What to do about Iran

The Iranian Nuclear Program is a considerable security concern for the Americans, the Israelis, and even the Arab World. With Iran’s extensive history of sponsoring terrorism as well as vowing to destroy both Israel and the United States, there are many who believe it would be unwise to take the Iranian leadership at their word that they want nuclear power for peaceful means. With invasion being unthinkable, and as diplomacy seems increasingly futile, the option of mounting an air strike against the Iranian Nuclear Program may prove irresistible in the end. Unfortunately such a strike may ultimately prove counter productive. An unorthodox strategy may be necessary to defuse the situation.

The Strike itself:

Although it is a possible that the Americans would participate directly with the Israelis in a strategic bombing campaign, it is more likely that the Israelis would have to act alone. However, even in the latter situation the Americans would likely provide limited assistance such as logistics or intelligence.

Even though it is not certain how many facilities the Israelis would attack, primary targets would include the Nuclear Reactor at Busher, The Natanz Fuel Enrichment Plant, The Heavy Water Facility at Arak, and the Uranium Conversion facility at Isfahan. However, it should be noted that since the Busher reactor has already gone hot, it would be unlikely the Israelis would bomb it given the potential human and environmental costs.1

However, it is possible the Israelis, or perhaps the Americans, have a backup plan to disable Iran’s Nuclear Program via cyber warfare, as many of the theories on the Stuxnet worm have suggested. It is also possible they would use something like the Stuxnet worm to disable Iranian defensive systems and/or infrastructure.  This is not far-fetched, it is rumoured that the Israelis had a kill switch inside the Syrian Air Defence network that shut it down during the Israeli raid on the suspected Syrian Nuclear site in September 2007).2

To strike at these targets the Israelis would probably take the more direct routes to Iran over Iraq and Saudi Arabia, given the range of their air force. While Turkey is a de-facto Israeli ally, going over Turkey would take significantly longer, and Turkey could potentially deny the Israelis entry into its airspace considering its less than amiable reaction when Israeli fuel tanks were found on its territory when the Israelis attacked the suspected nuclear facility in Syria.3

As for the likelihood of success, even the most optimistic assessments project that Iran’s Nuclear Program would be delayed by only a few years. While it may be assumed that Israel would enjoy technological advantages (especially if the Americans were involved) and better-trained personnel than the Iranians, there are still significant risks involved considering the distances, the state of the Iranian defences, and the obvious knowledge of which targets are involved.4

The Consequences

While the best case scenario would envision the Iranian Nuclear Program delayed by several years, the negative consequences would probably outweigh the good.

These could include:

-the potential strengthening of the theocratic regime in Tehran; it is likely that the majority of Iranians would flock to their leadership, as they did to Ayatollah Khomeini after Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980
-an intensification of violence, if not outright war, between the Israelis and Hezbollah (an Iranian proxy), and possibly between Israel and Hamas as well
-the potential increase of terrorism in the Middle East, Israel, America, and other Western targets
-a potential standoff or war between Iran and the United States, possibly over the strait of Hormuz (a major choke point for the world’s oil trade)
-a significant increase in the price of oil
-a sharp rise in Anti-U.S. and Anti-Israeli sentiment
-the intensification of Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons

Other options:

Unless there was sufficient evidence to indicate that the Iranians were close to completing nuclear weapons, and were preparing to use them in a sinister role, it would probably not be beneficial to delay Iran’s nuclear facilities via strategic bombing. It is conceivable given the precedents of cyber warfare in Estonia and Georgia, as well as the potential destructive power of cyber weapons such as Stuxnet, that the Americans and Israelis could attempt to cripple Iran’s nuclear program via electronic means.5

However, if such a cyber attack were launched against Iran, and even if it were not launched by the Israelis or the Americans, they would probably be blamed anyway, and as such they would still reap many of the same negative consequences just the same as if they had attacked Iran from the air. There was a similar occurrence in 1967 when the Egyptians and Jordanians claimed that the Americans and British had aided the Israeli attack against the Egyptian Air force. Although the Arab leadership knew it was a lie, the Arab masses believed it unquestionably.6

Diplomacy and sanctions have also proven to be a historically insufficient means to stop Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, given the support it receives from nation-states such as Russia and China. If Russia and China could be convinced, via carrots or sticks, or a shrewd combination of both, to stop aiding Iran, then it is possible Iran would be unable to complete its Nuclear Program. However, rogue countries (like North Korea) or elements (someone equivalent to Dr. A. Q. Khan of Pakistan) could still possibly aid Iran, and at this point it may be too late to be effective anyway.7

In any case, effective sanctions would be unlikely, as Iran is no threat to Russia and China, but a significant threat to Israel, and to their chief rival, America. In other words, from a purely cold and pragmatic approach to power politics, it is in Russia and China’s interest to aid Iran.

