Saturday, November 8, 2008

Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred? Part I


by Michael Rubin

1st part of 3


As Iran's nuclear program has developed, the Bush administration appeared to draw a red line: a nuclear weapons-capable Islamic Republic would be unacceptable. On August 8, 2004, for example, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told NBC News that the United States "cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon" and that President George W. Bush would "look at all the tools that are available to him."[1] In an October 27, 2006, Oval Office meeting with NATO secretary general Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, Bush remarked, "the idea of Iran having a nuclear weapon is unacceptable."[2] A year later, Bush declared that "Iran will be dangerous if they have the know-how to make a nuclear weapon."[3] If Bush's statement was a red line then, today it appears to have been more a rhetorical flourish than a policy truth.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has said that if the Iranian nuclear program continues apace, the Islamic Republic can become a nuclear weapons-capable state.[4] While Bush remains enigmatic on how far he will go to prevent Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons if diplomacy and economic sanctions fail, top administration officials hint that the Pentagon is not prepared to use military force, even as a last resort.[5] Though strategic bombing of Iranian nuclear targets is off the table in the waning weeks of the Bush presidency, top U.S. military officials like General John Abizaid, former commander of Central Command, and Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, argue that the United States can contain or deter a nuclear Iran. On July 21, 2008, for example, Abizaid explained, "I don't believe Iran is a suicide state. . . . Deterrence will work with Iran."[6] Whether deterrence and containment against a nuclear Iran deserve the faith Abizaid and Mullen hold in them, the options are unclear.


Will Iran Use Nuclear Weapons?

Should the Islamic Republic possess nuclear weapons, the nightmare scenario is that it would use them in a first strike, most likely against Israel. Elimination of Israel remains a cornerstone of Islamic Republic ideology. Despite revisionist questioning about whether Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad really promised to "wipe Israel off the map,"[7] both University of North Dakota law professor Gregory S. Gordon and Joshua Teitelbaum, senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at the University of Tel Aviv, have chronicled well over a dozen recent Iranian statements promising Israel's destruction. As Teitelbaum notes, "What emerges from a comprehensive analysis of what Ahmadinejad actually said--and how it has been interpreted in Iran--is that the Iranian president was not just calling for 'regime change' in Jerusalem, but rather the actual physical destruction of the state of Israel."[8]

There is reason to take the worst case scenario seriously. While giving the official state sermon at Tehran University on December 14, 2001, for example, former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, current chairman of the powerful Expediency Council, argued that it might not be far-fetched to envision use of nuclear weapons against the Jewish state. Amid chants of "Death to Israel," he declared, "The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything. . . . It is not irrational to contemplate such an eventuality." Even if Israel responded with its own nuclear arsenal, the Islamic Republic has the strategic depth to absorb and withstand the retaliation, and so the price might be worth it. "It will only harm the Islamic world," he argued.[9] When it comes to Iranian desires to possess nuclear weapons rather than simply a civilian nuclear energy program, Rafsanjani's statements have become the rule rather than the exception.

On February 14, 2005, for example, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Kharrazi, secretary general of the Iranian Hezbollah, declared, "We are able to produce atomic bombs and we will do that. We shouldn't be afraid of anyone. The United States is not more than a barking dog."[10] And, on May 29, 2005, Hojjat al-Eslam Gholam Reza Hasani, the supreme leader's personal representative to the province of West Azerbaijan, declared possession of nuclear weapons to be one of Iran's top goals. "An atom bomb . . . must be produced," he said. "That is because the Quran has told Muslims to 'get strong and amass all the forces at your disposal.'"[11] The following year, Mohsen Gharavian, a Qom theologian close to Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, one of the Islamic Republic's staunchest ideologues, said it was "only natural" for Iran to possess nuclear weapons.[12]

Not every Iranian religious figure has been so bellicose. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has said, "We do not need a nuclear bomb. We do not have any objectives or aspirations for which we will need to use a nuclear bomb. We consider using nuclear weapons against Islamic rules."[13] His statements, especially in the context of evidence of Iranian nuclear developments, should not be taken at face value. They may be taqiya, religiously sanctioned dissimulation meant to lull an enemy. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, not only spoke repeatedly of the necessity to engage in taqiya,[14] but he also practiced it, telling the Western audience in the weeks before his return to Iran, for example, "I don't want to be the leader of the Islamic Republic; I don't want to have the government or power in my hands."[15]

Of course, Western policymakers should not take bellicose statements as fact and dismiss automatically more conciliatory approaches. As long as the messages remain mixed and covert nuclear activities unexplained, however, realists must treat Iranian intentions with suspicion. At the very least, Western policymakers should not base their approach to Iran on a single statement by the supreme leader, contradicted as it is by evidence of a sometimes covert and continuing nuclear program.


Can Iran Be Deterred?

Should achievement of nuclear weapons capability make such debates moot, then what policy options short of military strikes would the West have? Alongside any diplomatic or economic strategy, the United States and its allies would have to rely on deterrence or containment. Both are military strategies. Successful nuclear deterrence requires two conditions: First, the Iranian leadership must prioritize the lives of its citizenry above certain geopolitical or ideological goals. Second, the deterring power--in this case, the United States--must be willing to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians should authorities in Tehran or their proxies ever use nuclear weapons. On both questions, there is a disturbing lack of clarity.

