(RIEAS Associate and Independent Research Analyst)
Strategic decisions such as preventive and preemptive strikes are usually based on drivers, some directly others indirectly linked to the main objective. Since 2002 and the discovery of the Natanz secret nuclear facility some 200 km from Tehran (1), Israel and the West have been trying to put an end to the country’s nuclear programme which, Tehran has always claimed it is aimed at solely peaceful, i.e energy related objectives.
Towards the end of last year and taking advantage of the findings of the September and especially the November 2011 IAEA report (2) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has heated up discussions for a preemptive strike against Iran with British and US officials following suite, albeit at a lower intensity. This was then followed by the threats by Tehran to close the Straight of Hormuz and the West’s retaliation with more sanctions aimed at the country’s Central Bank.
Latest developments including the threats by Tehran and the ‘war of words’, the continuing underground intelligence war, the ever-narrowing timeframe as far as the development of the nuclear programme is concerned and a number of other drivers, mainly elections in major countries including the US and Iran itself, will largely determine whether and most importantly when a strike against the Islamic Republic might occur but also the character and magnitude of the attack. The main purpose of this analysis is to try outline and forecast when an attack might occur based on a number of drivers and what character this may have.
Although this analysis will not look into the important aspect of the ethics behind such an action, we should make clear up here the controversy over whether an attack on Iran at this stage is considered preventive or preemptive. We hold that as of early 2012 and since Iran has not developed actual nuclear weapons or even has reached sufficient uranium enrichment, a strike by definition should be considered as preventive and not preemptive since there are no direct hostilities or threat for an imminent conventional or nuclear attack by Iran. An attack on Iran is usually and intentionally being classified as preemptive in order to imply and claim greater legitimacy vis-a-vis a preventive strike which generally moves along the borders of legitimacy within the realm of international law and ethics, accepted only under extraordinary circumstances while it is usually carried out covertly and swiftly such as in the case of Operation Opera and the bombing of Syria’s embryonic nuclear programme (3).
As the situation stands, UN officials’ recent visit to Iran has somewhat eased the increased tensions of the latter weeks despite recent statements of Iranian officials to put first an embargo on oil exports in order to threaten the West financially. Although optimism is not a predominant characteristic at the moment there are sings of positive attitude even by Iranian officials (4). However, the West and especially Tel Aviv have always claimed that Iran is currently interested in nothing else but buying time in order to force the West face a fait accompli when the vital first step has been made by Tehran. Although the November 2011 IAEA report found signs of ‘non-civilian use’ of the programme (5), and military exercises have increased by both sides, it is highly unlikely to see any serious plans for an attack by the summer of 2012. We estimate that a number of different (in nature) drivers will determine all the factors surrounding an attack, even the very realisation and character of one.
Any piece of analysis on the probability and drivers of an attack that demands to be taken seriously should first consider the very logic surrounding the decision on whether to attack because that determines to a big extend the very possibility of a strike as developments unfold. As far as Israel is concerned the logic of attacking Iran now is obviously determined by the latter’s progress on its nuclear programme. That, in turn, is determined by the IAEA as well as by the intelligence available, mainly Israeli and American. While we are not in a position to know the latter, the current visit of IAEA along with any findings they have and conclusions they may reach is likely to affect at this stage, even partly, what is to be done in the immediate future.
The logic (or the ‘concept’) of containing Iran has more to do with the leverage and impact as well as the appeal Iran will gain once they announce the creation of the first warhead or even the achieving the necessary level of uranium enrichment rather with the actual use of any nuclear weapon. Iran is not likely to be the first nation after the United States in 1945 to use a nuclear weapon and that is a knowledge all educated and right in their mind people possess. If there is any single driver standing out as far as the decision of an attack is concerned, in no case that should be the rhetoric of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials.
Another part of this logic is linked to Iran’s hydrocarbons and more particularly the future access to them. Although that is a long-term objective, given the involvement in and approach towards Iran by countries such as China, Russia and India (which is not to follow the Western embargo on oil) as well as Tehran’s approach to a number of Latin American nations including Brazil (which was among the first to congratulate Ahmadinejad after the controversial 2009 elections) the West will see to reverse the situation based on geopolitical imperatives that Tehran understands.