It is likewise a mistake to believe that America and Iran could simply work out their differences via understanding and diplomacy. Given the ideological divide between the two countries, not to mention their struggle for control of the Middle East, it is unlikely Washington and Tehran could form a lasting and satisfactory arrangement. Much like the U.S. and Russia during the Cold War, America and Iran are capable of moments of detente when it suits them, but ultimately one of the two nations would prevail.8

Unfortunately, and though it hardly sounds reassuring, America and Israel will have to adapt a “wait and see” attitude regarding Iran. The best case scenario would be the toppling of the Iranian theocratic regime by a progressive democratic movement before the completion of the Iranian Nuclear Program. Such a movement should be encouraged by the U.S. though obviously a coup should be instigated by the Iranian people themselves, rather than by the Americans given the memories of the CIA-sponsored coup against the democratically-elected Iranian President during the ’50s. It goes without saying, that a U.S.-led invasion of Iran would be unrealistic and morally indefensible.9

A more pragmatic strategy would include containing a nuclear-armed Iran, promoting democratic reform and development in the Middle East, and sincerely attempting to resolve sore points such as the Palestinian dilemma. Such a strategy would envision winning over the Arab world, isolating Iran, and waiting until the Iranian people finally tire of their theocratic regime, similar to the U.S. strategy used to deal with the Soviet Union.

Containing Iran would involve propping up countries that oppose Iran’s fundamentalist ideology (such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, and the Gulf States), including security guarantees and training and supplying their armies. It would also include sending clear warnings to Iran that the United States would not tolerate the sharing of its nuclear resources, the intensification of proxy wars against Israel, or invasions of other countries. Needless to say, such warnings would have to be backed by force. While it would be a risky strategy, it would be less dangerous than appeasing Iran.10

The promotion of democratic reform and development could be done in more subtle or gradual ways, but more importantly in a way that would ultimately benefit the ruling elites of the countries, rather than threatening them.

Rather than unrealistically asking the rulers of the Middle East to hand over power to the people, it would be more prudent to show them the benefits of giving their people more control over their lives, as well as a free hand in commerce and trade. As history has shown again and again, a relatively free and prosperous people is less threatening to a government than an oppressed, and desperate one.

Even limited reform, such as allowing local elections, and giving women more rights, would go a long way to appease the Arab masses.  Perhaps even more effective would be to clamp down on corruption, relax restrictions on the media, and separate political interference from the rule of law.  This, along with giving people more economic opportunities, would decrease resentment, and hopefully allow for more democratic reforms in the long term.

These are not wild dreams; there are precedents.  Limited elections are held in Kuwait and are usually seen as been relatively fair, and Saudi Arabia, arguably a more oppressive country than Iran, is increasingly offering more opportunities for women.  In Afghanistan, most of the population are willing to trust Taliban courts because even though they can be harsh, they are seen as fairer, and less corrupt, than government ones.  The Taliban also have more support among the opium farmers because of the coalition’s unrealistic demand that they stop selling their crops. 11

Some critics could point out that liberalization and democracy, no matter how limited, risks the overthrow of relatively stable, if authoritarian, allies in the region, to be replaced by fanatics who are hostile to Israel, and the West.  However, one could argue that oppression, rather than reform, carries a greater chance of facilitating such a scenario.  The Iranian Revolution, as well as recent developments in Tunisia, and Egypt, are examples.  Given the increasing levels of dissent in neighbouring countries, there is a chance we are seeing a domino effect. 12

A sincere and protracted attempt to address the Palestinian question and other sore points in the Middle East is an admittedly more complicated consideration. While it may be pessimistic to suggest it is impossible for the U.S. to improve its image in the Middle East, it may not be incorrect. However, despite the fact that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is unlikely to be solved in the foreseeable future, the fact remains that it is the usual stumbling block in any attempt to bridge the Western world and the Middle East.  Perhaps Washington would have to put intense pressure on Israel to make sincere efforts towards peace, threatening to remove military or diplomatic support if the Israelis remained obstinate.

