The American Legion Magazine
November 2005
By Alan W. Dowd

Today, all the ingredients for another war are simmering in Iran, a terrorist state ready to crash into the nuclear club. But is going to war the only way to prevent Iran from going nuclear?   

Myths and Realities
One way to answer that question is to determine if Washington and Tehran share any common ground; and the good news is that it appears they do: At the risk of oversimplifying a complex situation, neither side wants to go to war with the other.

Iraq and Afghanistan have taught Washington that toppling tyrants is only the beginning, that building nations can be harder than winning wars. As a consequence, US forces are stretched thin. This is to be expected in a time of global war; however, it limits US options and capabilities in Iran.

Yet the risks are too high in Iran simply to cross our fingers and hope for the best. A nuclear-armed Iran would threaten the United States in a range of new ways, raising the specter of nuclear terrorism, nuclear blackmail, a new nuclear arms race, even a regional nuclear war.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught the mullahs something as well: The US military has the capacity, quite simply, to erase their regime in a matter of days, perhaps hours. They want an insurance policy against that, so they are racing to build the only thing that seems to give America pause—a nuclear bomb.

Make no mistake: that is the sole purpose of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran simply does not need nuclear energy. Iran produces 79 billion cubic meters of natural gas per year and uses just 26.7 billion, with proven reserves of 26.7 trillion cubic meters. It produces 3.9 million barrels of oil per day, and it consumes just 1.4 million barrels per day. Iran has proven oil reserves of 130.8 billion barrels—enough to meet its current energy demands for 256 years.[1]

Even as Iran’s nuclear intentions come into sharper focus, the maturity of its nuclear program remains a mystery. For instance, the mullahs themselves concede that their scientists were conducting illegal plutonium-separation experiments as late as 1998. Up until June 2005, they insisted that all such experiments had stopped in 1993.[2] In late 2003 and 2004, international nuclear inspectors reported that Iran had breached agreements to suspend uranium-enrichment activity, including efforts to manufacture and acquire centrifuges. Also in 2004, Pakistan confirmed that A.Q. Khan, father of Pakistan’s bomb, had shared his secrets with Tehran.[3]

In fact, ever since their secret nuclear program was exposed in 2002—a program that violates the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty—the mullahs have played games with the international community: alternately granting access to some facilities but blocking access to others, promising to halt uranium conversion only to restart it days later, and defiantly issuing ultimatums on the price to shut down their nuclear program.  

In response to Tehran’s dangerous dance, President George W. Bush has said “all options are on the table,” adding that “The use of force is the last option.” Of course, if war breaks out, Tehran has options too—many more options than Saddam Hussein had in March 2003:

-The mullahs could use their arsenal of missiles to strike US bases and allies in the region. Iran’s Shahab-3, for example, has a range of 800 miles. The Iranians claim to have another missile with a range of 1,250 miles, bringing parts of Europe within reach. The Congressional Research Service reports that there is evidence Tehran has mated its more accurate, shorter-range missiles with chemical and biological weaponry.

-Iran could use its naval assets to disrupt oil traffic through the Persian Gulf. Many Americans forget that the US and Iran fought a series of bloody naval battles in 1988. At its height, this “war on the Gulf” crippled a US frigate, sank much of Iran’s navy, and claimed over 200 civilians aboard an Iranian passenger jet as it flew into the middle of the battle.

Military analyst Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Security and International Studies notes that “Iran has given modernization of its naval forces high priority,” acquiring sophisticated anti-ship missiles from China and Ukraine, long-range submarines from Russia, high-speed attack boats from France and an arsenal of some 2,000 mines. In Cordesman’s view, Iran may have the “potential capability to close the Gulf until US naval and air power could clear the mines and destroy the missile launchers and submarines.” 

