What a Fine Mess

To say that the situation in the Middle East right now is a mess would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. Israel has sent ground troops into Lebanon. The violence between Hezbollah and Israeli forces has killed more than 300 people (the vast majority of them in Lebanon) in less than two weeks and shows no signs of letting up anytime soon. Although no one is admitting it, Iraq has plunged into a civil war (the official euphemism is "sectarian violence"). A day doesn’t seem to go by without a report of another bombing, kidnapping, or mass killing. According to a United Nations report, nearly 6,000 civilians have been killed in Iraq during the last two months – more than 3,000 in June, which was the first full month of the new Maliki-led government that has promised to end the violence. It’s hard to imagine the situation getting worse, but it could.

Almost immediately after Hezbollah launched Katyusha rockets into Haifa and Israel responded by bombing targets in Lebanon, including the airport in Beirut, the rhetoric turned to implicating both Syria and Iran for guiding Hezbollah and, by association, for being behind the initial attacks. But such thinking assumes that Hezbollah is a wholly-owned subsidiary of either Syria or Iran and acts only at the beck and call of either Damascus or Tehran. It’s true enough that both Syria and Iran have ties to Hezbollah, but it would be a mistake to believe that either country controls Hezbollah, despite President Bush’s remark to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the recent G-8 summit: "You see, the … thing is what they need to do is to get Syria, to get Hezbollah to stop doing this sh*t and it’s over" (although it’s not clear whether the president meant "to get Syria," i.e., use military force against Damascus, or to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop its attacks against Israel).

Israel has stressed that it does not intend to attack either Syria or Iran (it’s content to pummel hapless and helpless Lebanon even though the Lebanese government and people are not responsible for the attacks against Israel). Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres has said, "We will leave Iran to the world community, and Syria as well." So the question is whether this provides an opening for eventual U.S. military action against Iran’s nuclear program, playing the terrorist card and raising the specter of yet another mushroom cloud.

The possibility of a successful preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program is based on Israel’s preemptive strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981. But Iran would not be Osirak redux. Unlike Osirak, attacking Iran’s nuclear program would require striking multiple targets. The three main targets would likely be Bushehr, which is a complex of light water reactors where spent fuel rods could be diverted to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons; the previously secret Natanz nuclear facility, believed to be used for uranium enrichment that could be used for nuclear weapons; and Arak, which is the site of two planned heavy water reactors that could produce plutonium for nuclear weapons. However, a decapitating strike against Iran’s nuclear program would involve more than just three targets – perhaps as many as 300 aim points, taking into account nuclear-related facilities, chemical and biological facilities, and Iran’s air defenses.

Certainly, the United States military is capable of conducting a complex, large-scale air strike against Iran, using aircraft armed with precision weapons or cruise missiles. Assuming all the weapons hit their intended targets, the success of such a military operation would rest on three factors:

  • all the known targets comprise the full extent of Iran’s nuclear program, i.e., there are no secret facilities,
  • absolutely minimal, i.e., near zero, collateral damage, and
  • no retaliation by the regime in Tehran.

But – just like the pre-Iraq war predictions of the United States being hailed as a liberator and Iraqis embracing American democracy – how likely is it that a successful military operation would result in the envisioned successful outcome?

A covert reactor would be a difficult undertaking for the Iranians, but it cannot be completely ruled out. However, a secret uranium-enrichment facility is a more likely possibility (it was two years before the Natanz facility was revealed – but only because it was disclosed by the National Council of the Resistance of Iran, not discovered by U.S. intelligence). We also know that many of Iran’s nuclear facilities are located in urban areas (for example, the Tehran research reactor), so civilian casualties are almost a certainty. Finally, it is hard to imagine that any government would sit idly by after being bombed on a relatively massive scale (300 aim points would require at least two or three weapons each for reliability and to assure a high probability of kill).

So what are some of the possible outcomes of a U.S. preemptive strike against Iran’s nuclear program?

