Besides the ongoing feud among the Republican hopefuls, the major news story these days is Iran and its nuclear program. United States is attempting to prevent it from joining the ranks of nuclear powers and Iran is doing its best to get there as fast as possible. The saber rattling between the two countries has been going on for months and it appears that the diplomatic war of words has been escalated to the next level.
While U.S has refrained from openly acknowledging a military option in resolving this crisis, Israel has been more vocal in arguing for its right to strike Iran’s nuclear assets. After all it has successfully attacked Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities in the past, preventing them from having a nuclear program. Israel has been passionate about arguing for this options and when the U.S Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, goes on record saying that Israel may strike Iran’s nuclear assets, you have to treat it as a likely scenario. link
There is however a catch, unlike Iraq and Syria, Iran may not take such a strike lying down. It has threatened to retaliate, which knowing its regime and its history, can’t be dismissed as an empty threat.
Before we analyze the ramifications for U.S of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear sites, we must first understand why Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and should United States be concerned? The simple answer to both is U.S should be concerned of both the consequences of an Israeli strike and a nuclear Iran, but for reasons other than those talked about in the media.
Despite what most politicians and pundits may argue, it is unlikely that Iran would lodge the first nuclear weapon it builds against Israel or United States. The fact that U.S maintains one of the most sophisticated secure second strike capabilities, and provides protection to its allies in the region, means that a nuclear assault on any of its allies would result in a swift and deadly response. As crazy as the leadership in Tehran may be, they are neither stupid nor suicidal. A nuclear attack would mean their annihilation and as crazy their rhetoric may be, their actions are much more calculated. It is highly unlikely they would engage in open warfare against U.S or its Israel, as it would only mean their own destruction.
Another misconception that exists is the notion that Iran could hand over a nuclear weapon to a terrorist group or surrogate that would detonate it in either a major U.S city or Israel. It’s an outlandish idea that holds little weight in eyes of experts of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy. If such an incident occurs, it won’t be that difficult to figure out who is responsible for it. After all the list of countries with nuclear weapons is not that long and those with nuclear weapons that are unaccounted for, would be even shorter. So to think that the regime in Iran is naive enough to commit such an act, under the presumption that no one would be able to make the connection to it, is absurd. After all when IED’s in Iraq could be successfully traced to Iran, tracing the origins of a nuclear device wouldn’t be that difficult. And once you have tied a nuclear weapon to a country the same logic applies as above, that using a nuclear weapon against any country would invite a massive retaliation. (link, link)
For Iran a nuclear weapon would be a deterrent, a leverage, an insurance policy if you may. It would provide them with a viable deterrent against any foreign power that could potentially intervene in its domestic affairs. The recent events in Middle East, specifically events in Libya, where NATO air support was the game changer for the rebels, would have left leaders in Tehran shaken up. They want to make sure something like that doesn’t happen in Iran, and after the Green revolution in 2009 they should rightly be worried about a popular uprising, that if supported by a foreign power could mean end of theocracy in Iran.
It would also allow Iran to assert itself in the region and push its own policies on its neighbors. The greater influence U.S now enjoys in the region, through its military presence in places like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Kuwait has left Iran feeling surrounded. It would like to take steps to counter this influence, by pushing a friendlier regime in Iraq and forcing its agenda in other neighboring countries, such as Lebanon, Behrain and Afghanistan with impunity and without fear of retaliation.
So should U.S encourage Israel to strike Iran’s nuclear sites and what would an Israeli strike mean for U.S? As much as we like to think that the best solution to this problem would be to either allow or even support Israeli efforts in targeting Iran’s nuclear sites, the truth is far from it. The Obama administration recognizes this and would like nothing better than to avoid such a scenario. It is also one of the reason it has publicized its efforts in pressuring Israel to not take such as drastic step, so that incase Israel does decide to strike Iran, U.S could distance itself from it and hope to avoid the fallout from it.
Let’s assume for a moment that Israel does strike Iran’s nuclear capabilities. The first concern would be that we can’t be sure if Israel would be able to successfully destroy all nuclear sites. Iran has learned from Iraq and Syria and has built nuclear facilities that are spread out; and built in extremely secure locations, such as a mountain and bunkers, where destroying them would be quite difficult if not impossible.
Even if all of the sites are destroyed, Iran is most likely to strike back with its long range missiles or/and through surrogates against Israel. This would lead to open warfare and completely destabilize the region. None of the other Middle Eastern countries, even those that are opposed to Iran, would step in to support Israel. This would be even truer given the recent uprisings in the Middle East. In fact Egypt and Turkey, two of the other power brokers in the region may be out right hostile to Israel, especially with Muslim brotherhood likely to take over Egypt and an unfriendly regime in Turkey.
With Europe in financial dire straits, it would be only up to U.S to intervene in the situation. This intervention would be costly to U.S both financially and in terms of diplomatic influence in the region.
With U.S still recovering from the financial crisis and the economy still not out of the woods yet, a major military engagement would be extremely costly to the U.S economy. A new military engagement is only going to increase the national debt and government deficit, which is already at record levels.
Even disregarding the potential military expenditure, a military conflict would result in a sharp spike in oil prices, and with oil already trading at over hundred dollars a barrel, a further spike in oil prices may be enough to derail the economic recovery in U.S and push many nations in Euro-zone into default. link
While the economic consequences could be devastating, the diplomatic cost would be no less. For starters the goodwill U.S has built in recent years by supporting the Arab Spring, especially in Libya and Egypt would be lost by U.S support of Israel. U.S is still reeling from the bad rep it got by its misadventure in Iraq. The fact that U.S was unable to secure a treaty with Iraqi government to post its troops in the country is an indication of how much more work it needs to do to rebuild its credibility in the region. Countries such as Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar that host significant U.S military bases may have to ask U.S to leave due to potential public backlash. People in these countries may not like Iran but they like Israel even less.
It could also derail U.S plan to pull out its troops from Afghanistan by 2014. Taliban may gain another sponsor and a safe haven, whose sole purpose would be to bleed U.S forces in Afghanistan. NATO forces in Afghanistan, who are already struggling to deal with Taliban, may have to deal with a stronger insurgency.
The fact of the matter is that when it comes to Iran, there are no good options. The best option on the table at this time is diplomatic isolation and trade embargoes, which could make acquiring nuclear weapons an un-attractive option for Iran. Although this option runs the risk of only slowing down the progress and not stopping it altogether, but given the current global climate it may be the best option available to U.S.