That said, however, the plans for an attack within the foreseeable future are not be linked now with the country’s natural gas and oil. It is worth noticing though that the interest of the West on Iran goes beyond the issue of nuclear energy.
The feasibility of success and the successful planning of any ‘contingency plan’ in case of significant blowbacks and retaliation by Iran and its proxies is the single most defining military factor behind the decision of a swift, targeted strike. This, in turn, is likely to determine the character of the attack. Many claim that because of the extensive installations in Iran (which some may be hidden altogether) and the expertise already ‘in stock’ after years of research, there simply cannot be a single air attack that will cause irreversible damage to the nuclear programme altogether while simultaneously take out all the country’s air defences as well as its capability to retaliate with conventional missiles in the region or hit Israel. We shall examine further on the objections to a strike now based on these premises.
An important non military driver is the impact this may have (in both cases, that is success and failure) on the Arab world. That is particularly important as Washington would not wish to destroy the positive image of supporting the change that swept the Arab world by acting in cooperation with Israel unilaterally against Iran, should a blowback prove negative, despite the fact that Tehran has few supporters in the wider region. Neither will Washington jeopardise inflating a wider conflict in Middle East at this point. Tel Aviv and Washington will see to gain as much diplomatic support, even unofficially, in case such a decision is taken. The legitimacy of the attack will, in this case, be an important factor hence the discussion. The West needs both popular as well as government support from a number of Arab states. It is for that reason that developments in Egypt and Syria might prove important.
Egypt is to hold elections by June 2012. The overall transition process as well as the role of the military but also the election results and the share the Moslem Brotherhood and other Islamist factions is likely to gain will be a crucial factor in the support by Cairo of any attempt to contain Iran as far as its nuclear programme is concerned. Events in Syria are also deemed important not only as part of the wider change in the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region but also (and most importantly at the moment) as far as the logistical support Hezbollah and Hamas may have (or not have) should a retaliation against Israel orchestrated by Iran’s proxies occur in case of an attack on Iran. Many claim that it is for this reason Tel Aviv wishes to attack in the same time that Syria is in turmoil.
Last, but not least and in spite of any geopolitical developments in the region or the development of the Iranian nuclear programme, we hold as key drivers the various elections that are to take place in Europe, the US, Russia as well as Iran itself.
As stated above the June elections in Egypt are the first in a row of democratic procedures that may at the end prove more powerful than guns. Along with the French elections of 2012 (not very important as far as a strike is concerned but important nevertheless in the overall stance France and its allies within the EU may have at the time of the decision) the American elections are the most crucial elections of the year. If Obama holds the office then America’s stance vis-a-vis Iran would be somewhat more linear than in the case a figure like Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney becomes the next US President. That also mean that Obama is unlikely to proceed with a military strike within 2012 as this may have negative impact in a time of economic instability and as America withdraws from Iraq with plans for Afghanistan following suite.
We hold this is a major factor regarding a decision to strike Iran that, surprisingly, is often downplayed by international experts. In the same time Russian elections are to be held in early 2012. Although in theory Moscow has been steadily opposing any plans for military intervention, Putin’s realpolitik and pragmatism may come in handy as far as a behind-the-scenes consensus is concerned.
Important elections are to be held in 2013. Those are the Iranian presidential elections as well as the (scheduled) Israeli legislative elections later that year. Given the Israeli population’s split stance on an attack on Iran (6) and their fears of a general war with Hamas and Hezbollah should such a scenario materialises (7), the current Israeli leadership that so eagerly presses for an attack will wish to have carried out one by the scheduled end of their term unless speculations prove right of Netanyahu planning earlier elections (around a year earlier to collide with the US elections at the end of 2012) given he wins the primaries and continues to lead the Likud party and the government.
According to people close to Netanyahu such as Danny Danon, a prominent Likud legislator, this is the most likely scenario given that opinion polls indicate the centre-right wing coalition as the most likely winners of the next general elections (8). It is highly likely that Netanyahu will not opt for an attack before the US and possibly the early Israeli elections, that is until late 2012 or early 2013.