While a good argument could be made that the Arab world is just as responsible for the situation as the Israelis and the West, the fact remains that as long as the conflict persists, the Arab world will use it as an excuse to be inflexible. Perhaps other sore points, such as a potential, although admittedly very unlikely, peace treaty between Israel and Syria, or Israel and Lebanon, would be easier starting points.  Lebanon (with the obvious exception of Hezbollah), being a de-facto Syrian protectorate, would likely come to terms with Israel if Syria did, but it is debatable whether or not the return of the Golan Heights to Syria would be enough to convince the Syrians to make peace.13


An air strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, be it American or Israeli, would likely produce more negative consequences than positive. At best it would only delay the program for a few years, and it would strengthen the regime in Tehran, increase terrorism, and vilify the Americans and the Israelis. Attempts at eliminating the Iranian Nuclear Program via cyber warfare, as stated above, would also produce similar results.

Sanctions against the regime in Tehran would also produce no appreciable effect. Given that the Russians and Chinese lack sufficient motivation to join in effective sanctions, and that Iran could probably still get aid from rogue elements, means that any effects produced by the sanctions would be limited at best.

Any attempt at bilateral diplomacy between America and Iran is likewise a risky prospect. Much like the situation between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War, America and Iran have been able to come to temporary agreements when it suits them. However, their drastically opposing ideologies, not to mention irreconcilable goal of both wanting to control the future of the Middle East, means that in the long term there is no question of compromise.

Unfortunately the only viable option open to America is to contain Iran as best it can, and promote democracy and development in the region. This has to be done keeping the interests of the ruling Arab elite, as well as the hostility of the Arab world towards Israel, and the West, in mind. Significantly, this would have to involve showing an even-handed approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Perhaps it would take a considerable amount of time, several years atleast, to convince the Arab world the U.S. was sincere in its attempt to promote democracy and prosperity, but if it succeeded, the Iranian theocracy would find it virtually impossible to succeed in its goal of being the powerbroker in the region. More likely, its own populace, who are increasingly disenchanted with the ruling elite, would see the futility of supporting the regime and ultimately overthrow the Mullahs.

The people of the Middle East, much like those of the former Soviet Union, are not in general fanatical or unreasonable people. If given the chance to determine their own fate, they would, like most other people, prefer peace, prosperity and stability, to chaos, poverty, and conflict.


1) Article from “The Atlantic” [Online]: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/the-futility-of-an-israeli-air-strike-against-irans-nuclear-sites/61669/ [2010, August]
2) Article from “Chasing Evil” [Online]:
http://www.chasingevil.org/2010/09/israeli-attack-on-syrian-reactor.html [2010, September]
3) Article from “Informed Consent” [Online]
http://www.juancole.com/2010/06/turkey-forbids-israeli-military-overflights.html [2010, June]
4) Article from “The Herald of Randolph” [Online] http://www.ourherald.com/news/2007-02-01/Columns/col01.html [2007, February]
5) Article from “Global Post” [Online]  http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/asia/101016/stuxnet-cyber-warfare-computer-science [2010, October]
6) Article from “The New York Times” [Online] http://www.nytimes.com/2002/06/16/books/days-that-shook-the-world.html?ref=michael_b_oren [2002, June]
7) Article from “Source Watch” [Online]  http://www.sourcewatch.org/index.php?title=China-Iran-Russia_axis [2010, October]
8) Article from “Iran-Va-Jahan” [Online]
http://www.iranvajahan.net/cgi-bin/news.pl?l=en&y=2010&m=03&d=09&a=4 [2010, March]
9) Article from “Historical and Investigative Research” [Online]  http://www.hirhome.com/iraniraq/iran-coup.htm [2006, January]
10) Ibid 8.
11) Article from “Registan.net” [Online] http://www.registan.net/index.php/2010/03/17/handling-marjehs-poppy-other-concerns/
12) Article from “Mubashirmalik” [Online]
13) Ibid 8.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *