Iran's decision to resume efforts to enrich uranium that could be used to produce nuclear weapons in defiance of international pressure to curb its nuclear program represents a significant escalation of the crisis between that nation and the international community. It has also raised the prospect that the United States or Israeli military might launch a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities if Iran continues its intransigence.
Senator John McCain directly alluded to this possibility at the 42nd Munich Security conference, noting that the only thing worse than a military strike would be if Iran acquired nuclear weapons.
However, U.S. policymakers should think twice before contemplating such a strike. The political damage to long-term U.S. interests in Iran and the Middle East would far outweigh the short-term military gains from such action.
A military strike against Iranian facilities would be much harder to conduct than the l981 Israeli strike against the Iraqi facility at Osiraq. Key Iranian nuclear facilities such as Natanz are hardened, ringed by air defense, and buried deep underground. Others are reportedly in or very near populated urban areas.
While the U.S. could probably knock out many of the Iranian nuclear facilities using bunker-busting munitions, there would be heavy civilian casualties — probably in the thousands. America would face international censure, including from many of its closest allies.
Even if the strike were militarily successful, it would only slow — but not halt — the Iranian nuclear effort. Iran would probably accelerate its drive to acquire nuclear weapons, this time without any pretense of complying with international rules and restrictions.
Moreover, the political costs would be very high. A military strike would unleash a wave of nationalism and unite the Iranian population behind the current regime, ending any prospect of internal change in the near future and ensuring decades of enmity from the Iranian middle class and youth, who are largely opposed to the current regime. It would also provoke outrage in the Muslim world, probably making any attempt to obtain the support of moderate Muslims in the war on terror impossible.
Finally, a U.S. attack would unleash a new crisis in transatlantic relations just at the time when the wounds engendered by the war in Iraq have begun to heal. Most of America’s key allies — including Britain — have made clear they oppose a military strike against Iran.
Iran could retaliate by launching missile attacks against Israel, using the Shabab 3 missile acquired with North Korean assistance. An Israeli retaliatory strike could inflame the Muslim world and lead to a wider conflict.
Iran could also foment an uprising among the Shi'ite majority in neighboring Iraq or join the insurgents in attacking American forces in Iraq. And Iran could step up terrorist attacks against U.S. facilities by mobilizing terrorist groups such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, which was responsible for the attack that killed 241 US Marines in l983.
In addition, Iran could create economic havoc by blocking the transport of oil through the Straits of Hormuz. Oil prices would skyrocket, perhaps as high as $100 a barrel. The economic dislocation caused by such a development would be severe, especially for European allies, who are much more dependent on Persian Gulf oil than the United States is.
Rather than conducting a military strike against Iranian facilities that risks inflaming the Middle East, solidifying support for the Iranian regime and fracturing the Atlantic Alliance, the United States needs to open a dialogue with Iran and offer a meaningful security guarantee to respect Iran's territorial integrity in return for a ban on uranium enrichment.
The negotiations between the European Union troika (Britain, France and Germany) have failed largely because the Europeans cannot offer what the Iranians really want — a security guarantee against US attack.
Opening a direct U.S. dialogue with Iran, which included an offer of a security guarantee, would change the nature of the discourse and provide a real incentive for the Iranian regime to compromise. It could also deepen fissures within the Iranian regime.
Not all Iranian officials support President Ahmadinejad's hard line. Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council for 16 years and a former top nuclear negotiator, made clear his dissatisfaction with Iran's current approach in a speech in Tehran on February 9. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani raised similar doubts in October 2004.
A serious U.S. offer of security guarantees could embolden these forces to speak up more forcefully and provoke an internal debate in Iran that could undermine the hardliners around President Ahmadinejad and result in a less intransigent Iranian nuclear policy.
F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Corporate Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.
This commentary originally appeared in Orange County Register on March 9, 2006. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.