclear umbrella to wreak havoc and extend its hegemony throughout the region. A nuclear arms race will ensue. The long-term threat to U.S. national security will be enormous.
The use of U.S. military force in Iran is highly undesirable, but the threat of its use as negotiating leverage is essential; and for that threat to be credible, the U.S. must be willing to use overwhelming force, the lesser of two evils, as a last resort. Secretary Gates and senior military leaders at the Department of Defense understand this well or Gates wouldn’t have sent that memo.
Ed Ross is the President and Chief Executive Officer of EWRoss International LLC. He is the former Principal Director, Security Cooperation Operations, Defense Security Cooperation Agency; Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Affairs; Senior Director for China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Mongolia, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; senior Defense Intelligence Agency political-military analyst, and a retired U.S. Army Military Intelligence officer.