At its heart, the Islamic Republic is an ideological regime. Many visitors to the Islamic Republic may be rightly impressed by Tehran's vibrant political culture, but when push comes to shove, the Iranian leadership believes sovereignty derives from God and must be channeled through the supreme leader. The ambitions and values of ordinary people are subordinate to the will of God as interpreted by the supreme leader and the apparatus established to serve him. Hence, the Council of Guardians constrains any outlet for ordinary Iranians by disqualifying any potential political leaders whose governing philosophy does not conform to Khamenei's narrow views. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), its associated paramilitary Basij, and assorted state-sanctioned vigilante groups exist to enforce ideological discipline and punish those who fail to conform.[16]

Is Abizaid correct when he argues that the Islamic Republic is not suicidal? It is a crucial question. During the Cold War and after the Soviet Union's nuclear breakout, the United States had no choice but to deter. An ideological clash may have driven the Cold War, but neither Moscow nor Washington believed the other side to be suicidal. Each superpower pursued its interests but checked its own ambitions so as not to provoke a nuclear war that would destroy its home country. Despite mutually assured destruction, deterrence almost broke down on several occasions, bringing the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of nuclear war: the Berlin crisis, the Cuban missile crisis, and the downing of Korean Air Lines Flight 007 each nearly escalated beyond control. In retrospect, deterrence brought neither the security nor the stability to which some historians and many current policymakers ascribe it. At the very least, nuclear deterrence is a highly risky strategy.

The Soviet leadership was not suicidal, but how does the Iranian leadership approach questions of mass death? If Western politicians project their own value system onto their foes when calculating opponent decision-making, then they would assume that their Iranian counterparts would not be willing to absorb a nuclear attack. Such reasoning, however, ignores the role of ideology in the Islamic Republic.

Regardless of what most Iranians think, the Islamic Republic ascribes to a set of values far different from our own. Ahmadinejad shocked the West when, soon after taking office, he called for Israel's destruction; dismissed the Holocaust as a fabrication; and hinted that he channeled the Hidden Imam, also known as the Mahdi, Shia Islam's messianic figure.

Mahdism is not new to the Islamic Republic. After the first parliamentary elections in May 1980, Khomeini instructed the victors to offer their "services to the Lord of the Age, May God speed his blessed appearance."[17] Nevertheless, most parliamentarians at the time rooted themselves in the more pragmatic policy debates swirling around construction of the new system. Ahmadinejad, however, heightened emphasis on apocalyptic thought when he argued that Mahdism is "the defining strategy of the Islamic Republic" and that human action could hasten the Mahdi's return.[18] Indeed, it is this aspect of Ahmadinejad's thought that is especially dangerous because it suggests that Ahmadinejad believes that he and his fellow travelers could perhaps hasten the Mahdi's return by precipitating violence, setting the stage for the return as prophesied in some readings of Islamic texts.

Ahmadinejad is not alone in such beliefs. Mesbah-Yazdi, his religious mentor, argues that the "superiority of Islam over other religions is stressed in Qur'an, which calls on believers to wage war against unbelievers and prepare the way for the advent of the Mahdi and conquering the world."[19] In his study of apocalyptic thought in Iran, Mehdi Khalaji, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who trained for fourteen years in the seminaries of Qom, noted, "Ahmadinejad appears to be influenced by a trend in contemporary apocalyptic thought in which the killing of Jews will be one of the most significant accomplishments of the Mahdi's government."[20] Certainly it is plausible that Ahmadinejad might, like Rafsanjani, believe Islamic interests make Iran's weathering a retaliatory nuclear strike worthwhile. If this is true, and the interpretation is certainly plausible, then traditional deterrence becomes impossible.

Within the convoluted power structure of the Islamic Republic, however, the presidency is more about style than substance. Ahmadinejad may embody a heterodox ideology, but would he control nuclear weapons? Herein lies the difficulty with assessing a nuclear Iran's behavior: very little is known about the Islamic Republic's nuclear command and control. Ahmadinejad may not have direct power, but his accession to the high-profile presidency shows the acceptability of his views within the Islamic Republic's power circles. Ahmadinejad derives his power from the IRGC and may reflect significant ideological strains within the force. It is not likely that the Islamic Republic will establish safeguard mechanisms until it has acquired nuclear weapons technology. This can create a very dangerous situation. In 1999, Western officials scrambled to avert a nuclear confrontation between India and Pakistan over the Kargil district in Kashmir. As generals pushed their armies and governments to the brink of all-out hostility, neither Delhi nor Islamabad had established the mechanism of control to prevent accidental or rogue use of their atomic arsenal.

What is known about Tehran's command and control does not inspire confidence. The IRGC has, over the past decade, expanded its dominance over all aspects of Iranian politics, economy, and security.[21] The same hard-line clerics--Mesbah-Yazdi and Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, for example--to whom Ahmadinejad and his IRGC compatriots turn for religious guidance promote the most radical exegesis. Mainstream Iranians may not subscribe and, indeed, may even ridicule Ahmadinejad's messianism, but those who control the weapons may feel differently and embrace the idea that nuclear weapons can and should be used in a holy struggle against Israel or other enemies.

For Western advocates of a deterrence strategy, chain of command and control over weaponry should not simply be a theoretical concern. Indeed, there has already been a close call caused by a rogue commander within the Revolutionary Guards. In 1991, as the Pentagon amassed forces in Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, a mutinous IRGC unit allegedly sought to launch a conventional missile attack against the assembled U.S. troops. Had such an attack occurred, it would have likely initiated a far wider conflict. IRGC loyalists, however, averted the missile launch when they seized control of the rogue base.[22] It is certainly ironic that the same Western commentators and officials who ascribe adversarial Iranian behavior to rogue IRGC elements rather than the central government also appear to place the greatest faith in the efficacy of nuclear deterrence against the Islamic Republic.