-However, Tehran would certainly not confine its military operations against the US to traditional fields and forms of battle. Iran also would wage an asymmetrical war against the United States, using terror as its primary weapon. Tehran could unleash Hezbollah in North America, replicating not the nightmarish horror of 9/11 but rather the debilitating terror that stalks Tel Aviv and Baghdad and London. According to Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, “It is generally considered that Hezbollah has the largest number of agents in the U.S., many more than al Qaeda.” In fact, a full year before the 9/11 attacks, the FBI arrested 23 members and supporters of Hezbollah in suburban North Carolina. From Beirut to Flight 847 to KhobarTowers, this sleeper-cell army has played a role in the murders of some 300 Americans.

-Tehran could turn up the heat in southern Iraq and trigger a full-blown civil war. As former Iranian leader Hashemi Rafsanjani said of the delicate US-Iran-Iraq triangle, “they know that if Iran wanted, it could make their problems even worse.” Jane’s Defense notes that “Iranian intelligence agents have been extremely active in Iraq since the collapse of Saddam’s regime.” Coalition forces captured 30 Iranians during battles in August 2004. In late 2003, Iraqi forces arrested twelve Iranian agents who were planning terror attacks in Baghdad. And the Coalition has seized large amounts of weaponry in transit from Iran. Indeed, in late 2005, Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld concluded that some of the bombs and other weapons being used against US troops were "clearly, unambiguously from Iran."

-Finally, depending on how far along their nuclear program has progressed, the mullahs could deploy or sell a dirty nuke or even a full-blown nuclear weapon. At the very least, they could claim that they have done so, thereby paralyzing Washington.

For its part, Washington has both more and less options than it had before the Iraq War. Militarily, it has bases all around Iran—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and the Gulf, with more US troops sprinkled across the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. This gives Washington a big stick with which to threaten Tehran. However, one could argue that America’s growing presence in the region is both a blessing and a curse. While these bases extend Washington’s reach, they also give the Iranian government a sense of encirclement, which could actually spur development of nuclear weapons. Nor is the military situation ideal for the US:

-As historian John Lewis Gaddis reminds us, the shaky intelligence that buttressed the case for war in Iraq has “diminished, in advance, the credibility of whatever future intelligence claims Bush…might make.”

-Likely targets inside Iran are dispersed across the country—a country about four times larger than Iraq—and many nuclear targets are simply unknown. Plus, the Iranian people have shown a willingness to sustain heavy losses in the face of foreign invasion, as evidenced by the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

-After two wars, two nation-building operations, two counter-insurgencies, and an ongoing global hunt for al Qaeda’s remnants, the US military is showing signs of wear and tear. For instance, a 2005 study conducted by the Washington Post revealed that 340,000 of the US troops deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan have already served two or more overseas tours. Perhaps not coincidentally, the armed forces are falling short of quarterly recruiting targets. As to equipment, The Washington Post found that half of the Army and Marine equipment stored on ships has been exhausted. And the equipment being used in Iraq and Afghanistan is “wearing out at up to six times the normal rate.” 

Shock and Awe II
So while the military option is not unthinkable, it is certainly unpalatable. And it may be unnecessary. As Gaddis notes, “Good strategists know when to stop shocking and awing.”

Many of us who support Washington’s twin efforts to dismantle the global infrastructure of terror and replace it with representative government have argued that using force to change regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq could have a carry-over effect elsewhere. In other words, regime change doesn’t always have to come from the business end of an Abrams tank or Stealth Bomber. Consider Libya’s preemptive surrender of its WMD arsenal in late 2003, the democratic tremors spreading through Beirut, the retreat of Syria’s thugs from Lebanon, the disruption and exposure of Khan’s nuclear trade, even Iran’s grudging nuclear talks with the EU and IAEA.  

This atmosphere offers the US an opportunity to play both good cop and bad cop with Iran.

-Washington has installed democratic governments on Iran’s borders, blocked any formal trade or diplomatic exchanges with Iran, and openly talked about ousting the Iranian government. Europe and Japan, on the other hand, account for a third of Iran’s imports and 45 percent of its exports.  In short, there’s no confusion about who plays good cop and bad cop in this equation. As the bad cop, the US represents the very real threat of war. As good cops, Europe and Japan represent a pathway to normalized relations with Washington and perhaps most importantly the loss of existing trade privileges. The US can offer no such disincentive to Iran, should it continue down the nuclear path. But working together, Washington, Tokyo and the EU have significant leverage.

