War With Iran?

Concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, and the subsequent response by the US and Iran, seemed to have fallen to the wayside over the past year. Iranian efforts were apparently stalling,  US foreign policy was focused elsewhere (in addition to being scaled back), and public attention was diverted to other global events and domestic problems.

A few days ago, the Daily Mail, a relatively respectable British tabloid, reported that the UK and the US were once again drawing up plans to respond militarily to Iran’s nuclear developments, which have apparently advanced even closer to creating a weapon.

The UK would be likely to agree to any U.S. decision to invade, even though the Ministry of Defence are stretched to breaking point by swingeing budget cuts and wars in Afghanistan and Libya.

An MoD spokesman said: ‘The British government believes that a dual track strategy of pressure and engagement is the best approach to address the threat from Iran’s nuclear programme and avoid regional conflict.

‘We want a negotiated solution – but all options should be kept on the table.’

A special unit at the MoD has been instructed to work out the UK’s strategy if the Army should invade Iran.

War planners will look at potential deployments of Royal Navy ships and submarines equipped with Tomahawk cruise missiles and RAF fighter jets armed with precision-guided Paveway IV and Brimstone bombs and missiles, surveillance planes and air-to-air refuelling

While the US has expressed no desire for military action, it has maintain the position that all options are on the table, just as the British have. There is also concern that it will be pressured to take action by Israel, which has also ratcheted up preparations to confront Iran on this issue, including the testing of long-range missiles capable of striking Iran. Reuters reports:

There has been a surge of speculation in Israeli media this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to secure cabinet consensus for an attack on Iranian nuclear installations.

Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 and launched a similar sortie against Syria in 2007, precedents lending weight to its veiled threats to take similar action on Iran if foreign pressure fails to curb its nuclear program.

But many independent analysts see such a mission as too much for Israel to take on alone against Iran.

One senior Western diplomat said that international sanctions combined with sabotage operations like the Stuxnet computer virus that temporarily hobbled Iran’s enrichment program have slowed Tehran’s nuclear progress, reducing the need for the use of military force any time soon.

“Our policy of slowing things down has been successful, but it hasn’t stopped it in its tracks,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Analysts say a raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities would wreak such damage on global prosperity and security that other means — a mix of sanctions and sabotage — must remain the levers of pressure on Tehran.

Basically, these three nations, along with the EU and the UN Security Council, are dealing with a classic case of game theory: their actions depend on one another’s foreign policy decision, which in turn depend on developments in Iran’s nuclear program. There is a possibility of paralysis, as all the actors seem hesitant to take any direct military actions, for fear of destabilizing an already precarious region. Meanwhile, the Iranian objective continues unabated, despite prior mishaps and efforts to sabotage it:

Western diplomats and nuclear experts who reviewed intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program say Iran has continued work on nuclear weapons despite sanctions organized by the Obama administration with the help of foreign scientists, said a report in The Washington Posta report due out this week by the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to show that Iran is closer than ever to a workable nuclear weapon, Cordesman said. The report will say that Iran received technological assistance from a Russian scientist, and a higher level of assistance from North Korea, he said.

The IAEA report may present a turning point in this issue, though it will only state what everyone already knows. While the international community remains officially committed to sanctions – which have been the main response from the beginning – this policy will only remain insofar as it actually curtails Iran’s efforts. Any continued progress will call such a tactic into question, and may thereby make a tactical strike – especially on the part of Israel – a more attractive option. There is no telling what the Iranian response would be, or what long-term blowback will emerge.

While I don’t buy into any apocalyptic pronouncements about a global war are the horizon, I do feel that some sort of military strike will be inevitable, barring any diplomatic solution. While Iran has long used it’s program as a leverage for power rather than a military objective in its own right, there’s no telling if that remains the case. The regime itself is, unsurprisingly, opaque and erratic, showing signs of fraying between hardliners and relative moderates.

There’s no telling who’s really in charge and what will come of those nukes: will they remain a bargaining chip for continued influence, or are there intentions to actually utilize them? While I personally lean more to the former, it could very well be that both possibilities exist, given the presence of so many factions within Iran’s complex political system. Whatever the case may be, any military action will be just as untenable – if not more so – than maintaining the status quo and waiting for Iran to get the bomb.

I pity the diplomat that has to ponder all this while the clock counts down, and hardliners on all sides remain ready for the worst-case scenario.

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