Michael Rubin


Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred? Part II


by Michael Rubin

2nd  part of 3


Can Iran Be Contained?

An Iranian nuclear first strike might be the nightmare scenario for U.S. policymakers, but it is not the most likely one. Should Tehran acquire nuclear arms, the Iranian leadership may feel itself so immune from consequence that it has no obstacles to conventional aggression, whether direct or by proxy. While Western officials may think that the United States can deter Iran, Iranian officials may believe that their nuclear capability will enable them to deter the West. Indeed, in September 2005, the hard-line monthly Ma'refat opined, "Deterrence does not belong just to a few superpowers," and cited the Quranic verse declaring, "Against them [your enemies] make ready your strength to the utmost of your power, including steeds of war, to strike terror into the hearts of enemies of God and your enemies."[23]

Many analysts say that a nuclear Iran need not be dangerous. Author and essayist Glenn Greenwald, for example, argued--falsely--that Iran "has never invaded another country."[24] Putting aside the nineteenth-century Iranian invasion of Afghanistan, Iran's 1971 occupation of Abu Musa and the Tunb Islands (claimed by the United Arab Emirates), and its 1982 drive into Iraq (after beating back the 1980 Iraqi invasion), the Iranian military has often acted irregularly or by proxy, sparking insurrections in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and perhaps the Palestinian Authority as well. On May 3, 2008, former Iranian president Mohammad Khatami acknowledged as much. Speaking at the University of Gilan, he argued that the current Iranian strategy of exporting revolution by means of "gunpowder and groups sabotaging other countries" was inconsistent with what he argued was Khomeini's preference for soft power.[25]

It is irresponsible to argue, as former nuclear-inspector-turned-peace-activist Scott Ritter has, that Iran does not pose a strategic threat to the United States and its interests.[26] At its core, the Islamic Republic is an ideological regime with a mission to export its revolution embedded both in its constitution and in the IRGC structure.[27] The preamble to the Islamic Republic's constitution, for example, states that "the Army of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps . . . will be responsible not only for guarding and preserving the frontiers of the country, but also for fulfilling the ideological mission of God's way; that is, extending the sovereignty of God's law throughout the world."[28]

It also includes reference to a Quranic verse urging, "Terrify thereby the enemy of God and your enemy . . . and whatsoever you expend in the way of God shall be repaid you in full; you will not be wronged."[29] The IRGC has taken this mission to heart. In the three decades of its existence, it has supported terrorism from Baghdad to Buenos Aires and has conducted assassinations in the United States, France, Germany, Austria, and Denmark.[30]

Too much reliance on containment should worry U.S. policymakers, given the mixed assessments of previous incarnations of the policy at a time when the Islamic Republic was only a conventional power. The first concerted U.S. containment policy against the Islamic Revolution was initiated in 1993 when, in the face of both Iranian and Iraqi attempts to subvert stability and the regional status quo, the Clinton administration launched its dual containment strategy. "So long as we can rely on our regional allies--Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the GCC [Gulf Cooperation Council], and Turkey--to preserve the balance of power in our favor in the wider Middle East region, we will have the means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes," Martin Indyk, then-senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council, explained in 1993. He conceded, however, that containing Iran would be more difficult than restraining Iraq. "When we assess Iranian intentions and capabilities, we see a dangerous combination for Western interests," Indyk explained, citing Tehran's support for terrorism, its violent opposition to the Middle East peace process, its attempts to subvert friendly Arab governments, its desire to dominate the Persian Gulf through military means, and its clandestine nuclear weapons program.[31]

In a rebuttal to Indyk's approach, F. Gregory Gause III, an associate professor of political science at Columbia University, wrote, "Dual containment requires the unlikely cooperation of a number of other nations. . . . Meanwhile, Europe and Japan have been unwilling to isolate Iran economically."[32] If Egypt and other regional allies like Turkey did not embrace containment fifteen years ago, they are less likely to do so today. Turkey especially has become a less reliable ally, and some of its politicians are more likely to sympathize with the Islamic Republic than the United States, if for no other reason than to maintain a "good neighbor policy."[33] Germany remains resistant to economic sanctions. While German chancellor Angela Merkel has assured her Western allies that Germany would reduce trade with the Islamic Republic because of Tehran's nuclear defiance,[34] her ambassador in Tehran assured Iranians that German companies would not only maintain their trade, but would actually increase it, albeit through middlemen in the United Arab Emirates.[35]

Containment is also expensive and, when challenged, can escalate into a shooting war. On March 7, 1987, as Iran and Iraq engaged in attacks on international shipping in the Persian Gulf, the Reagan administration offered to reflag eleven Kuwaiti tankers, an operation that was code-named Earnest Will. Between July 24, 1987, and September 26, 1988, the Pentagon deployed an aircraft carrier, four destroyers, a guided missile cruiser, three frigates, and several smaller boats. On the first day of operation, the reflagged supertanker Bridgeton hit a mine, the first of four mine strikes that month. As a result, the U.S. Navy began more intensive minesweeping operations. On September 21, 1987, U.S. forces seized the Iranian boat Iran Ajr as it mined international waters. In the ensuing fight, U.S. helicopters engaged with Iranian speedboats. The following year, in Operation Praying Mantis, U.S. forces struck Iranian oil platforms and forces after a mine crippled the guided-missile frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts.[36]

It is difficult to assess the cost of any military action, but, conservatively, Operations Earnest Will and Praying Mantis cost hundreds of millions of dollars and required significant infrastructure and support networks. The attack on the Roberts, for example, necessitated not only force in the region to enable retaliation, but also support services in Dubai for its repair. Any containment strategy more expansive than protecting eleven tankers would be exponentially more expensive.


