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Analysis & Opinion
13.01.12 Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Time To Attack Iran?
Introduced by Vladimir Frolov

Contributors: Vladimir Belaeff, Dale Herspring, Dick Krickus

Tensions have been rising between Iran and the West in the standoff over Iran's clandestine pursuit of nuclear weapons. The United States, Britain and Canada pledged in November to ratchet up pressure on Tehran after the International Atomic Energy Agency published a report suggesting that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. Iran has already been subjected to four rounds of UN sanctions because of its refusal to halt controversial nuclear activities. Would a U.S. attack on Iran now make strategic sense? Might a U.S. war with Iran be a political and economic boon for Russia? Would Moscow tacitly play along with the United States?

On December 31, U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law new sanctions against financial institutions dealing with Iran’s Central Bank, which, if fully implemented, could impede Tehran’s ability to sell oil on international markets. Europe is likely to approve a near-cutoff of oil purchases from Iran on January 30, while Japan and South Korea, which import most of their oil from Iran, are likely to endorse the new sanctions as well.

Iran's response has been militarisitc – it calls the sanctions an act of war, and has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, which carries 17 percent of the world's daily oil supply.

In the magazine Foreign Affairs, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution suggests that Iran correctly defines the sanctions as a war footing: by attacking Iran's Central Bank, and thus its ability to pay its bills and be paid, the West has "backed itself into a policy of regime change." Even if one regards negotiations as ineffectual, Maloney writes, a shift to promoting the ouster of Iran's rulers is worse, placing a reliance on dynamics that "Washington has little ability to influence." Eventually, the policy of regime change would have to put the military option in play, as sanctions fail to ensure the desired outcome from inside Iran.

In the same issue of Foreign Affairs, in a self-explanatory piece titled “Time to Attack Iran,” Matthew Kroening, a former senior Pentagon official in charge of Iran policy, argues forcefully that the consequences of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities now are significantly less costly and grave than tolerating Iran's inexorable march to nuclear weapons with an unpredicatble impact on regional security and geopolitics.

Russian political analyst Fyodor Lukyanov suggests in his comments to the Voice of America's “Crossfire” program that Moscow may tacitly welcome Washington's stumbling into a war with Iran, as this would prevent Iran from going nuclear (a prospect Moscow does not relish), push oil prices through the roof, divert American attention from competition with Moscow in the former Soviet Union, and perhaps even make Washington much more reliant on Russian diplomatic and military cooperation in the region, thereby toning down American criticism of Russia’s human rights and democracy record.

Would a U.S. attack on Iran now make strategic sense? Does the current escalation of tension with Iran suggest an inevitable military confrontation? What would be the geopolitical consequences of a U.S. and Israeli military strike at Iranian nuclear installations? How would Russia and China react to that intervention? Might a U.S. war with Iran be a political and economic boon for Russia? Would Moscow tacitly play along with the United States?

Dale Herspring, Distinguished Professor, Kansas State University

The Obama administration has no intention of attacking Iran. Indeed, it has threatened Teheran numerous times: "If you don't do ‘x’, or do ‘x,’ we will respond." The most serious response so far has been the sanctions, which will admittedly hurt, but from a conflict standpoint will put the ball back in the Iranian court.

The one exception, obviously, is Israel, and the United States is generally not informed by Tel Aviv when the latter decides to take military action. Leaving the Israelis aside, the big question is whether Iran is a paper tiger, or if it really intends to take military action if the sanctions stick, or if the United States sends a carrier battle group through the Straits of Hormuz. If there is an Iranian military response, the Iranian Navy may soon find itself at the bottom of the Gulf. Its navy, or military, is no match for the American military. Let us hope that calmer heads prevail.

Vladimir Belaeff, Global Society Institute, San Francisco, CA

There exists a generally ignored axiom that conflict and peace are not symmetrically related; that is, whereas the peaceful resolution of international conflict requires, as a necessary condition, the consensus of all countries involved, for the initiation of international conflict the belligerence of just one country is sufficient.

Iran has been actively pursuing the development of domestic nuclear fuel production capability, also capable of generating weapons-grade materials. This process has continued for years. At the same time, Iran is also developing missile-based delivery systems, which make little military sense unless they are armed with weapons of mass destruction. These parallel programs are not fully transparent to international monitoring agencies, including those specifically enabled by non-proliferation treaties.

If one considers the frequently bellicose statements by senior Iranian political and military leaders, one reaches the reasonable conclusion that Iran is at present directing substantial energy to develop an aggressive weapons of mass destruction capability. In the particular matter of fissile materials, the declarations of Iranian authorities about their goals for “peaceful nuclear power” are at least incomplete and omit a second, military nuclear objective – or are even completely mendacious, as some governments in the region (both Arab and non-Arab) have decided.

