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War Clouds Gather over Iran

Mahan Abedin is Visiting Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for details profile
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  • September 01, 2010

    The candid remarks in early August by Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s highest ranking military officer, that the United States has drawn up plans to attack Iran has touched off a flurry of reporting and analysis on the likelihood of a military strike on Iran in the near future.

    Although Mullen was careful enough to add that he thought military action was a bad idea inasmuch as its regional consequences were unpredictable, nonetheless he has raised the stakes considerably by formally disclosing what many knew already existed. The Pentagon has contingency military plans in place for many parts of the world but it rarely discusses these in public.

    But there has been speculation of a growing threat of war independent of Admiral Mullen’s carefully-crafted statement. Three articles in particular stand out. The first is pro-Israeli journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s “The Point of No Return” published in the September edition of the Atlantic, in which Goldberg argues that if President Obama does not take decisive action to halt Iran’s nuclear programme within one year then Israel will send up to one hundred warplanes to take out the visible dimension of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In this lengthy piece, which carries the input of forty current and past Israeli decision makers, Goldberg allows his interviewees to dominate the narrative, without taking them to task for some of their core assumptions, in particular their belief that Iran poses an ‘existential’ threat to Israel. In his critique of Goldberg’s article, the Israeli strategic affairs analyst Yossi Alpher cites the overriding Israeli imperative to influence the Iran debate in Washington, and claims that Israeli policy makers view Goldberg as a useful tool to achieve that objective. In other words, the Israeli threats conveyed in Goldberg’s article are more akin to psychological warfare than concrete plans.

    By contrast, Iran expert Ray Takeyh and former national security council staffer Steven Simon’s op-ed in the Washington Post entitled “If Iran came close to getting a nuclear weapon, would Obama use force” (August 1) is a more nuanced piece. However, the authors’ dovish reputation accentuates the gravity of their worrying conclusion; that yes in the event of exhausting all political, diplomatic and economic tools (embodied by the complex sanctions regime imposed on Iran), President Obama would be left with little choice but to order strikes on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure.

    Meanwhile, an article by prominent Iranian-American Trita Parsi in Salon (August 13) argues that Goldberg’s piece should be viewed as the opening salvo of an attempt to weaken Obama by portraying him as weak on national security issues, with a view to facilitating his downfall in the November 2012 Presidential Elections. An expert on Iran-Israeli relations, Parsi does not rule out the long-term risks of war, undertaken most likely by a Republican Administration with a more militant commitment to Israel’s security and interests in the Middle East.

    What all these articles fail to discuss adequately is the nature and intensity of the Iranian response to an American attack on the country’s nuclear infrastructure. Takeyh and Simon for instance – whilst paying lip service to the possibility of a robust Iranian retaliation – appear to be advising the White House that the cautious and rational leadership in Tehran would limit its reaction to “large demonstrations” and eschew a military response due to its recognition of the logic of power.

    Takeyh and Simon’s analysis likely has some resonance inside the Pentagon and the wider American defence establishment. In this respect the American defence establishment clearly doesn’t believe the propaganda of U.S. administrations in the past three decades, namely that Iran’s leadership is irrational and messianic. After all, only an unfailingly rational and meticulously risk-averse political system would forego the option of retaliation in the face of gross and intolerable military provocation.

    But Takeyh and Simon are wrong in their appraisal of the Islamic Republic. The Iranian system is not without irrational actors, and whilst these elements are normally confined to the very margins, they are likely to be thrust centre stage in the event of U.S. military aggression. The statements by the commanders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (Iran’s parallel ideological army) in response to Admiral Mullen’s remarks should be a wake up call for American defence and strategic policy makers.

    Even before Mullen’s statement, these commanders, alongside the Guard’s political and ideological officers, had warned of the dire consequences of military confrontation, promising to combine conventional and asymmetric forms of warfare to deliver a robust response. At the very least the IRGC is expected to try to close the Strait of Hormuz through which nearly forty per cent of world crude oil supplies pass.

    On the question of Israel, the Jewish state is highly unlikely to attack Iran, for many reasons, but most importantly because the U.S. will in the end decisively veto this dangerous option. As for the United States, the Americans will have to balance a dizzying array of interests, factors and scenarios as they contemplate military action in the months and years ahead. Even if the worst-case scenarios are correct and Iran is indeed bent on producing nuclear weapons – or at least the ability to assemble one within a short time frame – the U.S. still has a range of options to contain the Islamic Republic, none of which is as dangerous and unpredictable as a military strike.

    In the meantime the Iranians are likely to repeatedly highlight the spectre of an asymmetric response, as this complicates and confuses American planning, thus constituting the most effective deterrent. But whether all this sabre rattling by both sides produces a desirable outcome – for instance, in the form of direct American-Iranian talks – and thus dramatically reduces the likelihood of conflict is not clear.

    In the final analysis, whilst war is not likely in the foreseeable future, the likelihood of its occurrence further down the line has increased in the light of Admiral Mullen’s statement.