What Is Required to Contain Iran?

Any containment operation against a nuclear Iran would require more than the single battle group that participated in Operation Earnest Will. Should the Islamic Republic acquire nuclear weapons, it may become dangerously overconfident as it convinces itself that its conventional, irregular, or proxy forces can operate without fear of serious reprisal from the United States, Israel, or any other regional power. In order, therefore, to contain a nuclear Iran, the United States and its allies in the region will need to enhance their military capability to counter the likelihood of successful Iranian conventional action. There are two strategies that U.S. policymakers may pursue separately or in tandem. First, U.S. defense planners might examine what U.S. force posture would be necessary for the United States unilaterally to contain a nuclear Iran. Second, U.S. officials must gauge what investment would be necessary to enable neighboring states to do likewise. Put more crudely, this requires calculating under what conditions and with what equipment regional states could successfully wage war against Iran until U.S. forces could provide relief. If the Pentagon has pre-positioned enough equipment and munitions in the region, this might take three or four days; if not, it could take longer.

If U.S. forces are to contain the Islamic Republic, they will require basing not only in GCC countries, but also in Afghanistan, Iraq, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. Without a sizeable regional presence, the Pentagon will not be able to maintain the predeployed resources and equipment necessary to contain Iran, and Washington will signal its lack of commitment to every ally in the region. Because containment is as much psychological as physical, basing will be its backbone. Having lost its facilities in Uzbekistan, at present, the U.S. Air Force relies upon air bases in Turkey, Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Oman, and the isolated Indian Ocean atoll of Diego Garcia.

There is less to these facilities, however, than meets the eye: under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish government has grown closer to the Islamic Republic and has sought to limit U.S. Air Force use of the Incirlik Air Base; Turkish negotiators have even demanded veto power over every U.S. mission flown from Incirlik.[37] Oman, too, has been less than reliable in granting U.S. freedom of operation. According to military officials familiar with the negotiations between U.S. and Omani officials, the sultanate initially refused the U.S. Air Force permission to fly missions over Afghanistan from its territory in the opening days of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001, a campaign that, in the wake of 9/11, had far greater international support than would any containment actions against Iranian forces. Both the congressional desire to curtail the U.S. presence in Iraq and Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki's demands that the United States evacuate the country on a set timetable make any use of the Kirkuk and Ali air bases in that country as part of containment operations unlikely. Saudi Arabia has many airfields but, because of domestic unease with a U.S. presence in the kingdom, only allows the United States to maintain a small combined air operations center for U.S. aircraft in the Persian Gulf.

While the United States maintains 228,000 troops in the Near East and South Asia, all but 5,700 are stationed in Iraq or Kuwait in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom or in Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.[38] These troops would, presumably, return home upon the completion of their missions. Kuwaiti officials have made clear that they do not envision hosting a permanent U.S. presence. The Kuwaiti government designates portions of Camp Arifjan as temporary and insists that when U.S. forces depart, no trace of their presence should remain. In practice, according to officers with the 45th Field Artillery Brigade operating facilities in Kuwait, this means that U.S. officers must spend weeks engaging the Kuwaiti bureaucracy if they wish to do so much as pave a road through their tent city.

Almost half of the troops stationed in the region outside of Iraq, Kuwait, and Afghanistan are afloat, which highlights the need for naval bases and shipyards. The U.S. 5th Fleet uses facilities in Bahrain and ports in the United Arab Emirates. Both countries, however, remain vulnerable to Iranian missiles and airstrikes.

Upgrading regional facilities would support containment strategies that rely on a long-term U.S. regional presence as well as Washington's deferral of the primary containment responsibilities to Iran's neighbors. In order to upgrade the GCC states' military capacity, in May 2006, the Bush administration launched a "Gulf Security Dialogue" aimed at improving the GCC militaries' interoperability, their defense capabilities, and the states' counterterrorism abilities and critical infrastructure protection.[39] As mandated by section 36(b) of the Arms Export Control Act, the White House on August 3, 2007, informed Congress of its intention to sell Bahrain six Bell 412 air search and recovery helicopters, the sum price for which, if all technology options are exercised, might be as high as $160 million. Such helicopters, however, can do little to protect the tiny island nation of Bahrain, whose sovereignty Iranian officials on occasion still question,[40] from an Iranian onslaught.

