‘Taking Out’ Iran’s Nuclear Facilities: Not So Fast

Military actions were once taken only after careful war-gaming, which sought to elucidate likely and even not-so-likely responses from the other side. Today, as the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities looms, it seems the moral certainty that defines the administration has obviated that part of the foreign policy process. What’s right is right – regardless of consequences. Nor is the American public showing much circumspection, even though our project in Iraq has proven somewhat more nettlesome than promised. The talismanic phrase "take them out" all but promises a swift, easy, and uncomplicated venture. War isn’t like that. Iran has several possible responses at its disposal, most of which are relatively uncostly to it, very costly to us, and would both widen and deepen the conflict in the Gulf region.

One response could be Iran’s attack on the Kurdish and Arab populations in western Iran, with ground troops, air power, or both. Though not linked to the facilities or a strike on them, these groups are reported to be in contact with American intelligence and special forces teams, who seek to use them to destabilize the mullahs’ government and place the country on a more agreeable developmental path. Attacking them would confront the U.S. with a dilemma: intervene in western Iran with ground and/or air forces, thereby further stretching our forces; or stand by as the attacks go on, thereby demonstrating the U.S.’ unreliability – a lesson already widely appreciated in the region. A related option would be a strike on anti-Iranian guerrillas bases in Iraq. Protected once by Saddam, now by the U.S., these groups could easily be classified as terrorists and could present the Bush administration with another difficult dilemma.

Second, Iran could increase its support for the insurgency in central Iraq. The administration has from time to time, perhaps to lay groundwork, pointed to the presence of sophisticated arms from Iranian arsenals and agents provocateurs tied to Iranian intelligence. These allegations are generally downplayed by American and British military authorities, but, no matter what the level of Iranian support for the insurgency is today, there is little doubt that it can increase easily, with serious adverse effects on our efforts to stop the insurgency and foster a central government. Several hundred more mortar tubes, RPG launchers, plastic explosives, and triggering devices could enter Iraq each month (week?) through its porous borders to the east. The effects on convoys, power lines, oil pipelines, refineries, bridges, and overall security are not difficult to imagine. Neither is the ease with which this could be accomplished. A hundred or so Iranian saboteurs plying their trade in Iraq could be a new source of trouble for our already over-committed troops.

Third, Iran could draw closer to the Shia majority in southern Iraq, which has already expressed misgivings over potential attacks on Iran. U.S. strikes on Iran could deliver a fatal blow to efforts to build a viable coalition government and lead to increased opposition to the occupation in the heretofore relatively quiet southern provinces. Massive street protests could be organized overnight, presenting a nightmare for U.S. and British troops, as well as the possibility of many troops being confined to isolated garrisons. The possibility of Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, through political channels, ordering Coalition troops out is not far-fetched; nor is the possibility of Iranian troops being invited in to protect their co-religionists in the Sunni region.

Fourth, Iranian youth, upon whom the administration places great hopes for internal change, could become more hostile to us – again. Large portions of young people are indeed Western-oriented and uncomfortable with hierocratic rule; however, they are supportive, for patriotic reasons, of their country’s nuclear program. They see foreign opposition to their nuclear ambitions as akin to the meddling that ousted nationalist reformers and brought in the shah. Threats against the nuclear program have had the observable and once implausible result of youthful demonstrations in support of the mullahs. Attacks would only strengthen that trend and reduce for years internal pressure for reform.

Fifth, and most obvious, is the oil option. It might be noted that the mere perception of an imminent strike on Iran would cause world prices to spike, perhaps as much as $10 a barrel. Speculators will see to that. But Iran can take more active steps to influence the price of oil. Ordinarily, the threat of an oil-producing country to reduce output is not taken too seriously. After all, other producers, eager to increase their own revenues, will almost assuredly increase output, whether they admit it or not. Today, with Nigerian output reduced by guerrilla activity, Mexico and Venezuela at odds with the U.S., the United Arab Emirates incensed over the ports deal, and widespread ill-will in the rest of the Arab world, those balancing dynamics cannot be relied upon. Schadenfreude might well enter the Spanish and Arabic languages.

Iran could also use more visible hands and threaten oil shipments through the Straits of Hormuz. Its air and naval assets could cause damage, but it is truly amazing to ponder how much havoc could be wreaked with so little effort. What effect on oil markets and Western economies would a single artillery round have if fired at – not into, just at – an oil tanker? What effect would a U.S. counterstrike on an Iranian artillery position have? How easily could another gun be wheeled into position? What will our influence in the world be if we are seen as the cause of oil prices over a hundred dollars a barrel?

Iran will not respond to military action like a schoolboy chastened by a headmaster’s stern hand. Its nuclear facilities cannot be effortlessly done away with, as the seductive phrase "take them out" suggests. Iran will respond with one or more of the options outlined here, perhaps with one or more that aren’t. It is sobering to note how easily each option can be used, how much impact each has relative to its costs, and how each can draw us deeper into open-ended conflicts in the region. Accordingly, it is crucial that the American public cautiously weigh the costs and benefits of attacking the Iranian nuclear facilities. The administration isn’t doing it.

Author: Ira Chernus

Ira Chernus is professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder, author of Monsters To Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin, and a Foreign Policy in Focus contributor. Read more of his writing on Israel, Palestine, and the U.S. on his blog.