Why Not to Attack Iran

COLIN KAHL – If Iran obtains nuclear weapons, it would destabilize the region. But it could also destabilize itself. And forget about it sharing those secrets with its proxies

(To read about the reasons for an attack against Iran, see the P-WW’s interview with Matthew Kroenig)

In recent years it appears that there is a growing rift in Tehran between Ahmadinejad and Khomeini. If Iran does achieve nuclear capacity, how would these political divisions affect the country’s nuclear posturing?

That is an interesting question. Ahmadinejad is not going to be President for very much longer; in 2013 there will be a new round of Presidential elections. The personal rift between Khameini and Ahmadinejad is not likely to affect issues over the next year.

I do think Ahmadinejad represents a younger generation of Iranian leaders who are very hardline, a generation that came of age during the Iran-Iraq War, who were members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). What is interesting about the Ahmadinejad-Khameini feud over the last few years is that it has forced the IRGC to take sides. What is happening is that the majority of the IRGC tends to have aligned itself with the Supreme Leader [Khameini], who is most likely solidifying his own rule.

Moving forward, I do not see the Ahmadinejad-Khameini conflict as fundamental. The regime, at least for the foreseeable future, has solidified its control around the Supreme Leader.

Although suppressed, there is a growing movement of political dissent in Iran that could threaten to dislodge the regime, or at least destabilize it. How could these internal movements affect the stability of the Iranian nuclear program or nuclear strategy, if the regime obtains weapons?

The Green Movement came to the fore in the aftermath of the fraudulent June 2009 elections, when their candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, appeared to have been cheated out of the presidency by Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Tehran and elsewhere over the course of several months. The regime reacted fairly brutally to repress the movement. And for the moment, the Green Movement has been put down and is relatively dormant. Yet the underlying grievances motivating the movement persist; the regime is corrupt; it does not have legitimacy; it is not living up to the republican elements of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and has tilted too far in an authoritarian direction; the economic challenges that face the Iranian population are being ignored: nearly 75% of Iran’s population is under the age of 35, and there is high youth unemployment.

There is a possibility that the economic challenges resulting from increased sanctions will worsen these underlying grievances. As the last year has shown, in the Middle East region, the possibility of opposition movements springing up from nowhere to take regimes by storm is pronounced. It is conceivable that such an event could happen in Iran, although it is difficult to predict when that might happen.

What affect such a movement would have on the nuclear program would very much depend on the way such a change happened; if the Green Movement was able to revolt against the regime and come to power, they would be more amenable to a diplomatic deal with the United States for no other reason than that they would need to consolidate their authority and avoid an antagonistic relationship with the outside world. But it is also conceivable that large-scale opposition could destabilize the country, or even lead to something like an IRGC coup. If that happened, the regime would be pushed in a rightward direction rather than towards a more desirable moderate position. Ultimately, though, this is interesting speculation: there is no widespread protest movement on Iranian streets at this time.

I spoke with Matthew Kroenig, and he noted — as many analysts have — the danger of Iran passing nuclear material to its regional terrorist proxies. Yet, the difference between a Katyusha rocket and a nuclear device is profound. Would Iran be willing to disseminate such a devastating weapon capability, or is the connection between these two forms of military aid unsound?

One needs to determine whether a nuclear-armed Iran would be willing to share sensitive nuclear technology with another actor, particularly other state actors — centrifuge designs or plans for developing nuclear fuel: so-called “sensitive nuclear transfers.” I think there is a possibility that a nuclear-armed Iran would be willing to do these things, that is, play a role similar to Pakistan’s Abdul Qadeer Khan, as a source of proliferation, helping other nations move along the pathway towards their own nuclear programs.

The likelihood of Iran of passing an actual nuclear weapon to another state or terrorist organization is highly unlikely, however. Iran already has weapons of mass destruction: they have the capability to produce chemical and biological weapons. To our knowledge Iran has not transferred any of these weapons to its non-state allies, terrorist, or militant proxies like Hezbollah or Hamas. There is also an enormous risk that if Iran transferred a weapon to a terrorist organization, the regime would not be able to control what that organization did with the device. It is hard to believe that any regime would transfer the ultimate weapon to a group that it did not completely control. There is also a very real prospect that if these groups used such a weapon against Israel or the United States, Iran would face devastating nuclear retaliation.

The regime in Iran has shown a penchant, at times, for recklessness, but none of its behavior suggests that the regime is suicidal. The concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) and deterrence will most likely preclude them from transferring an actual nuclear bomb to terrorists.

Major media outlets often describe the danger in which western nations and their allies would find themselves if Iran “went nuclear.” Yet, a recent article in Foreign Affairs noted that “Iranian civilians and the Islamic Republic’s own leaders…would bear the brunt of [the danger].” Which group would live under the greatest risk in the event of Iran obtaining nuclear weapons?

There are a number of dangers posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, some of which are more likely to occur than others. Some analysts emphasize that Iran would actually use its nuclear weapons, or hand them over to terrorists. More likely, however, the regime, feeling that it had a nuclear deterrent against Israel or the United States, would become more emboldened to support proxies, provide more aid, sponsor more acts of terrorism: everything it is doing now in the region, but dialed up. That is a real danger posed by a nuclear-armed Iran: it can afford to be more aggressive or engage in coercive diplomacy. Another danger often pointed to is that other countries in the region would develop nuclear weapons in response to a successful Iranian program; the prime suspects are usually Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, with the Saudis being most likely to acquire their own weapon, perhaps by purchasing one from the Pakistanis.

There are a whole host of reasons why Iran developing a nuclear weapon might make the country itself less safe and more vulnerable. With a nuclear weapon, everything Iran would do in the region could carry the risk of nuclear escalation, which in the extreme could lead to the end of the Islamic Republic. If Iran goes down the nuclear pathway and its regional neighbors follow suit, a nuclear arms race could develop. Even if other countries did not launch nuclear programs, a nuclear armed Iran would likely spark or accelerate a conventional arms race in the Gulf. To the degree that Iran’s nuclear activities make the region more unstable and conflict prone, they also increase the possibility that Iran itself could suffer consequences.

Noam Chomsky argued that US leaders do not understand the popular sentiment regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and that the majority of Arab civilians do not oppose a nuclear Iran — that only the leaders of these countries oppose it, and thus the US finds support with them. Is this claim valid, and how can US policymakers quantify public sentiment there?

The point that there is a difference between how the leadership in many of these countries view the “Iran issue,” and how the so-called “Arab street” views the issue, is probably valid. There is more sympathy for Iran’s activities on the Arab street than there is in the capitals and palaces across the Middle East. Any polling in the region needs to be taken with a grain of salt. It is also important to consider how the overall view of Iran has deteriorated substantially over the past year as a consequence of the Arab Spring. As Arab nationalism has become more pronounced — as Arab populations increasingly look to their own governments for dignity and to express their interests — they look less and less to Iran and its narrative of resistance. Iran is perceived as having meddled in many of these countries during their period of domestic turmoil. But it is nearly impossible to know how this drop in favor affects the Arab street’s answer to the nuclear question.

In any case, US policymaker need to make decisions about what to do vis-a-vis Iran’s nuclear program based on our national interests, not on what opinion polls in other countries might suggest.

In light of the democratic movements across the Arab World, is it in the United States’ best interests to formulate policy — towards Iran or about other issues — that is in-line with popular opinion in the region?

All other things being equal, it would be great if there was a different regime in Tehran, one that was more respectful of human rights, more accountable to its people, and more representative. The US should continue to call out human rights abuses when they occur, to stand up for universal rights of all Iranians to freedom of association, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.

Today’s debate about launching a strike against Iran seems similar to the calls for the invasion of Iraq, on a smaller scale. Is this comparison valid?

There are similarities and dissimilarities. On one hand, advocates of going to war with Iran tend to overhype the threat, arguing that alternatives to force have failed and it is important to go to war now rather than later. The logic of that argument — that the threat is imminent and all other options have been exhausted — is very reminiscent of the discussion surrounding the preventative war against Iraq in 2003.

On the other hand, the intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is substantially better than the intelligence was surrounding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction programs in 2002-2003. There is a fair amount of confidence Iran is engaged in activities that violate its obligations under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Most of those advocating for a strike are not advocating for regime change, and certainly not for a large ground invasion.

Yet there is one way in which these two debates share a frightening similarity. Many individuals who are advocating using military force against Iran are only thinking about the day of the attack, but do not think as much about the day after. One of the lessons Americans should have learned from the Iraq was that war is the easy part; it is the “post war” situation, or the period after the post combat situation, that can be particularly tricky. In the case of Iran, any military action, whether taken by Israel or the United States, will only set the nuclear program back, not destroy it. There will be a requirement on the back end of a strike to continue isolating and containing Iran, to prevent it from reconstituting its nuclear program.

Is there a difference between how American leaders perceive Iranian politics and society, and the reality “on the ground?”

There has been so little contact between Americans and Iranians since the 1979 Revolution, there has been so much hostility and conflict; American policymakers have the strong impression — backed by numerous statements over the past decades — that the ideology fostered by the regime in Tehran is deeply anti-American, that much of the government’s identity is built around resistance to American power in the region.

The Obama Administration, when it came into office, wanted to test the proposition that Iran was pursuing nuclear weapons largely for defensive purposes. The Administration provided an unconditional offer of engagement, started referring to Iran as the “Islamic Republic of Iran” to show respect, did not discuss taking military action; it changed the tone of the conversation in an effort to move away from the cycle of distrust. But the Iranians, essentially, did not respond to those overtures. A combination of the fraudulent elections in June 2009 and revelations about a series of secret nuclear facilities conspired to end the period of pure engagement and move instead towards “dual track” of both pressure and negotiation.

I do not know if there is an answer to the question of whether the US sees Iran correctly or not, because there is so little contact. But all policymakers can do is look at what the Iranian leadership says, how it behaves, and do their best to formulate policies based on that.


COLIN KAHL is Associate professor in the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. From February 2009 to December 2011, he was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East at the Pentagon.

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