Two months after signaling the Bahrain sale, the administration notified Congress of its intention to upgrade three Kuwaiti L-110-30 aircraft (a civilian version of the C-130) at a sum cost as high as $250 million. Subsequent notifications regarding Kuwait included maintenance and logistics support for Kuwait's F/A-18 aircraft, sale of eighty PAC-3 missiles, Patriot missile system upgrades, and 2,106 TOW-A and 1,404 TOW-B missiles, the total cost of which would be higher than $1.3 billion. Proposed arms sales to Saudi Arabia are even greater and include light armored vehicles; high mobility multipurpose wheeled vehicles; advanced radar; sniper targeting pods; and, most controversially, nine hundred Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) tail kits to create high precision smart bombs. The United Arab Emirates itself may purchase three hundred AGM-114M3 Blast Fragmentation Warheads and nine hundred AGM-114L3 Hellfire II Longbow missiles, upgrades for three E-2C airborne early-warning aircraft, 288 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 air defense missile systems, 224 AIM-120C-7 Advanced Medium Air-to-Air Missile Air Intercept Missiles, two hundred JDAM tail kits, and more than two hundred one-ton bombs.[41] The shopping list of equipment may seem technical, but it underscores both the complexity and the expense of preparing for containment.

Even with such upgrades, and assuming Congress does not disapprove the sales--188 members of Congress have expressed concern--it is unclear whether the GCC states could contain Iranian aggression for long. No GCC state with the exception of Saudi Arabia has strategic depth. If Iraq could overwhelm Kuwait in a matter of hours, so, too, could Iran overwhelm Bahrain--the central node in regional U.S. naval strategy--or Qatar, where the U.S. army pre-positions much of its heavy equipment.

A quick glance at the Iran-GCC military balance is not reassuring. Iran has 663,000 military service personnel, including regular army, IRGC, and Basij. Saudi Arabia, in contrast, has only 214,500 military personnel, and the combined total for the other five GCC states is a paltry 131,300. Iran falls short on fighter aircraft (332 versus 496 for the GCC) but is near parity on battle tanks (1,710 versus 1,912) and dominates with combat vessels (201 versus 94).[42] While Iran may fall short in certain categories, it has a superior ballistic missile capability to any immediate neighbors besides Pakistan. Iran's Shahab-3 missile has performed erratically during tests but now reportedly has a two-thousand-kilometer range. As the Gulf Security Dialogue sales indicate, the GCC states are scrambling to recover from this missile deficit.

Iran's other neighbors cannot bring much to the containment table. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan's militaries are negligible. The Russian invasion of Georgia has eliminated the possibility of assistance from Tblisi. Uzbekistan and Armenia are, in practice, hostile to U.S. strategic concerns.

Turkey, with its 514,000 troops, nearly four hundred fighter aircraft, and 4,400 tanks, is in theory a NATO ally and, as such, interoperable with the U.S. military. It could bring significant resources to the table, but it is an unreliable ally unlikely to participate in any serious containment; nor will Iraq or Afghanistan who, for years to come, will be more concerned with ensuring internal stability than participating in regional containment. Indeed, with the exception of Turkey, every other Iranian neighbor remains vulnerable to Iranian political or infrastructure sabotage, as incidents such as the Khobar Towers bombing and the 1995-96 Bahraini riots demonstrate.[43] A Kuwaiti parliamentarian has even accused the IRGC of infiltrating Kuwait.[44]


Michael Rubin


Can a Nuclear Iran Be Contained or Deterred? Part III


by Michael Rubin

3rd  part of 3



The Bush administration has treated deterrence and containment as rhetorical pillars, but, beyond the Gulf Security Dialogue, few in Washington appear willing to take the measures necessary to deter or contain a nuclear Iran. Even in the unlikely event they would achieve Iraqi acquiescence, neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden support permanent bases in Iraq,[45] even though such facilities would be the cornerstones of a containment policy. Simply put, without permanent bases in Iraq, a nuclear capable Islamic Republic cannot be contained.

While Senator Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) laid down the necessary marker to support a deterrence strategy when she declared that the United States could "obliterate" Iran should the Islamic Republic use nuclear weapons, Obama's criticism of her statement[46] undercut the commitment to retaliation upon which any deterrence policy must rest.

It may be comforting to Abizaid, Mullen, and the electorate to believe that the United States can deter or contain Tehran's worst ambitions, but absent any preparation to do so, Washington is instead signaling that the Islamic Republic has a green light to claim regional dominance and, at worst, carry out its threats to annihilate Israel. At the same time, absent any effort to lay the groundwork either for containment or deterrence, Washington is signaling to its allies in the region that they are on their own and that the U.S. commitment to protect them is empty. Arab states and Iran's other neighbors may calculate that they have no choice but to make greater accommodation to Tehran's interests. Should Israeli officials believe that the West will stand aside as Iran achieves nuclear capability and that a nuclear Islamic Republic poses an existential threat to the Jewish state, they may conclude that they have no choice but to launch a preemptive military strike--an event that could quickly lead to a regional conflagration from which the United States would have difficulty remaining aloof.

Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. AEI research assistant Ahmad Majidyar and associate editor Christy Hall Robinson worked with Mr. Rubin to edit and produce this Middle Eastern Outlook.






