Politicians and pundits are curiously schizophrenic when discussing Iran. On one hand, they are prepared to declare, as Mitt Romney did, that the “greatest threat that Israel faces, and frankly the greatest threat the world faces, is a nuclear Iran.” To deal with this threat, he says as president he will “restore the regular presence of aircraft carrier groups in the Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region simultaneously… increase military assistance to Israel and coordination with all of our allies in the region.” Further, he is willing to consider “blockade, bombardment, and surgical military strikes.”
At the same time, when Iran actually issues a threat, such as the recent suggestion that it would close the Strait of Hormuz if its oil exports were interrupted, pundits and analysts from all sides rush to assure Americans that in any showdown, Iran would be no match for the U.S. military. The mismatch in forces is so one-sided, they contend with good reason, that Iran would never dare attempt such a misguided action that would bring them into conflict with the mightiest military in the world.
The implication is that Iran, if it ever acquired a nuclear weapon, would be an intolerable threat to the United States and Israel (which have a combined total of well over 8,000 operational nuclear weapons), but in the meantime Iran’s leaders are afraid to confront the United States because they are out-gunned.
Without questioning the logic of this proposition, just how worried should we be about Iran? How much harm can Iran actually do to us?
This question is important since, despite all the scare talk, the United States and its allies are actually conducting their relations with Iran as if they were entirely immune to any retaliation. Such policies include the use of drones for both reconnaissance and attack; covert (or officially deniable) actions, such as the Stuxnet worm introduced into the Iranian nuclear infrastructure and/or assassinations of suspect individuals; displays of military force; and destructive unilateral sanctions.
War by Stealth
President Obama deserves admiration for the skill with which he has moved the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts off the front pages, at the same time that he was moving soldiers out of the war zones. This, it is worth remembering, was what he was elected to do.
But as he was ending the most visible part of America’s ongoing wars, he was shifting to stealth warfare: drone reconnaissance and attack, assassinations, cyber warfare, and highly specialized small-unit operations. It is certainly true that these tactics are less expensive than large-scale combat, and they are less likely to produce negative political responses, at least among Obama’s voting constituencies. But they rely on a perception of impunity that is misleading and ultimately dangerous.
Drones are useful to track the activities of relatively primitive opponents, specifically opponents who have no significant air defenses or technological countermeasures. Over the barren skies of Afghanistan, Waziristan, and Iraq, they can operate with little fear of interception or interference.
That is not true in a country with more sophisticated defenses. Recently, a stealth drone was downed in Iran. Iran claims that it spoofed the aircraft into believing it was returning to its base, when in fact it was landing in Iran. The Iranian story is credible, though we may never know all the facts. At least two other U.S. drones had previously been downed over Iran, though they were apparently shot down, not commandeered.
Losing a drone, however embarrassing, is not as costly as losing a manned aircraft. That is the appeal. But the fact that we were flying drones over Iran suggests we thought we could do so with impunity. Did we overestimate our own technological prowess? Did we underestimate Iran’s? Either way, it should be a lesson to those who are now assuring us almost daily that a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities could be conducted with little cost and manageable repercussions.
Little noticed was the Iranian announcement that it had rolled up a CIA espionage ring in Iran. If true, this is the third time since the revolution that a major U.S. spy ring was neutralized.
The introduction of the Stuxnet worm into Iran’s nuclear enrichment plant at Natanz probably slowed Iran’s production of low-enriched uranium for a period of time, but enrichment never really stopped and within several months it had recovered to its previous level. It was a clever ploy, apparently created by one or more national cyber warfare laboratories. Whether true or not, Iran believes it was done by Israel and the United States, and Iran’s interpretation will shape its response.
Whoever planted the Stuxnet worm (and apparently a new version called “Duqu” that has showed up in recent months), probably assumed that its originators were immune from retaliation. Is that really true?
Iran has a very highly developed cyber warfare capability of its own, with a battalion of young, skilled IT engineers. Until now, they have focused primarily on putting down the incipient revolt that followed the contested elections of 2009. In that effort, they were much more efficient than the Egyptians or Syrians or other Middle East nations who have tried to stop use of the Internet for social and political mobilization. But what happens next?
The United States and all other developed industrial states rely on computer-driven systems for their most mundane and most sensitive services, everything from waste-disposal sites to dams to nuclear plants. Cyber warfare specialists are openly worried about the vulnerability of these systems to a sophisticated cyber attack. And such attacks, if well planned, leave no discernible fingerprints.
As in the case of the stealth drone, are we as invulnerable as we thought? What if a power plant in your vicinity suddenly and mysteriously exploded or ran amok? You probably would not blame your national security officials, but you might be wrong. In cyber warfare, the playing field is much more level than in conventional warfare.
Are Sanctions the Answer?
More recently, the U.S. Congress has been insisting on sanctions against Iranian banks that, in effect, make it impossible for Iran to sell its oil. That is the equivalent of a military blockade of Iran’s oil ports, arguably an act of war. And these sanctions are being imposed unilaterally, without reference to the United Nations Security Council. Members of Congress can go home to their districts and boast about how tough they can be on Iran, and in an election year that is worth a few votes. President Obama seems unwilling to buck the tide, despite his better judgment.
Iran has responded with harsh words, indicating that if Iran’s oil lifeline is cut off, others will also find their access to world oil markets imperiled. Iran does not need to close the Strait of Hormuz to make a point. Its words make it clear that an act of war by the United States will be treated as such by Iran. Even the threat of a confrontation immediately drove the price of oil above $100 per barrel, which has effects on economies struggling to recover from the recession.
The main reason why Iran’s putative threat to close the Strait of Hormuz was dismissed is because Iran also relies on the Strait to export its own oil. But if Iran’s oil revenue — 50% of its budget — is cut off, Iran would have little to lose by striking out at those it holds responsible, including passage through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran cannot defeat the U.S. Navy, but the swarms of cruise missiles it could fire both from shore and from its fleet of speedboats could create havoc, as could the flood of mines it could put into the fast-moving waters of the Strait.
If pressed to the wall and facing the collapse of its economy, Iran might reasonably try to make life as miserable as possible for those it holds responsible, including the loading facilities and refineries of the U.S. Arab allies across the Gulf from Iran. Iran’s cruise missiles can be used at targets other than ships.
Iran would eventually lose this battle, but the rest of the world would pay a very high price. A prolonged period of oil prices above $200 and the uncertainty about when normal supplies could be resumed would do real damage to the fragile and recovering economies of Europe and the United States.
I’m sure the members of Congress who are trying to outdo each other in anti-Iran bravado spent little time worrying whether they and their constituents might be harmed in various ways by an Iran that sees itself under attack. Some openly welcome the idea of a third Middle East war, whatever the consequences.
Slouching Toward War
These are the same illusions of righteousness and impunity that preceded the U.S. invasion of Iraq. As retired Gen. Anthony Zinni memorably noted, if you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’re going to love Iran. Those who suggest that a U.S. military confrontation with Iran would be surgical, limited, and one-sided are many of the same people who eight years ago assured you that the invasion of Iraq would be a cakewalk.
Remember that Iran has been developing a nuclear enrichment capability for more than 20 years — more than 30 if we include our nuclear cooperation with the shah — all the while as members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. They almost certainly experimented with developing a nuclear weapon during the days of Saddam Hussein, but according to U.S. intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) those experiments stopped with the fall of Saddam in 2003. The latest IAEA report, based on the observations of IAEA inspectors at key Iranian sites, found no evidence that Iran is diverting nuclear material to build a bomb.
The alarms that some are sounding as they openly try to push the United States into another truly catastrophic war in the Middle East are based on the fact that Iran MIGHT choose at some point in the future to build a bomb. Advocates of war try to transform that into a certainty that Iran WILL build a bomb and then use it, probably against Israel. That fear of a suspected nuclear capability as a rationale for going to war should by now sound familiar to most Americans. It is exactly the same argument that got us into Iraq.
An impeccable array of U.S. and Israeli security officials have spoken openly of the absolute folly of going to war with Iran and have warned against exaggerating either the threat or Iran’s intentions. Those voices include the top military leaders and intelligence officials in both the United States and Israel.
After a decade of war and trillion-dollar deficits, the United States should be well aware that such adventures can do us real harm. An important set of experienced voices continue to call for a return to negotiations. Iran says it is willing. We risk greatly and unnecessarily if we ignore the chance.