However, the Iranian presidential elections of June 2013 have a different yet vital role in the process of the decision on a preventing strike against the country. The West might decide to carry out an attack before the elections hoping to a success which, in turn, will affect on various levels and in various ways the popular sentiment vis-a-vis the current president, the conservatives or (as some hope) the regime in general.
The other alternative would be to create a climate of uncertainty with which voters in Iran will go to the polls in June 2013 opting for the candidate that will offer the most peaceful and pragmatic way out of the standstill including a permanent solution on the future of the country’s nuclear programme. It follows that pending the results of the elections the West will judge whether an attack will be deemed as necessary judging from the attitude of the new leader that is to succeed Ahmadinejad since Iran’s president is not allowed to rerun for president. Although elections in Iran are (generally speaking) free in comparison to other regional countries, the candidates that run for the highest elected post of the regime are first pre-approved by the state (9). Furthermore, it is the supreme leader, currently Ayatollah Khamenei, who plays the most important role in indicating his favourite candidate. Contrary to his rhetoric and what many in the West may believe, Ahmadinejad more than any previous president has stayed in power mainly thanks to the support he enjoyed by Khamenei and the conservative forces within the establishment.
Nevertheless, the next Iranian president is likely to be Khamenei’s favourite and to come from the most conservative of circles-the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Rvolution (IRGC or ‘Quds’). At the moment two names, those of Tehran Mayor and former commander of Guards’ air force, Ghalibaf and the current head of Quds Ghasem Soleimani seem to ‘lead’ the unofficial race of succession at least as far as the conservative faction is concerned. Hence, it is considered possible by the West that the stance of the future Iranian president is likely to remain the same, if not harden, given the time Tehran will have gained by accepting IAEA scientists and marginally cooperating with the international community, a well-known in Tel Aviv and Washington tactic by Iran of buying time as the programme development progresses. From the above it follows that a preventive, targeted strike is unlikely to occur before the end of 2012 or early 2013.
Especially the period leading up to the early summer of 2013 is the one that seems the most likely for such a strike as the situation currently stands and given that both Obama and Netanyahu will be in office until then. As the situation and the political balances in Iran stand, the West is not likely to wait for the Iranian elections, instead it might use them to press for further, popular supported changes in the country. Combined with the above, the situation in both Syria and Egypt by then are likely to play a role. However, there are growing voices within the Obama administration and experts in America and the world claiming that such an attack has now become altogether obsolete, almost impossible to have the desired (and the necessary for its legitimacy) results.
As many point out, the successful and swift operations in Iraq and Syria in 1981 and 2007 respectively have little things in common with a similar operation in Iran. Those nuclear programmes were at an embryonic stage at the time of both attacks (especially in the case of Syria) and they are not comparable to the stage Iran has reached in terms of progress, the know-how and the extend of installations. Furthermore, today’s Iran has few thing in common with both 1981 Iraq or Syria. Furthermore, as Alexandre Debs and Nuno P. Monteiro write in their Foreign Affairs article “The Flawed Logic of Striking Iran” (10)-a response to Matthew Kroenig’s “Time to Attack Iran”(11) in the same publication, like in the case of Iraq, a strike could at the moment drive the Iranian nuclear programme further underground and spreading it to other facilities. Also, like in the case of N Korea and the 1994 debate of a targeted attack, time has shown that the decision back then not to attack proves a wise one and that North Korea did not react any way similar to the one some claim Iran will react.
Although the two countries bear different importance to the international system and are in completely different geographical positions, there is a common denominator and that is the instinct of self-preservation. Furthermore, Iran may harden its stance and increase terrorist or other attacks via its proxies. Iran, further isolated by the West, could then turn to allies that otherwise would not approach. In that case countries like Turkey will be worth to watch.
