Prospect Online

Will America Attack Iran?

As I discovered on a recent trip to London, it's not easy for an American these days to convince his European colleagues that the US is unlikely to attack Iran's nuclear sites any time soon. Given the Iraq precedent, and with senior US officials now regularly coming forward with similarly dire warnings about the Iranian threat, Europeans are understandably inclined to believe reports—such as those recently published by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker—that Washington is getting ready to bomb Iran, possibly even with tactical nuclear weapons.

It would be foolish to take these concerns lightly. President Bush has vowed never to "permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," and he has proven to be a leader willing to implement his threats even in the face of considerable international and domestic opposition. He may be convinced that only he has the courage to deal with the Iranian nuclear threat and that only an American military attack can reliably do so once diplomatic efforts have been tried and failed. With presumed Democratic presidential candidates like Senators Hilary Clinton and Evan Bayh already attacking the administration for its failure to do anything about Iran, and the increasingly unpopular Republican party in need of a boost, the politics of the 2008 presidential election might also push America in the direction of a military confrontation with Iran.

But I don't think so. When all the political and strategic pros and cons of an American military strike on Iran are taken into account, there is good reason to believe that the US will stick to diplomacy—even as Iran continues what looks like an inexorable march toward a nuclear-weapons capability.

What is striking about the US approach is not the degree to which Washington is eschewing diplomacy in favour of military force, but the opposite. During Bush's first term, the administration criticised European engagement with Iran, predicted that the "EU-3" approach of Britain, France and Germany would fail, and insisted that it would not "reward bad behaviour" by dealing with the Iranians. Since then, however, the approach has changed entirely. In March 2005, Bush announced that the US would support the EU-3, and even throw some of its own "carrots"—aeroplane spare parts and support for World Trade Organisation accession negotiations with Iran—into the mix. More recently, the administration has patiently worked with the IAEA and the UN security council, agreed to support a Russian offer to enrich uranium on Iran's behalf, and now even announced that it is ready to negotiate directly with Tehran if it suspends uranium enrichment. This is a dramatic departure from its earlier insistence that talks with Iran would legitimise the regime. Bush's declaration, in his 2006 state of the union address, that the US would "continue to rally the world" to confront the Iranian threat was a far cry from earlier suggestions of how the US might deal with a charter member of the "axis of evil."

It is true, of course, that the current emphasis on diplomacy could be a set-up, designed to help justify a later resort to military force. On Iraq, after all, the US also went through the motions of diplomacy for more than a year before it sent in the troops. But there is a key difference. In the case of Iraq, as was already clear at the time, many influential Americans were certain that an invasion would be easy, successful, and a step toward a safer world, and thus actually preferred the use of force to a diplomatic "success." On Iran, I know of almost no one who denies that an attack would have serious negative consequences and who sees it as anything other than a last resort. Clearly, there are people in the administration who would ultimately pull the trigger if an Iranian bomb seemed inevitable, but there is no parallel to the Iraqi case—in which many were hoping and even working for diplomatic failure in order to pave the way to war. Moreover, just as it's possible that the diplomatic approach is only being conducted to make the military strike viable, it is conversely possible that the hawkish rhetoric is being deployed to help make the diplomacy work. Insisting that "all options are on the table" is a useful way of making Iranians think carefully about how badly they want nuclear weapons.

If you really want to know why the US is unlikely to attack Iran, however, just consider the final Oval Office set of briefings President Bush would receive before making the decision to attack.

From the CIA: "Mr President, we cannot tell you with certainty how far along the Iranians are towards a bomb, nor can we tell you where all the key nuclear facilities are. We know they convert uranium ore to nuclear fuel at Esfahan, that they enrich uranium at Natanz and that they are building a heavy-water research reactor at Arak. But there may well be dozens of other secret facilities scattered around the country we don't know about. We don't have good sources in Iran, and we didn't even know about these sites until Iranian dissidents told us about them in 2002. Our best estimate, in any case, is that Iran will not be able to produce a bomb for at least five years."

From the military: "Mr President, we can certainly do serious damage to Iran's known nuclear facilities. The above-ground targets are easy to hit, and even the buried centrifuge facilities at Natanz—reportedly about 30 feet underground and covered by at least 10 feet of concrete—can probably be destroyed with our GBU-28 "bunker-busters." But we might have to strike it many times—or possibly even consider using tactical nuclear weapons—to be certain. Moreover, to do this job right, we'd need to hit dozens of different facilities scattered around the country, many of which are in built-up civilian areas and/or protected by air-defence sites that would have to be destroyed. So there would be considerable collateral damage."

From the state department: "Mr President, we would have almost no international support for an attack on Iran and our image throughout the world—especially the Muslim world—would be seriously damaged. But the real problem would be Iran's potential retaliation. This would almost certainly include efforts to destabilise Iraq and Afghanistan (including attacks on our 150,000 troops in those two places), support for terrorist attacks against US citizens and interests and threats to the free passage of oil through the straits of Hormuz. We must also recognise that an attack would likely strengthen Iranian extremists and undermine reformers, that any setback to the program would likely only be temporary, and that any debate within Iran about the utility of a nuclear weapons programme would end.

From domestic political advisers: "Mr President, unlike three years ago on Iraq, we would not have widespread public support, and there is almost no chance that we could get a congressional resolution supporting the use of force. So you—and the Republican party—would have to accept full political responsibility for what comes next. And by the way, oil would probably shoot up to over $100 per barrel."

Under these circumstances, does the president say, "Thank you for your briefings. But I'm going to do it anyway"? Anything is possible, and maybe Bush agrees with John McCain's assertion that the only thing worse than exercising the military option on Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran. But I wouldn't bet on it.

Although it is unlikely to deploy military force, Washington will not quietly acquiesce to an Iranian nuclear weapon, nor should it. One of the greatest benefits of Bush's decision to pursue diplomacy and back the EU-3 approach on Iran has been that it is now Iran that is isolated and blamed for the current crisis, not the US. British, French and German leaders, long suspected of being soft on Tehran, are now themselves fed up with Iranian obfuscation and belligerence, and will find it hard not to go along with at least some form of sanction if Iran continues to rebuff the international community. With an Iranian bomb still years away, the administration will have time to continue to work to persuade not only the Europeans but also China, Russia, India and Japan—none of whom want to see an Iranian bomb—to isolate Iran politically and economically unless it gives up its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Despite Iran's apparent determination to develop its nuclear programme, such efforts are not hopeless, and international agreement to deny Iran the investment, technology, weapons and income it badly needs would certainly have an effect on Tehran's cost-benefit analysis. If, on the other hand, America's allies decide that even economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation are too much to ask for in the effort to bring Iran back to the table, then Bush's options will in effect be reduced to a very clear choice between doing nothing and bombing Iran. I still don't think he'd want to do the latter, but America's allies and counterparts on the security council ought at least to realise that refusing to support sanctions on Iran would be the best way to find out.