If Iran’s ballistic missile sites were not included in a preemptive strike, the regime in Tehran would have some 500 Shahab ballistic missiles at its disposal for retaliation. The shorter-range Shahab-1 and -2 missiles (variants of the Russian Scud missile) are capable of reaching U.S. targets in the Gulf, including Iraq. The longer range Shahab-3 missiles could target Israel. Like the V-2 missiles used by Germany against England during World War II, the Shahab missiles would be most effective against civilian populations rather than military targets due to their relative inaccuracy. How well U.S. forces in the Gulf region and the Israelis could withstand a potential onslaught of Iranian Shahab missiles would depend on the effectiveness of U.S. Patriot and Israeli Arrow missile defense systems. To date, the Patriot has not lived up to its expectations against Iraqi Scud missiles in both the Gulf War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. On paper, the Arrow has more performance than Patriot PAC-3 (greater speed and higher altitude), but it has not proved itself in combat. So relying on missile defense is a risky proposition.

Iran could also retaliate by trying to sow further chaos in Iraq. In a February 2006 threat assessment presented to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte stated: "Iran provides guidance and training to select Iraqi Shia political groups and weapons and training to Shia militant groups to enable anti-Coalition attacks. Tehran has been responsible for at least some of the increasing lethality of anti-Coalition attacks by providing Shia militants with the capability to build IEDs [improvised explosive devices] with explosively formed projectiles." But he also said that "Tehran’s intentions to inflict pain on the United States in Iraq have been constrained by its caution to avoid giving Washington an excuse to attack it." So it is not unreasonable to assume that if the United States attacked Iran, Tehran would take the gloves off and step up its activities in Iraq.

It is also important to keep in mind that Iranian retaliation need not be limited to military action. Iranian oil production is fourth in the world and second to Saudi Arabia in the Gulf – nearly 4 million barrels a day (Iran’s oil reserves are third largest in the world after Saudi Arabia and Canada). With oil costing more than $75 a barrel, Iran could intentionally withhold oil from the market to make the United States pay with its wallet. Although such action would not be economically rational since the Iranians would lose their main source of revenue, it cannot be ruled out. A more worrisome possibility is that the Iranians could disrupt the global oil supply from the Persian Gulf either by mining the Straits of Hormuz or sinking tankers to block the straits, which can only be transited via two one-mile-wide channels. While impossible to predict, it is certainly not hard to imagine oil soaring to $100 or more per barrel if the Iranians shut down the straits.

Perhaps even more chilling is the possibility that the Iranians would feel unrestrained about resorting to terrorism as a way to retaliate against U.S. military action. According to the recently released State Department Country Reports on Terrorism (which replaces the previous Patterns of Global Terrorism reports), "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism" by providing support to Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Hezbollah was responsible for the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut that killed 241 people and the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. soldiers, but has not targeted Americans subsequently. It is already bad enough that the United States has a serious terrorist threat with al-Qaeda, but it will be worse if Hezbollah is thrown into the mix. Former CIA Director George Tenet called Hezbollah "an organization with capability and worldwide presence, [that] is [al-Qaeda’s] equal, if not a far more capable organization." And former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said, "Hezbollah may be the ‘A-team’ of terrorists and maybe al Qaeda’s actually the B-team." Regardless of whether Hezbollah is actually more dangerous and capable than al-Qaeda, another possibility is that the two organizations could overcome Sunni-Shi’ite divisions and form a tactical alliance against a common enemy: the United States.

Beyond retaliation, there are also the ripple effects of unintended consequences (and there are always unintended consequences) of a U.S. attack – even limited air strikes – against Iran. After Afghanistan and Iraq, attacking Iran will likely be viewed by many in the Muslim world as confirmation that the United States is waging a war against Islam. As such, it could be a tipping point that inclines the Muslim world to sympathize with and side with the radicals. One result could be increased violence in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Indonesia that could destabilize those governments and might lead to their eventual toppling – which is exactly what bin Laden wants but is unable to do on his own.

But it is not just what happens in Muslim countries that must be considered. Our European allies have relatively large immigrant Muslim populations – over 4 million in France, over 3 million in Germany, and over 1 million in the United Kingdom – that are susceptible to radicalization, as demonstrated by the July 2005 terrorist attacks of the London tube system. A U.S. attack on Iran could potentially unleash a wave of terrorist reprisal throughout Europe. Another consideration is how Muslims in the Balkans might react if the United States attacked Iran. With only a few exceptions – such as the would-be shoe bomber Richard Reid, who is English – almost all al-Qaeda and radical Islamic terrorists have also been of Arab origin. So the tendency has been to equate "Muslim" with "Arab" in creating a profile of potential al-Qaeda terrorists. But Muslims from the Balkans are anything but Arab, and if al-Qaeda could successfully recruit Muslims from the local Balkan population, the war on terrorism would be thrown a dangerous curveball.

