The Conundrum of Iran: Discussion of the “Military Options”

On June 7th, the Arms Control Association held its final meeting in a series about American policy towards Iran to discuss the military option regarding Iran. In some ways it was the best of the series.

The best speaker was Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who delivered the keynote lecture and is one of our most distinguished diplomats and certainly one of the smartest and wisest Foreign Service Officers of our time. I saw him in action in many different jobs including his service as the Ambassador to Moscow and his many assignments to the Department of State.

His talk should be the model of any who aspires to be the best in the Foreign Service – it was a model of clarity, precision, sharp analysis and setting forth of pros and cons of what can only be described as one of the most difficult national security decisions facing the U.S.  Any president would do well to have Pickering advise any major foreign policy act and would benefit from his perspective.

In summary, he was skeptical of any nuclear or large scale attack in Iran, except under the most dire, direct national security threats.  He ran through a series of possible actions in this area by either the U.S. and Israel or both together, and he was devastating in his description of possible consequences for all involved.  (Click here to read the full text of his talk on the ACA website.)

The most powerful argument against any large scale military attack in Iran was the impact that such an attack would have on the entire region’s stability, its implications for America’s ability to shape the future of the region, and the massive danger of a run towards nuclear weapons by major regional actors.  The consequential instability and chaos would be a major calamity for American interests in the area and our own security.  Pickering noted that an attack would be ineffective and undermine our ability to influence events in the region.  It would also be devastating for Israel’s own security and perhaps even its survival. Such a military strike would also likely isolate us from most of the world’s population and the use of nuclear weapons in such an effort would have an untold impact on global nonproliferation efforts. Iran could also make things more difficult for us in Afghanistan.

Pickering was also skeptical of efforts at U.S.-directed “regime change” saying that it would be better if such an act originated from the Iranian population rather than be instigated by America.

Frankly, I agree with his assessment, which is also held by a number of regional experts and strategic thinkers except those Iran hawks who are now actively pushing for just such an action.

The other speakers were Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and Alireza Nader of the RAND Corporation.  White and Nader used their different perspectives to examine the impact of such an attack on Iran, its politics, its response, and its future. One key point was that an outside attack would likely unite the Iranian population around the most conservative and militaristic elements in Iranian society and destroy the hope of any “Iranian Spring.”  There would be grave doubt that any of our allies would support any military attack including the U.K.  Also, there was an assessment that any surgical or moderate strike would only set back the Iranian nuclear program one to five years rather than totally stop it. White thought that an Israeli attack alone would only have a limited capacity and likely could not be sustained. His conclusion was that no one could completely destroy all of Iran’s nuclear capacity given its deep cover in mountains and dispersal.  In addition, Iran’s use of mobile missiles would be problematic in terms of counterattack and Iran, with its many small military ships, could easily hurt Gulf shipping.

In the end, the presentations left a sense that strong diplomatic engagement and selective use of carrots, sticks, and perhaps some sanctions were a better approach than military action.  The hope, while perhaps not the expectation, is that Iran will over time have its own “Iranian Spring.”

By Harry C. Blaney III.

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