The Duck of Minerva

The ticking clock(s) on Iran…

29 July 2010

Apparently, containment of Iran is no longer an option and the Obama administration is showing signs of toughening its stance. In doing so, the administration appears to be shifting the anticipated costs and benefits (and the likelihood) of military strikes on Iran.

One of Israel’s leading commentators, Ehud Yaari, had this piece in yesterday’s Jerusalem Post:

I have solid information indicating that the top echelons of the administration – National Security Council, Pentagon, State Department – have reached the conclusion that the US cannot adopt the option of containing a nuclear Iran.

The option of accepting a nuclear Iran, unwillingly of course, and then trying to contain it, was advocated by many important players on the American foreign policy scene. This option is now apparently off the table.

There is a change of policy not only in terms of sanctions, both at the UN Security Council and those unilateral sanctions now imposed by both the US, EU and others, but also an understanding by the administration that in no way can Iran be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.

How do we know this? Among other things, because this is what the Americans have been telling Arab leaders over recent weeks.

And why have they changed their minds? Because of what the leaders of the Gulf states, including the king of Saudi Arabia, have been saying to Obama for some time now: “We cannot live with a nuclear Iran.”

So, what to make of this?

During my recent trip to Israel, the group I was with met with Yaari. He is a smart voice in Israel and he has incredible access throughout the Middle East, so I trust he is on to something. He expressed concern that there are two clocks on Iran. The first is the clock on how long it will take Iran to develop a nuclear weapon. The second, and more worrisome, clock is the time it will take Iran to fully “bury” (hide and harden) its nuclear research and production facilities. He argued that it is this second clock that is the real trigger for Israeli military action – and it is moving more quickly than the first. His general sense is that it might be a year away, but that it is almost certainly coming and the Israelis will not accept it – a line we heard from multiple officials.

There has been a lot of conversation on what happens if, and when, Tehran does develop a nuclear weapon. But, a more significant danger is the possibility that Tehran may (mis)calculate that it can go to the brink of developing a weapon and stop short. This is particularly dangerous, because in doing so, it would almost certainly expire the second clock and trigger an Israeli strike.

This concern no doubt factors into the Obama administration’s current thinking. It obviously wants a reversal from Iran. But, it also does not want an Israeli strike and is looking for ways to constrain an Israeli attack which increasingly appears like it is in the works. But the Israelis are very distrustful of this administration and Obama doesn’t have a whole lot of leverage right now (a point Drezner also was able to identify on his second day in the country). The Obama administration also knows that Netanyahu has unequivocal support from several US constituencies – the Tea Partiers just introduced House Res. 1553 which may be a non-starter here, but is a strong signal to those in Jerusalem.

Hence, Obama’s shift appears to be an effort, in part, to demonstrate the administration’s toughness to the Israelis (and to constrain them) as much as to offer reassurances to the Gulf states. So right now, the current policy is premised on the hope that the new UN, US, and EU sanctions coupled with stepping up a stronger posture by the United States might compel Tehran to change it’s course on both the first and second clocks.

However, for those keeping score at home, Obama’s new tack also changes a lot of thinking on the cost-benefit ratio of U.S. military action.

We’ve all heard that a military strike would be very difficult and costly. It would almost certainly trigger Iranian nationalism (74 million strong) and lead to a significant escalation of terrorism and violence. We would almost certainly see an Iranian response against Israel coming from Hamas and Hezbollah which have spent the last couple of years stockpiling rocket and missile upgrades. And, the Iranians could raise all kinds of hell in Iraq and in Afghanistan.

But, with the Obama administration now telling folks that it will not accept a nuclear Iran — the perceived costs of inaction have just increased. The thinking that I’ve been hearing, both in Israel and more recently from friends close to the administration, is that if Iran went nuclear without a U.S. military response, we would see several things happen: 1) Iran would be emboldened to play an even greater destabilizing role throughout the region; 2) the US influence/relationships with the gulf states would collapse and trigger a wide range of regional reactions which would lead to a sharp spike in terrorism, the disruption of global oil production and distribution, and a collapse of an already vulnerable global economy (notice the second and third order effects built into the first assumption); 3) it would trigger a wave of destabilizing proliferation throughout the Middle East — both the Saudis and Egyptians have warned that they would move quickly to develop their own capabilities; 4) radicals would see this as a victory for Islamic fundamentalism and would launch assaults on all moderate Islamic and Arab parties; and 5) the Palestinians, currently looking at the U.S.-Iran situation for cues, would radicalize if Iran wins and launch more aggressive attacks against Israel. In short, the situation would lead to a global economic crisis, massive violence, and a radicalization of politics around the globe.

And, while I challenged my interlocutors on each point with both logical and empirical arguments, I don’t think I had much effect. It reminds me of the way in which the uncontested, casual assumptions emerged in pre-war Iraq discourse and fueled the groupthink.

Furthermore, the probability of war almost certainly increases when we couple this thinking with new “estimates” that the costs of war might be lower:

Other intelligence sources say that the U.S. Army’s Central Command, which is in charge of organizing military operations in the Middle East, has made some real progress in planning targeted air strikes — aided, in large part, by the vastly improved human-intelligence operations in the region. “There really wasn’t a military option a year ago,” an Israeli military source told me. “But they’ve gotten serious about the planning, and the option is real now.”

The general sense I have is that we have no more than a year before something will have to give. The multiple moving parts to this story are clearly dangerous and all of the various forms of brinksmanship that we’ll see in the coming months are ripe for miscalculation.