Politics & Policy

Another Rumor of War

Meanwhile, in Iran . . .

A report in the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, picked up in the Jerusalem Post and Tehran Times, states that members of the Dutch intelligence service AIVD conducting infiltration and espionage against the Iranian nuclear program have been pulled from their positions because they believe that a U.S. attack on Iranian WMD targets is imminent.

The Dutch? Anti-Iranian infiltration and espionage? Who knew? Way to go guys, seriously. Respect.

Couple that with a recent report that the government of Israel has decided that it will not allow Iran to acquire nuclear-weapons capability, and will take action as necessary. The latter story is interesting because this has ostensibly been U.S. policy for several years. In his 2002 State of the Union address President Bush stated, “The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” In June 2003 he said more specifically that the United States “will not tolerate the construction of a nuclear weapon” by Iran. In February 2006 he stated, “The nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons,” and in October 2007 the vice president said, “The United States joins other nations in sending a clear message: We will not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon.”

Check the language. Not permit, not tolerate, not allow. It implies that Iran has no choice in the matter. If it looks like they are going to develop a nuclear capability, the U.S. will take action to prevent it.

Lately, this promised action has translated primarily into diplomatic initiatives. That seems somewhat at odds with the stated policy. If the U.S. government “preferred that Iran not” develop nuclear weapons, or “strongly objected” to their development, or something along those lines, then diplomacy would have a chance – either Iran would not develop a weapon, or we could issue a strong letter of disapproval after their first atomic test. A win-win.

But U.S. policy has been unequivocal. Iran cannot have nuclear weapons. If they get them, apart from the strategic effects and other consequences, it will demonstrate to the rest of the world that the United States might talk tough but ultimately lacks the will to take action. At that point America shrugs, admits defeat, and we are treated to a proliferation of white papers on the merits of nuclear deterrence. The rationalizations would be endless, and sometimes sincere, but the end result would be to signal a new level of U.S. impotence. It would say to the proliferators of the world, regardless of what the U.S. says, just go right ahead with what you are doing. Hand the Americans a fait accompli. They’ll back down. At that point they won’t have a choice.

The conventional wisdom has been that there are two clocks running in Iran, one for the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and the other for some form of pro-democratic, perhaps pro-west regime change. The hope has been that clock number two outpaces clock number one, and the problem is solved. (Set aside for the moment the possibility that even a democratic Iran might want a nuclear capability, just as the democracies of India and (at the time) Pakistan did.) There is no particular sign that freedom is set to ring in Tehran. Yet indications continue to emerge that the nuclear clock keeps ticking. Even the much publicized 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, which threw cold water on the notion of taking action against Iran, stated that Tehran would technically be capable of producing a nuclear weapon in the 2010-2015 time frame — i.e., starting the year after next. And it is worth noting that such timelines have always consistently overestimated the amount of time needed to produce nuclear weapons — which is why nuclear tests always come as a surprise.

In fact the “clock” metaphor is more useful for the Iranians, because they have a set date against which they should plan, namely the upcoming change in administrations. A new president, regardless of who it is, will not want to take military action against Iran as one of his first acts of office. That presents opportunities, but also a potential danger for Iran that the Bush administration will want to tie up loose ends before leaving Washington. So for the Iranians diplomacy is more important than ever. They have to hold out enough hope for progress to paralyze U.S. action until they get through the period of greatest risk. Plus if they could possibly speed their nuclear program up to the point where they could test a weapon on January 20, 2009, it would be a cutting riposte to events during the presidential transition day 28 years earlier.

Is an attack along the lines of that reported by De Telegraaf feasible? Critics say our forces are stretched thin, but not the air and naval strike assets that would be used in this type of limited operation. The targets would be hard to hit, but not impossible to take out. The Iranian nuclear program would be delayed, not destroyed – but isn’t delay better than just letting them go ahead? Iran might seek to escalate the crisis in a number of ways – an Iranian general recently said World War Three would break out while being a bit unclear on who would be on what side – but there is no scenario in which the U.S. would not be able to maintain escalation dominance. Iran can do many things to hurt the United States, its allies, and its interests – in fact is already active in Iraq and elsewhere. But Iran will have to calculate whether a demonstration of their unconventional power will be worth the risk of a full scale demonstration of U.S. conventional force. In this vein, witness Syria’s response to Israel’s raid on their nuclear facility last September. We’re still waiting for it.

I have no idea whether any of these reports of imminent action are true. But as the various clocks keep ticking, the strategic logic of active counter-proliferation against Iran becomes more compelling. The U.S. may act, Israel may act, or not. We will know soon enough, one way or the other.

– NRO contributor James S. Robbins is the director of the Intelligence Center at Trinity Washington, Senior Fellow in National Security Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, and author of Last in Their Class: Custer, Picket and the Goats of West Point.

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