After quite a few years, the international community has not been able to modify Iran’s behavior through negotiations, even when very equitable options were proposed to Tehran. With all due respect to the folks at the Smolenskaya Square in Moscow, it does not seem like the Iranian government intends in the future to be more constructive and willing to reach a good faith agreement with the international community. Thus, a consensus of all countries (i.e., peace) does not seem achievable.

It is not guaranteed, however, that a regime change in Iran is possible, or that such a change, if it were to happen, would stop Iran’s nuclear programs.

All of the above facts lead to the pessimistic conclusion that a genuine Iranian nuclear threat is emerging and will continue growing, regardless of the verbiage emanating from Tehran (which in any case is not very reassuring). Even in the unlikely eventuality of a regime change, Iran has demonstrated its hostility and disregard for the generally used methods of peaceful international interaction long before the present “nuclear troubles.”

As it now appears, economic sanctions and restrictions may not be comprehensive enough to modify Tehran’s behavior, and generally, the effectiveness of sanctions as an international tool is debatable. Societies can absorb much economic discomfort, in particular when they genuinely coalesce around a goal significant to them.

This regrettably leads to the consideration of force alternatives. The use of military force is an enormously costly gamble – in particular if the target country remains undaunted even by significant material damage. We do not know what level of force is needed to compel transparency and compliance from Iran. We also do not know if such a force level is even available to the civilized world.

There may be a need to execute a different strategy, something stronger than non-productive “negotiations,” more effective than sanctions and yet less of a gamble than the massive application of military force. Some artful options in this range do appear, but their discussion is not appropriate for this forum.

Dick Krickus, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Mary Washington, former H.L. Oppenheimer Chair for Warfighting Strategy at the U.S. Marine Corps University, Washington, DC

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal predicts that an Israeli attack upon Iran’s nuclear installations is inevitable. Given his past affiliation with the pro-Likud Jerusalem Post, his forecast is not surprising. Likewise, several of the Republican presidential aspirants favor a military solution to the “Iranian Question.” After all, their neo-conservative advisors provided the rationale for the Iraq War and then overruled the generals as to how it should be fought.

Israelis support a strike by a slim 41 to 39 percent margin, but most of their generals oppose it. Former Massad leaders Ephraim Halevy and Meir Dagan are of the same opinion. Halevy says Tehran’s existing nuclear capabilities “are far from posing an existential threat to Israel,” while Dagan observes that an Israeli attack is “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” They believe Benjamin Netanyahu’s policies are out of sync with today’s strategic environment; so does the new pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, J Street. An Israeli Defense Forces attack will imperil Israel’s security, and retaliatory strikes from Iran and Hezbollah will result in heavy civilian casualties.

President Obama opposes the military option since the Iranian threat is not imminent. His likely opponent, Mitt Romney, warns that Obama’s policies will lead to an Iranian bomb, but he does not support a strike at this time either. Military experts argue that not even the United States could guarantee a successful strike, since Iran’s facilities are dispersed and deeply embedded underground. What is more, Iran could cause serious problems for the United States in the Greater Middle East – and by closing the Straits of Hormuz spawn a global economic disaster. Above all, the American people are war-weary and have justification for opposing a problematic threat for a certain devastating outcome that will cost the lives of their young warriors.

Since Moscow has little reason to favor an Iranian bomb, Russia may welcome an attack that will simultaneously end the threat and cause problems for Washington. But it will disrupt Persian Gulf oil traffic and the global economy will be dealt a serious blow. The subsequent turbulence will not stop short of Russia’s borders and damage Moscow’s economic modernization drive. Some hardliners may welcome this action just as they take comfort in the euro zone’s daunting difficulties, but in both cases Russia is less able to ride out the storm than its rivals in Washington and Brussels.

This year, presidential elections in both countries will make American-Russian security cooperation difficult, but the grave consequences of a new war in the Persian Gulf compel both Obama and Putin to find a way to reconcile the “Iranian question.”

China’s help would be a huge asset, but 2012 is the year of a leadership transition in Beijing and the communist Mandarins will be preoccupied with that challenge, along with managing their mounting internal economic difficulties. Thus far efforts on the part of the West to convince China that it is in its vital interest to play a positive role in resolving global problems have gotten nowhere. China purchases about 20 percent of Iran’s oil and is reluctant to search for substitute supplies. But Beijing must know that in response to global nuclear proliferation, Japan one day will acquire nukes of its own.

The picture is clouded by the struggle for power in Iran between President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his clerical rivals. Both sides are apt to exploit the crisis to advance their parochial interests, and might do something stupid in the process.

In sum, the failure of Beijing, Brussels, Moscow, Tehran and Washington to successfully resolve the “Iranian question” will result in 2012 being a dangerous year in world affairs.
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