WASHINGTON - Conventional wisdom about the drawbacks of striking Iran to
prevent it from acquiring nuclear weapons is wrong, or at least greatly
exaggerated, according to a new report.
The report says the wrong questions are being asked in the debate over whether
to undertake "preventive" military action against Iran's nuclear program.
Instead of asking whether US intelligence is good enough to hit the right
targets or whether the United States has the means to hit hardened targets is
not as important as whether Iran decides to rebuild after an attack.
The report, by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
(WINEP)  says that accepted wisdom ignores context. For example, preventive
action that follows steps deemed provocative, such as Iran leaving the nuclear
Non-Proliferation Treaty, could have a much different effect than action not
linked to a perceived Iranian provocation.
Although WINEP is a relatively conservative group, the report does not say that
military action should be undertaken; at least not any time soon. The authors,
Patrick Clawson and Michael Eisenstadt, write, "This study does not advocate
military action against Iran's nuclear program. The time is not right for such
a decision, and diplomacy continues to offer at least a modest course of
In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, trying to build world
support for any attack on Iran has assumed a higher priority. The report states
that the US cannot count on its friends and allies unquestioningly to accept
its intelligence evaluations concerning Iran's nuclear capabilities and
intentions - a problem exacerbated by the publication of the key judgments of
the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate in the US. This concluded that
Iran had ceased efforts to build a nuclear weapon several years ago.
Nor, in light of the widespread perception that the US bungled Iraq, can
Washington count on its friends and allies to accept its assessments about what
needs to be done about Iran's nuclear problem.
Yet the report notes that how the world would assess blame for any crisis over
Iran's nuclear program would depend on many factors. These include whether the
nations dealing with Iran - the five permanent members of the United Nations
Security Council, the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China, plus
Germany - are united in their stance regarding Iran. Have the "Iran Six"
proposed compromises that go far enough toward meeting Iranian objections? Are
inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN's watchdog, going
The international community's perception of US and Iranian leaders would also
be important. Is the US administration respected for its judgment and
commitment to multilateral diplomacy? Is Tehran bullying or threatening other
At a time when world oil prices continue to rise, one of the report's points,
regarding attacking Iranian infrastructure, is notable. The report states that
the most effective strikes may not necessarily be against nuclear facilities.
Iran is extraordinarily vulnerable to attacks on its oil export infrastructure.
Oil revenue provides at least three-fourths of government income and at least
80% of export revenues.
Nearly all of Iran's oil goes through a small number of pumping stations and
loading points that are along the Persian Gulf coast, readily accessible for
attack from sea or air. If forced to cope without oil export revenues, Iran has
sufficient foreign exchange reserves to get by for more than a year, but the
political shock of losing the oil income could cause Iran to rethink its
nuclear stance - in ways that attacks on its nuclear infrastructure might not.
The authors note:
To be sure, in a tight world oil market, attacking
Iran's oil infrastructure carries an obvious risk of causing world oil prices
to soar and hurting consumers in the United States and other oil-importing
countries. That result, however, need not be the case if sufficient excess
capacity existed in countries ready to increase output to compensate for the
loss of Iran's exports.
Moreover, if the choice is between higher oil prices and a Middle East with
several nuclear powers, higher oil prices and reduced economic growth are not
clearly the greater evil.
Ironically, any attempt to strike at
Iran's oil infrastructure directly would likely produce a bigger shock than
Iranian attempts to disrupt the flow of oil in the Persian Gulf. The report
notes that Iran could not block the Gulf for long. Large tankers are very
difficult to sink; their large size and the strength and compartmentalization
of their hulls reduce their vulnerability to attack. Mines can be swept and sea
lanes cleared. In addition, the Strait of Hormuz is sufficiently broad and deep
to enable tankers to bypass the hulks of wrecked or sunken ships.
And Gulf Cooperation Council states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia
and the United Arab Emirates) could be encouraged to expand the capacity of
pipelines that bypass the Strait of Hormuz. Saudi Arabia's Petroline has the
capacity to carry 5 million barrels per day (b/d) to the Red Sea coast - a
capacity that could be increased quickly to more than 8 million b/d through use
of drag reduction agents. The United Arab Emirates is building a pipeline to
carry 1.5 million b/d to the Gulf of Oman coast past the strait; with drag
reduction agents, that pipeline's capacity could be increased to over 2.5
These two pipelines alone could carry more than 60% of the 17 million b/d
flowing through the strait.
Interestingly, contrary to the beliefs of many neo-conservatives, the report is
not optimistic that any strike on Iran would spark a popular uprising. In fact,
predicting with any degree of confidence whether the political consequences
would be favorable or unfavorable from the viewpoint of the US or Israel is
In the best case, Iranian public reaction would likely be a function of the
context and nature of the attack. In that light, any military action would most
likely be planned with an explicit aim of preventing such a reaction.
A raid that destroys nuclear facilities but inflames nationalist passions,
engenders bitter anti-Americanism among ordinary Iranians and consolidates
popular support for an otherwise unpopular regime would come at a very high
The report's bottom line is that force can only be effective if its legitimacy
is widely acknowledged. It concludes:
Central to its success must be a
considerable measure of acceptance - by the American public, by key US allies,
by the international community at large, and even by important political
currents inside Iran. These key publics must believe that the Islamic Republic
is refusing reasonable diplomatic proposals; that no good prospects exist for
stopping Iran's nuclear program short of military force; and that a nuclear
Iran is an unacceptable threat to its people, the region and international
peace and stability - if not the global non-proliferation regime.
1. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) is regarded by some
experts as one of the think-tanks that form an integral part of the pro-Israel
lobby in the United States. WINEP's mission statement declares the institute
was founded to " advance a balanced and realistic understanding of American
interests in the Middle East"; however, the institute's scholars have advocated
policies that, while at times less partisan than other Washington-based outfits
like the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), have been supportive of key
aspects of the hardline Middle East agenda promoted by the George W Bush
administration after the 9/11 terror attacks. - Right Web
David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security
affairs, [email protected] He is also a member of the Coalition for a
Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute,
contributor to the Straus Military Reform Project, a research fellow at the
Independent Institute, and a US Navy veteran. The views expressed are his own.