-Perspective is everything, and from the mullahs’ perspective perhaps the only thing more worrisome than having US troops as neighbors is reading press reports about the Israeli military training in the Negev to attack Iranian nuclear sites. Here’s where America can be the good cop: Israel has a no-nonsense attitude about nuclear weapons in the hands of its enemies, having leveled Saddam’s Osirak nuclear plant in 1981. Washington has the ability to restrain Israel, having done so in 1991. In short, just as the Europeans can offer Tehran a choice between face-saving diplomacy and a regime-ending war, the Americans can quietly offer Tehran a choice between shutting down the plants voluntarily and watching the Israeli air force do so with laser-guided bombs.

How could Washington deliver such a message, given the fact that US-Iran relations are frozen in 1979? If Nixon could go China, if Reagan could hold summits with the Evil Empire, why couldn’t George W. Bush—architect of the war on terror—send an emissary to Tehran to lay out US expectations and intentions? His father did no less with Saddam Hussein; his predecessor did no less with Slobodan Milosevic; his own administration has done no less with Kim Jong Il. If the White House sent the right person—perhaps a retired general who knows the neighborhood, someone like Tommy Franks or Norman Schwarzkopf—no one in Iran would misunderstand or misread America’s purpose.  

A Free Iran
Of course, even if Tehran took such a warning to heart and promised to forswear nuclear weapons, it would be imprudent to trust the mullahs and their hand-picked strongman, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to keep such a promise. After all, they have already broken a number of promises, which is why America’s long-term objective must be a democratic Iran. Think about it: Pentagon planners don’t worry about British or French nukes, but owing to the nature of the Iranian government they worry plenty about Iranian nukes.

Hence, Washington must encourage the Iranian people to pursue freedom. Toward that end, Radio Farda (a 24-hour, Farsi-language news service sponsored by the US) is soaking Iran with news about the democratic revolutions in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Iraq. In addition, Washington should encourage Iran’s newly democratic neighbors to encourage the Iranian people to pursue freedom. It’s hard to imagine a more effective ambassador for Islamic democracy than a Shiite member of Iraq’s National Assembly or a Turkmen or Pashtun member of Afghanistan’s cabinet.  

Of all the volatile ingredients floating around Iran, freedom may be the most powerful.  After all, if Iran is free, the odds are good that it will also be nuclear-free.

[1] The CIA World Fact Book, 2005, www.cia.gov.

[2] George Jahn, “Iran’s plutonium use dates back to 2003,” AP, June 15, 2005.

[3] CRS, Iran: US Concerns and Policy Response, July 2004.

[4] CRS, Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities, August 23, 2004; Reuters, “Iran's Missiles Can Now Hit Europe, Ex-Official Says,” October 6, 2004. 

[5] See George Wilson, “Navy missile downs Iranian jetliner,” Washington Post, July 4, 1988; David Winkler, “Operation Praying Mantis blows a hole in the Iranian navy,” Sea Power, September 2003, www.navyleague.org.

[6] Anthony Cordesman, “The Iranian Navy,” CSIS, July 15, 2004.

[7] Bob Graham, Tom Diaz, “Bush must not appease Hezbollah,” Financial Times, April 1, 2005.

[8] See Lois Freeh, Testimony before the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, May 10, 2001; Danile Nyman, “Should Hezbollah be next?” Foreign Affairs, December 2003.

[9] See David Ignatius, “What Iran wants,” Washington Post, February 27, 2004; Jane’s Defense, “Iran’s covert operations in Iraq,” May 26, 2005; Daniela Deane, “Rumsfeld Says Weapons From Iran Found in Iraq,” Washington Post August 9, 2005.

[10] Gaddis, p. 97.

[11] Gerry J. Gilmore, “Rigors of War Take Toll on U.S. Military Equipment,” American Forces Press Service, Oct. 22, 2003; Ann Scott Tyson, “Two Years Later, Iraq War Drains Military,”Washington Post March 19, 2005.