1. David E. Sanger, "Rice Says Iran Must Not Be Allowed to Develop Nuclear Arms," New York Times, August 9, 2004.
2. Nazila Fathi, "Using a 2nd Network, Iran Raises Enrichment Ability," New York Times, October 27, 2006.
3. "Bush Says Iran Remains a Threat," BBC News, December 4, 2007.
4. "IAEA Chief: Iran 'on Path' to Atomic Weapon," Associated Press, September 26, 2008.
5. Helene Cooper and David E. Sanger, "Iran Strategy Stirs Debate at White House," New York Times, June 16, 2007.
6. Martin Walker, "Which Iran Is in Charge?" United Press International (UPI), August 4, 2008; and "U.S. Admiral Urges Caution on Iran," BBC News, July 2, 2008.
7. Jonathan Steele, "Lost in Translation," Guardian (London), June 14, 2006.
8. Joshua Teitelbaum, What Iranian Leaders Really Say about Doing Away with Israel: A Refutation of the Campaign to Excuse Ahmadinejad's Incitement to Genocide (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2008); and Gregory S. Gordon, "International Law and Incitement to Genocide" (presentation, seminar on "Understanding the Challenge of Iran," Yale University, New Haven, CT, April 30, 2008).
9. Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Tehran), December 14, 2001. Translated by BBC Worldwide Monitoring. 10. "Iranian Hardliner Says Iran Will Produce Atomic Bomb,", February 14, 2005.
11. Baztab News Agency (Tehran), May 29, 2005.
12. "Muslim Cleric Sanctions Nuclear Weapons," UPI, February 19, 2006.
13. Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran Network 1 (Tehran), June 4, 2006. Translated by Open Source Center.
14. Ruhollah Khomeini, Islam and Revolution, trans. and ed. Hamid Algar (London: KPI, 1981), 34, 72, 95, 133, 144, 147.
15. Quoted in Jalal Matini, "The Most Truthful Individual in Recent History," Iranshenasi 14, no. 4 (Winter 2003).
16. Ali Alfoneh, "Iran's Parliamentary Elections and the Revolutionary Guards' Creeping Coup d'Etat," Middle Eastern Outlook, no. 2 (February 2008), available at
17. Quoted in Mohebat Ahdiyyih, "Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi," Middle East Quarterly 15, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 27-28.
18. Ibid., 32.
19. Ibid., 31.
20. Mehdi Khalaji, Apocalyptic Politics: On the Rationality of Iranian Policy (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2008), 24.
21. Ali Alfoneh, "Iran's Parliamentary Elections and the Revolutionary Guards' Creeping Coup d'Etat."
22. Ali Alfoneh, "The Revolutionary Guards' Role in Iranian Politics," Middle East Quarterly 15, no. 4 (Fall 2008): 8, available at
23. Mohebat Ahdiyyih, "Ahmadinejad and the Mahdi": 32-33; and Quran 8:60.
24. Glenn Greenwald, "Tom Friedman's Latest Declaration of War,", May 14, 2008.
25. "Khatami: Dar Zamineh-e tahrif andisheh-ha-ye hazirat-e Imam 'alam khatar mikonam" [Khatami: I Find Danger in the Distortion of His Excellence the Imam's Thoughts], Emrooz (Tehran), May 3, 2008.
26. Scott Ritter, "The Big Lie: Iran Is a Threat," Britannica Blog, October 8, 2007, available at (accessed October 31, 2008).
27. See Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, art. 154; and Wilfried Buchta, Who Rules Iran? The Structure of Power in the Islamic Republic (Washington, DC: Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Berlin: Konrad Adenaeur Stiftung, 2000), 69.
28. Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran, preamble.
29. Quran 8:30.
30. Iran Human Rights Documentation Center (IHRDC), No Safe Haven: Iran's Global Assassination Campaign (New Haven, CT: IHRDC, May 2008); INTERPOL, "INTERPOL Executive Committee Takes Decision on Amia Red Notice Dispute," news release, March 15, 2007; and Brigadier General Kevin Bergner (press briefing, Combined Press Information Center, Baghdad, July 2, 2007).
31. Martin Indyk, "The Clinton Administration's Approach to the Middle East" (presentation, Soref Symposium, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Washington, DC, May 1993).
32. F. Gregory Gause III, "The Illogic of Dual Containment," Foreign Affairs, March/April 1994.
33. See, for example, "Turkey, Iran Seal Cooperation," Turkish Daily News, July 30, 2004; and Serkan Demirtafl, "Ankara Cold to U.S. Warning on Iranian Bank," Turkish Daily News, January 30, 2008.
34. "Merkel: Ravabat-e tejari-ye Alman ba Iran boyad kahesh yabad" [Merkel: Germany Must Reduce Its Trade Relations with Iran], Donya-e Eqtesad (Tehran), November 21, 2007.
35. Iranian Students News Agency (Tehran), November 21, 2007.
36. George C. Wilson and Molly Moore, "U.S. Sinks or Cripples 6 Iranian Ships in Gulf Battles; No American Losses Reported, but Helicopter Missing," Washington Post, April 19, 1988.
37. "Negotiations about Incirlik Air Base Continue," Turkish Daily News, March 5, 2007.
38. U.S. Department of Defense, "Active Duty Military Personnel Strengths by Regional Area and by Country," December 31, 2007, available at (accessed October 30, 2008).
39. Christopher M. Blanchard and Richard F. Grimmett, The Gulf Security Dialogue and Related Arms Sale Proposals (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, October 8, 2008).
40. Husayn Shariatmadari, "Ahvaz-i Kucheh-i Baghi" [Street Garden Song], Kayhan (Tehran), July 9, 2007.
41. Ibid.
42. Michael Rubin, Meeting the Challenge: U.S. Policy toward Iranian Nuclear Development (Washington, DC: Bipartisan Policy Center, 2008), 32, available at; and Jane's Sentinel Country Risk Assessments database.
43. Michael Eisenstadt, "The Long Shadow of Khobar Towers: Dilemmas for the U.S. and Iran" (PolicyWatch 414, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 8, 1999); and Douglas Jehl, "Bahrain Rulers Say They're Determined to End Village Unrest," New York Times, January 28, 1996.
44. "Asrar-e namayandeh Kuwaiti ba Ada'ye khod aliyeh sipa" [Tenacity of Kuwaiti Parliamentarian's Claims of IRGC Infiltration], Shahab News (Tehran), September 14, 2008.
45. Obama for America, "Barack Obama and Joe Biden's Plan," available at (accessed October 31, 2008).
46. "Obama: Clinton's 'Obliterate' Iran Statement Too Much Like Bush,", May 4, 2008.