Given the above, some experts such as Jamie M. Fly and Gary Schmitt (12) support that the option of a limited preventive strike has now long passed. Although the West will not publicly admit it, Iran has succeeded in bringing the international community including the US and Israel before a partial fait accompli which is the inability to wipe out in ‘one swift go’ the country’s nuclear infrastructure or avoid effectively any blowbacks by Tehran. It follows that the only option for a permanent solution at this stage would be, as Fly, Schmitt and others support, a more general and extended strike-a strike (largely based on an air campaign aided by the US and British fleets off Iran) that will aim at limiting the ability of the government to control the people and prevent an end to the current status quo as far as the character of the regime is concerned. Before that however the West should avoid the grave mistakes of Iraq and Afghanistan and try to find prominent Iranian figures, respected by the populous both from outside (since there are many political dissidents still with ties in Iran) and inside the country (including moderate elements from the current establishment) to quickly lead the country out of the crisis. Such a campaign should have as targets virtually all important installations and infrastructure of the major branches of the government, army and the regime at large.
In spite all the above, we hold that the debate on the usefulness, likeliness, character and success of any military strike or operation should not come first. Instead, a non-military solution other than the tried-and-failed sanctions (as far as the nuclear programme is concerned) must be engineered, a solution that will include the Iranians. Given regional developments in the MENA region and the very bad state of the Iranian economy, the elections of 2013 should be considered a milestone by the West and continue the multi-faced policy with the purpose of forcing the regime to negotiate rather than go further underground.
The possibility of an air attack should always remain on the table as a diplomatic and psychological leverage, however as with the Iranian threats of a nuclear weapons programme it should to stay in words. The West should give Iran the positive attention they want and officials should bear in mind that despite all the rhetoric Tehran knows whom it should come to terms with, if for no other reason, so they can preserve their own status. Similarly, Washington and Tel Aviv know that Iran is a piece of the puzzle better off within rather outside the West’s plans for the region.
1) Bergman, Ronen “Will Israel Attack Iran”, The New York Times, January 25th, 2012. Accessed via: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/29/magazine/will-israel-attack-iran.html?pagewanted=2&_r=1&sq=Will%20Israel%20Attack%20Iran?&st=cse&scp=1
2) For information on the IAEA reports see: http://www.iaea.org/newscenter/focus/iaeairan/iaea_reports.shtml
3) For a discussion about the legitimacy as well as the ethical and legal difference between preventive and preemptive strike see among others: Frost, Mervyn: “Global Ethics”, Routledge (2009), De Falco, Ralph L III: “Ethics, Intelligence and Preemptive and Preventive Actions”, International Journal of Intelligence Ethcis, Vol. 1, Number 1, Spring 2010 as well as books and reports on Operation Opera.
4) Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty “Iran officials Optimistic Over IAEA Visit”, accessed at: http://www.rferl.org/content/iranian_foreign_minister_upbeat_over_un_visit_awire/24467092.html
6) “Haaretz Poll: Israelis Evenly Split Over Attacking Iran”, Haaretz, 3/11/11 accessed at: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/haaretz-poll-israelis-evenly-split-over-attacking-iran-1.393378
7) “Haaretz Poll: 80% of Israelis Believe Iran Strike Will Lead to a War with Hamas, Hezbollah”, Haaretz, 3/11/11 accessed at: http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/haaretz-poll-80-of-israelis-believe-iran-strike-will-lead-to-war-with-hamas-hezbollah-1.393489
8) Allyn Fisher-Ilan “Netanyahu set to win party primary ahead of U.S. poll” 31/1/2012, Reuters, accessed at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/30/us-israel-politics-idUSTRE80T1JG20120130
9) For general information on Iran’s complex political system see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Iran
10) Debs, Alexander and Monteiro, Nuno P “The Flawed Logic of Attacking Iran”, Foreign Affairs, 17/1/2012 available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137036/alexandre-debs-and-nuno-p-monteiro/the-flawed-logic-of-striking-iran?page=2
11) Kreonig, Matthew “Time to Attack Iran”, Foreign Affairs, 01-02/2012 available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/136917/matthew-kroenig/time-to-attack-iran
12) See Fly, Jamie M and Schmitt, Gary “The Case for Regime Change in Iran”, Foreign Affairs, 17/1/2012 available at: http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/137038/jamie-m-fly-and-gary-schmitt/the-case-for-regime-change-in-iran?page=2