Foreign policy and national security played a large part in one the Republican debates in Florida last month, with Iran taking centre stage. All of the candidates, with the notable exception of Ron Paul, criticized U.S. President Barack Obama’s Iran policy as inadequate and dangerous. Former Sen. Rick Santorum accused Obama of “colossal failure” on Iran and joined Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich in promising that, if elected, their administrations wouldn’t shy away from confronting Tehran militarily. Romney and Gingrich both insisted that if Iran moved to close the Strait of Hormuz, they would consider it an act of war requiring a military response.
Is this classic election year rhetoric or do the top Republican candidates desire a renaissance of Reagan-era doctrine on Iran? Given the potential threat that Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons could pose, a full range of alternatives, including military options, should and are being examined by the White House and Republican hopefuls. But while the military card holds great political potency, it remains fraught with uncertainty and danger.
History reminds us that diplomacy and soft power options are always more effective when backed up by the credible threat of force. However, the use of military force in this case would be extremely problematic, given the dispersal of Iran’s program at sites throughout the country and their proximity to urban centers. Also, the lack of credible intelligence on Iran’s undeclared sites could mean that a truly effective strike simply isn’t logistically possible. In order to be absolutely certain that Iran’s nuclear weapons capability is destroyed, the United States – and possibly its allies – would have to undertake a land invasion and temporary occupation of Iran. Clearly no state should see this as a desirable option.
Proponents of the military approach may point to the success of Israel’s surgical strikes on Syria’s clandestine nuclear reactor in September 2007, and Iraq’s Osirak reactor in June 1981. Attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities militarily with a similar strike could, with a high probability, destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment program. Unfortunately, this optimism isn’t without its downside. An Israeli strike could reignite its conflict with Lebanon as an irate Iran would be sure to urge Hizbollah into responding through missile strikes targeting Israel.
Moreover, aside from the logistical difficulties, it’s important to remember that the bombing of the nuclear reactor at Osirak received near universal condemnation as an illegal military strike by both the U.N. General Assembly and the U.N. Security Council. The initial international reaction to such an attack would be a massive outpouring of support for Iran in the General Assembly. Such a move would also crush moderates in Tehran. As Iranian opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi warned: “If there were an attack, all of us would come out the next day and support the government. It would be the worst situation for the opposition.”
A military strike on Iran could also lead to the closure of the Strait of Hormuz and a dramatic increase in the price of crude oil. Additionally, the Iranian government would surely respond to such an attack through asymmetrical means – arming and funding terrorist groups and militias – in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza. While Tehran’s military power is insufficient to adequately respond to either an American or Israeli attack, Iran is able to make up for its deficiency due to its ability to influence American-Israeli interests elsewhere in the Middle East. Since the United States would also be blamed for any unilateral Israeli military strike, it should make it clear to Israel that U.S. interests would be adversely affected by such a move. Otherwise, the United States can expect Iran to ramp up its hostile initiatives against U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan through arming militia groups in both countries.
Any military effort to eliminateIranian weapons capabilities would also run the significant risk of reinforcing Iran’s desire to acquire a nuclear deterrent. In addition, military strikes would almost certainly serve to further provoke, not pacify, the Iranian hard-line nationalist defence of that very course.
An emphasis on military responses to this conflict also has the effect of discouraging Iran from allowing more effective International Atomic Energy Agency inspections, something necessary for the successful conclusion of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program. Iran is understandably concerned that more transparency on its part could lead to the U.S. and Israeli militaries gaining better targeting information on its nuclear program.
For the United States, the threat military of action against Iran may have the result of increasing pressure on both Iranian leaders and hesitant allies to seek a meaningful diplomatic solution. If carried out, however, military strikes would likely fail to deliver on their promises, and would risk sparking a general war that could spill over throughout the region. It’s time to set aside the military option and concentrate instead on credible diplomatic approaches to end Iran’s growing nuclear weapons capabilities.