Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:06 | SYDNEY
Thursday 26 Nov 2020 | 00:06 | SYDNEY

Attacking Iran


Hugh White

6 November 2007 07:45

Over the past few weeks parts of the Bush Administration – including Bush himself – has given the impression that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program is again on he cards.  They’ve given that impression before.  Might they really do it this time?

 Two basic propositions to start with.  First, Iran probably does intend to build nuclear weapons, and is steadily doing so.  Second, diplomacy and other forms of pressure short of military action have little chance of stopping them.   The UNSC is unlikely to agree on, or enforce, economic sanctions tough enough to make a real difference in Tehran.  Only oil sanctions would do that, and no one wants to go there with oil nudging $100/barrel.  

To some, these two propositions are enough.  But there is a third: would it work? Here questions of practicality are paramount.  If the US (or Israel) had clear military options to set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program decisively with a short sharp campaign of air strikes, then the arguments for doing so would be very strong.  Alas they probably do not have such options, for one simple reason: they do not know what to hit.  We all know now how tricky WMD intelligence can be.  Iran has almost certainly dispersed key elements of its nuclear program away from well-known sites like Natanz.  America or Israel would be very lucky indeed if they know where they are hidden.  So the overwhelming probability is that a campaign of airstrikes on Iran’s known nuclear sites would have little long-term effect on its weapons program.

 This is no doubt why Washington seems to be thinking about other ‘regime targets’, like Iran’s air defence system and its Republican Guard forces.  But these targets will also be hard to hit decisively in a short campaign.  The Republican Guards could hide everything but their barracks, and could rebuild those easily enough. Iran’s air defences would probably close down during attack, which would allow American planes free range, but would also deny them a target, and allow Iran’s SAMs to live and fight another day.  So it is hard to see how attacking this kind of target can impose costs on Iran dire enough to force them to give up their nuclear program.  If anything, it would strengthen the incentives.    

And what would it cost?  Iran has many options to retaliate, especially in Iraq and Lebanon.  It would be easy enough for Tehran to mount a campaign of increased pressure on America and Israel , with the costs to them outweighing the rather meagre benefits of a strike campaign which failed to get rid of Iran’s nuclear program.  Sadly, the US probably has no low-risk, low-cost military options to stop Iran building nuclear weapons.  The only sure way to do it would be invasion and regime change, and that seems unlikely…

 So a strike campaign against Iran’s nuclear program would probably not be a decisive display of will and power.  It would more likely be an expensive and ineffective expression of anger, and perhaps also a demonstration of impotence.  That is why the US has walked away from the option before.  It does not mean they will again, but they should.