Thursday, November 6, 2008

Boxed In: Containing a Nuclear Iran Part 2


by Michael Rubin

2nd part of 2

Arms transfers

These various political restrictions to basing rights hinder levels of US troops in the region, and hence any attempts to prepare for containment. Any serious containment strategy will likely require more than the 42,500 US troops currently in the Persian Gulf, many of which only serve support functions. This suggests other policies must be implemented to augment the meager US troops based in the region.

To effectively contain Iran would require upgrading regional facilities to expedite deployment in event of hostility; deploying advanced anti-aircraft weaponry around regional states' economic assets—such as oil fields and industrial infrastructure—which would likely be targets of an Iranian first strike; and perhaps most significantly upgrading regional militaries to wage war independently against Iran for several days until the Pentagon can send reinforcements to the region.

The import of this latter factor is made apparent by an analysis of the strategic balance in the region. At present, US regional allies neither have the troops nor the material to themselves contain Iran. The Islamic Republic has some 540,000 troops spread among the regular military, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), and the paramilitary Basij (which, in September 2007, was nominally folded into the IRGC proper). Saudi Arabia has approximately 200,000 men, and the other GCC states add another 130,000 combined. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan bring another 92,000 troops. Turkey has 402,000 active military personnel, but the current Turkish leadership is unlikely to allow these to be used beyond containment of threats – largely from Kurdish militants -- along its own 499 km frontier with Iran. While the US has invested billions in the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, both are inwardly focused and ill-prepared to counter any external threat.

In terms of materiel, Iran is the single leading military power in the Gulf, although largely holds parity in comparison to the other regional powers in aggregate. Saudi Arabia and the smaller GCC states maintain approximately 2,300 main battle tanks versus 1,700 in Iran. Azerbaijan and Turkmenistan add another 900. Iran, meanwhile, maintains the lead in its navy: 260 vessels including a handful of submarine, versus less than 200 vessels for the entire GCC and only six patrol boats for Azerbaijan.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have near parity in combat aircraft numbers — 280 against 290 —although Saudi Arabia has a qualitative edge as its F-15s remains superior to Iran's MiG-29s and Su-24s in an air-to-air capacity. Iran, however, has a superior ballistic missile capability to any immediate neighbours besides Pakistan. Iran's Shahab-3 missile has performed erratically during tests, but now reportedly has a 2,000 km range.

Given this military balance, the US is eager to bolster indigenous GCC military capability and missile defences, improve interoperability and enhance protection of critical infrastructure. In order to achieve this goal, the Bush administration in May 2006 launched a new Gulf Security Dialogue, which includes a series of arms sales to upgrade regional military capabilities, particularly GCC anti-missile capabilities. In December 2007, for example, the Department of Defense notified Congress of the UAE's intention to purchase 288 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) air defence missiles and 216 PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced missiles and of Kuwait's intention to purchase 80 PAC-3s and kits to upgrade 60 earlier generation PAC-2s. Saudi forces themselves man earlier generation Patriot batteries over the past several months, received advanced medium-range air-to-air AIM-120C5 missiles ordered in 2006. While these may not provide protection from Iranian missiles, they do provide deterrence against any potential Iranian manned or unmanned aerial assault on Saudi oil infrastructure. The US installed missile defence emplacements in Qatar as it built al-Udeid and prepositioned armor and heavy equipment to the peninsular country. Turkey is also considering the PAC-3 along with other anti-missile systems manufactured in Israel and Russia. Turkey's procurement process, however, is slow in comparison to other NATO countries, and more vulnerable to political complications.

However, while such advanced equipment can provide regional militaries with a qualitative edge over the Iranian military, again political restrictions exist that will prevent the sale of sensitive equipment. In particular, a traditional desire for Israel to retain a qualitative edge in technology over any real or potential adversaries hampers any attempt to arm regional states. In practice, determinations over arms sales to moderate Arab states are scattered throughout the US executive branch. The Department of State's Office of Political-Military Affairs supervises weapons sales and exports. The National Disclosure Policy Committee, comprised of the secretaries of state and defence, the secretaries of each armed service and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, vets the release of sensitive weapons technology. The intelligence community inputs into both bodies. Lastly, Israeli military officials meet their Pentagon counterparts at the Department of Defense's annual Joint Political Military Group meeting, during which Tel Aviv can voice concern about their adversaries' capabilities.

Even when the executive branch deem weapons sales to moderate Arab states permissible, Congress often intervenes to derail sales of advanced weaponry to Arab states. Most famously, this occurred with the failed attempt to cancel a 1981 sale of advanced airborne early warning and control systems aircraft to Saudi Arabia, but more recently Congress has intervened to sidetrack sale of Joint Direct Attack Munitions technology to Saudi Arabia, even as the Bush administration has approved their sale to the UAE, Oman, and Israel.