And there is also the risk of pushing America’s Muslim population toward radicalization. It is important to understand that while the vast majority of American Muslims do not support or condone al-Qaeda’s terrorism, many are sympathetic to his arguments about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and Muslim world – particularly U.S. support for oppressive and autocratic governments in the very countries they left to build a better life for themselves and their children. In other words, bin Laden has found some core issues that many Muslims can agree with him about in principle, even if they do not condone the killing of innocent people. This defies conventional thinking, which would hold that one must either endorse or condemn al-Qaeda’s actions and, by extension, the reasons for those actions. But if American Muslims begin to believe that the United States has embarked on a war against Islam – and their home countries, even if they consider America to be their home – how long can they be expected to not defend religion and cultural roots?

Ultimately, it is impossible to predict the actual outcome of a U.S. attack against Iran’s nuclear program. None of the above scenarios are necessarily mutually exclusive (nor are they exhaustive), so the result could be a combination of some or all of them . It is precisely because the result is impossible to predict that all of the outcomes must be carefully weighed and considered. However big the potential payoff might be, the likelihood of the best-case scenario needs to be accurately assessed and weighed against the downside risks associated with all the other plausible scenarios. After Iraq, the United States can ill afford another fine mess with Operation Wishful Thinking in Iran.


On a related note, check out the latest at www.CatoUnbound.org. Apparently, Cato Unbound is a sanctioned Cato Web site and is kind of a glorified blog. Significantly, the editor of Cato Unbound is Brink Lindsey, the Cato Institute’s vice president for research. Lindsey argued vocally and publicly for U.S. military intervention in Iraq, and he wasn’t shy about touting his Cato affiliation (then as director of trade policy studies) when doing so. He debated John Mueller on Reason.com and exhorted for war extensively on his own blog (yet it’s hard to imagine that any Cato scholar could have gotten away with something like writing about the need to increase taxes or socialize medicine) – all without ever making it clear that the views expressed were his own and not those of the defense and foreign policy scholars at the Cato Institute. As a result, he caused some confusion and concern in the libertarian community that Cato had gone wobbly in the knees on non-interventionism – especially since Lindsey’s rhetoric was pretty much neoconservative shtick.

The current lead piece on Cato Unbound is by Reuel Marc Gerecht. Yes, the same Reuel Marc Gerecht who resides at that bastion of neoconservatism, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Gerecht argues that the United States should take preemptive action against the regime in Tehran to eliminate Iran’s nascent nuclear program. It seems strange that this would be a lead piece for a Cato Web site (and it’s extremely doubtful that AEI would ever return the favor). Just as Lindsey’s rhetoric caused confusion over where Cato stood on Iraq, so does Lindsey’s choice of Gerecht. Cato’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, Ted Galen Carpenter, responds to Gerecht (as does Anthony Cordesman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who argues against bombing, and Edward Luttwak, also from CSIS, who argues for bombing only if diplomatic efforts fail), but why would a Cato vice president be relegated to writing a response on a Cato Web site rather than writing the lead article for others to respond to? The Cato Institute has always been good about allowing opposing views to be aired at its policy forums (which is a good thing), but it seems strange to give a neoconservative such as Gerecht the more prominent position. It’s also worth noting that David Frum (also from AEI and famous for coining the phrase "axis of evil" in President Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address) was given the opportunity by Lindsey to write the lead piece in a previous edition of Cato Unbound.

You would think Lindsey would be more circumspect, especially after being so completely and utterly wrong about Iraq (yet getting promoted in the process, while a certain high-profile director of defense policy studies who was right was shown the door). It’s almost as if Lindsey has replaced his blog with Cato Unbound and is letting other people such as Gerecht do the talking for him. Since Cato Unbound is an official Cato Web site, one has to assume that the institute’s senior management is aware of what’s on it and has approved of the content (although there is a disclaimer that the views expressed are those of the author’s and not the Cato Institute or its supporters – but if that’s the case, why even bother with a Web site that’s clearly supported by the Cato Institute?). Despite the continued good work of libertarian non-interventionist stalwarts Ted Galen Carpenter and Chris Preble, one can’t help but wonder whether Cato Unbound signals a desire and appetite on the part of Cato management and donors for a neo-libertarian shift in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute (after all, Lindsey is the vice president for research and presumably has a say in the direction and agenda of the institute’s policy). If that’s the case, then it’s Cato Unhinged.

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.