The latest United Nations report on Iran’s nuclear program has further raised tensions. While the report was notable for its candour, it carefully avoided making definitive statements on two critical issues: whether Iran has actually decided to build a bomb, or is merely content with acquiring the capability to do so; and when it might be able to do either of these things. These subjects are the stuff of fierce debates, with credible people taking widely different stands and propagandists stoking the fire every chance they get.
The report by the International Atomic Energy Agency has also given fresh impetus to the debate over whether, and if so when, an attack should be launched against Iranian nuclear facilities. Proponents of an attack believe it would delay Iran’s program and raise the cost to the regime of pursuing it. Opponents believe such an attack might delay the program but would only increase Iran’s determination to ultimately see it through and further drive its nuclear activities underground (which is what happened to the Iraqi nuclear program after Israel’s attack on it in 1981).
An attack would also tend to cause the people of Iran to rally around their unpopular government and give cause for Tehran to dramatically increase its support for terror and other destabilizing actions.
Leaving aside these broader debates, the more technical question of how such an attack might unfold raises a number of considerations. Many proponents of an attack point to the 1981 Israeli operation against Iraq’s Osirak reactor and the 2007 Israeli attack on a Syrian nuclear facility. They were widely regarded as successful (although Iraq went on to get very close to a bomb before Saddam Hussein made the mistake of invading Kuwait), but these attacks do not really provide much of a model for the current Iranian problem.
In both cases, the nuclear program being attacked was at a very nascent stage and a single attack on a single facility effectively set the program back. Iran’s nuclear program is much more advanced. It is widely dispersed, several of its sites have been (in military parlance) “hardened,” and we have seen that the Iranians have been able to hide some sites from international view – we can’t be certain we know everything about Iran’s nuclear activities.
Therefore, any attack on Iran’s nuclear program can’t be a single attack against a single target. It would have to be an extensive series of co-ordinated attacks against widely dispersed sites, some of which might require repeated attacks to provide assurance that they have been destroyed. It would be necessary for the attacker to revisit these sites periodically to make sure they are not being rebuilt. And hanging over everything would be a nagging uncertainty over whether all of Iran’s nuclear sites had actually been attacked or whether the Iranians had accelerated their work at hidden sites.
With all of this going on, Iran would not just sit there and take it; it would strike back. Tehran would unleash terror proxies across the Middle East and further afield; these would strike at the highly fragile global economy, and attack Western troops and interests in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Admiral Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as much in remarks at Columbia University in 2010: “Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome. In an area that’s so unstable right now, we just don’t need more of that.”
We are thus talking about a campaign of several months, or even longer, and not “a strike.” Frankly, we are talking about a war, which is likely to escalate to a campaign aimed at regime change in Iran.
Despite Israel’s loud and prolonged efforts to demonstrate willingness and capability to attack Iran alone if it must, it is doubtful Israel could do the job on its own. The Israelis could certainly mount a few strikes against a limited number of targets in Iran, but analysts have raised doubts that Israel could sustain a lengthy campaign against widely dispersed targets over a prolonged period of time. Israel certainly could not prosecute a wider war of regime change in Iran. Only the United States could do this.
It seems clear, at least from the way Barack Obama’s administration has responded to the IAEA report, that Washington has no interest in marching toward war against Iran any time soon. Israel and its U.S. friends will no doubt try to change this calculus in the coming election year. Much of the public heat and light that surrounds this issue may have this as its ultimate objective.
Peter Jones is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa.