The Future of the Iranian Nuclear Program, Part I
What does the future hold for the Islamic Republic of Iran and its nuclear weapons program? What forecasts can be made about US policy toward Iran? CONFRONTATION WITH IRAN LOOMS The President has stated that Iran will not be allowed to possess nuclear weapons. He can be taken at his word. The current diplomatic agreement between Iran and several nations of the EU has no verification mechanism, and will not satisfy the President that Iran has ceased its nuclear weapons program. Having seen the ill effects of a failed diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear program, the President will be short on patience for similar negotiated disarmament schemes that miss the mark of full and unconditional disclosure, like that of Libya. Iran will not submit to such disclosure. However the current cabinet shakeup plays out, the Bush Administration will view Iran as a greater threat to US security than Syria. While Syria provides geographic territory, logistical support, and moral support to various terrorist groups, these groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, mainly target Israel and not the United States. While Syria may be the repository of whatever Iraqi weapons were stashed away prior to the invasion, Syria has no nuclear weapons development program. The President and Vice President have clearly stated that the over-riding reason for the invasion of Iraq was the threat to the United States of the "nexus between weapons of mass destruction and terrorist groups." This nexus clearly resides in Iran, which is actively seeking nuclear weapons and has a long history of supporting all manner of terrorist groups, including, from time to time, Al Qaeda. THE TIMING OF US ACTION Before assumptions about the use of US force can be definitively stated, the critical question becomes the time horizon. What to make of this? How to define in time, the event that creates the deadline? Iran will eventually reach a point wherein it has completed the infrastructure and research necessary to manufacture a nuclear weapon. This is the point it must not be allowed to reach. The Atlantic article gives the Iranians 3 years, with many backside-covering qualifications. A recent US News report states three to seven years. Other reports, including one referenced in the Belmont Club by Wretchard, state as little as 4-6 months before Iran has the break-out stage and can "construct nuclear bombs whenever it wishes." As we all know from the re-election campaign, President Bush was criticized as "rushing to war" in Iraq. Agreeing with the characterization of this decision (that it was poor form to move so quickly) or not is irrelevant. Instead, assume that Bush prefers to err on the side of action, and move quickly. In this case, let us assume the time horizon for his decision is 12-18 months. In the next year and a half, the US, whether alone or with allies, must address the Iranian nuclear program once and for all, or grudgingly admit Iran into the fraternity of nuclear powers, and like it or not, live with its regime for an indefinite period of time. THE SHAPE OF US ACTION Let us revisit the assumptions about military force from yesterday's critique of the Atlantic Monthly's December cover story. Now we'll add commentary to each of the assumptions: "1. Any military action will reflect current thinking within the Pentagon." This is wrong. Military war plans really only exist for two reasons -- in case of dire emergency, and to use as building blocks for situationally-dependent detailed planning. Witness Operational Plan 1003-V (called "Oh-plan ten-oh-three victor"), which was used to plan the invasion of Iraq. The plan had been gathering dust on the shelves in some classified vault for years, with a few updates and modifications here and there. When the attention spans of senior policy-makers dwell upon a particular issue, the plans are dusted off and revised, revised, revised, ad infinitum, as much as time will allow, and even with the possibility of major changes (complete rerouting of the 4th Infantry Division, for example) right up until the event in question is about to start. "2. The only way to stimulate a regime change is through military force in general and an invasion in particular." This too is wrong. Overthrowing governments used to be one of the core competencies of the CIA. This skill may not be as honed as we would like, but it is there, deep down. Moreover, a well-executed punitive strike, even against limited military targets, and not the entire apparatus of a regime, can be a powerful instigator of regime change. Having one's government unable to prevent a foreign military strike on one's soil is a seriously and catastrophically delegitimizing and destabilizing act. "3. The military has no stomach for stability operations." Also wrong. Secretary Rumsfeld and General Myers have issued directives since the Iraqi campaign started detailing the importance of postwar planning in future conflicts. The military can apply the same operationally detailed planning to postwar stability as it can to invasions, airstrikes, humanitarian missions, and other large-scale undertakings, so long as it has the necessary guidance. "4. The buildup to an invasion cannot be disguised." Correct. While tactical surprise is possible, even with a telegraphed punch such as seen in the defense of Kuwait, the invasion of Iraq, or the recapture of Fallujah, it is very difficult for a democracy like our own to commit large numbers of ground forces to any task while keeping it under wraps. In general, logistics cannot hide. Moving 10,000 men cannot be hidden in a stratgically significant way. If performed quickly enough, their exact destination and time of arrival can be difficult to determine. But their trip itself cannot. "5. The US military is too overstretched for an invasion of Iran at this point in time." More or less correct. An invasion of some size could be mounted, but the longer the invasion force stayed in Iran, the more force structure begins to catch up to it. A large-scale recall of reservists could increase the time US forces could operate in Iran, but such a move would make the United States vulnerable in other spheres of influence (Taiwan, South Korea). As the time horizon moves further and further into the future though, this statement becomes less and less true. As Iraqi forces take more and more responsibility for Iraq's security, the forces available for an invasion of Iran increase dramatically. "6. If a pre-emptive strike only succeeded in delaying the Iranian program, they would sooner or later have weapons after all."* This may be true; but it assumes that the US would stop at one air campaign. If one air campaign buys 18 months, that is 18 months to prepare for the troop heavy option. If another air campaign has to then take place, why couldn't it? Singular, "it-all-comes-down-to-this" decisiveness is always preferable, but if it is impossible to achieve it is entirely plausible that a series of air campaigns could take place. Knowing that there are 12-18 months to work with, what are the options open to US policy-makers? Tomorrow . . . GOALS OF US ACTION, in The Future of the Iranian Nuclear Program, Part II. *Note: These assumptions are derived from the article; they do not appear there verbatim. Note 2: I am about to post an update to Sunday's critique of a New York Times article. Refresh your screen in a moment to see it.