As US Army Lt Col William Wunderle and US Air Force Lt Col Andre Briere argue in a Winter 2008 Middle East Quarterly article, any strategy to contain a nuclear Iran will require the US government and Congress to rethink and reformulate calculations on restrictions to arms sales in the region, based on the understanding that the GCC states represent the front line of Israeli defence against a mutual Iranian threat and that no GCC state itself poses a serious threat to Israeli security. While a politically sensitive issue, it is.

Beyond the military procurement, training is as important to improve the ability of regional militaries to act autonomously. Here, regional militaries vary in their preparedness. Saudi reluctance to host foreign forces in its territory hampers its contribution to containment and to the protection of its critical infrastructure such as the Jubail, Ras Juaymah, and Ras Tannurah refineries in the Eastern province, and the East-West Crude Oil Pipeline (Petroline), which bisects the country and ends at the Red Sea port of Yanbu. While it is hard to gauge the current ability of the Kuwaiti or Qatari militaries to operate independently, their ability to operate equipment and air defences independently has increased through the current decade with training and exercises.

Unappealing diplomacy

One further constraint on the US' containment strategy is its unwillingeness to engage fully with regional regimes.

President Bush has since 2002 made democratisation a cornerstone of his policy toward the Middle East. His administration's focus on reform and transformational diplomacy complicated relations with longstanding Arab allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, although long-established relationships as well as the desire to win Arab state support for US operations in Iraq muted the democracy agenda within the Department of State's Near East Affairs Bureau.

This has ensured relative continuity in US diplomatic engagement with the Arab states, but has endangered or transformed relations with other states.

Concern over Uzbekistan's human rights violations led the Uzbek government to demand the departure of US forces in 2005 from the air base at Karshi-Khanabad, which had supported the mission in Afghanistan and is well suited to support containment efforts against the Islamic Republic.

Azerbaijan would be on the front line of any containment effort against Iran. It has previously assisted US efforts to hinder Iran's nuclear development. On 29 March 2008, for example, Azeri customs impounded for five weeks ten tons of nuclear equipment trucked from Russia and destined for the Bushehr reactor. Subsequently released, Baku's actions presumably aided intelligence understanding of the shipment and suggested willingness to help US counterproliferation efforts. Concerns over Azerbaijan's commitment to reform and democracy, however, have hampered the military partnership and sales. On 29 July 2008, Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer expressed worries about the state of democracy in Azerbaijan, a concern which will grow ahead of Azerbaijan's October 2008 presidential elections, and linked progress on democratisation to the broad US-Azerbaijan bilateral relationship.

Contain or restrain?

With negotiations over Iran's nuclear enrichment deadlocked and widespread recognition in both Europe and the US over the difficulties and complication of military strikes against Iran, US policy makers increasingly say they are prepared to contain Iran. Implementation of a containment policy, however, remains uneven. While the Gulf Security Dialogue will advance GCC military capabilities, no GCC country with the possible exception of Saudi Arabia appears able to withstand an Iranian attack.

Neither the Bush administration, candidates to succeed him, nor Congress have yet proposed streamlining of the weapons procurement process, augmented deployments of forces, especially air force and navy, to the region, upgrading of existing facilities or establishment of new bases, or re-prioritisation of security and democracy concerns along Iran's northern flank. This suggests that the US currently remains ill prepared for any containment strategy, and is unlikely to be in a position to effectively contain a nuclear Iran in coming years.

Michael Rubin, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School.


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

Boxed In: Containing a Nuclear Iran Part 1


by Michael Rubin

1st part of 2

Containment helped define US foreign policy towards the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Inspired by a view of the USSR as expansionist and intractably opposed to capitalist states, containment was viewed as the most cost-effective method to prevent Soviet extension without resorting to cataclysmic war.

The policy was perhaps best described by George Kennan in his 1947 'X' article, in which he claimed "it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies."

Yet, although the X article was written about the idiosyncracies of the Soviet system, containment is not a policy necessarily specific to the unique characteristics of the Cold War. Many in Washington appear to currently view a similar policy as an option in its dealings with a very different but similarly ideologically opposed rival, namely Iran.

For the present, Washington's commitment to this policy remains partial, as other policies are pursued to prevent Iran gaining a nuclear capability, and hence containment is not a viable option. However, should other policies fail entirely, and Iran become emboldened in its foreign policy by a nuclear status, containment is likely to characterise the US' policy towards the Islamic Republic.

Why contain?

Containment, at present, appears the policy option most likely to be used should all other avenues fail to defuse the international stand-off over the Islamic Republic's uranium enrichment programme. Given the lack of success that has been forthcoming from other policies, including a new incentive package from the five permanent United Nations Security Council members plus Germany and Washington's decision to join direct discussions with Iran, to resolve the disagreements, the possibility of a focus on containment is increasing.

The containment policy would not seek to deter use of nuclear weapons by Iran or its allies. Washington believes itself able to deter Tehran from the use of nuclear weapons with its own advanced, extensive and secure nuclear arsenal. Rather, containment would attempt to prevent an Iran emboldened by nuclear weapons using its proxies or conventional forces in regional operations to extend the country's influence.

The range of possible regional operations is significant, largely owing to the unstable international politics of the Gulf region. Beyond the possible use of Iranian proxies in Iraq and Lebanon, three Persian Gulf islands disputed the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tonb islands – remain longstanding flashpoints. Moreover, Hossein Shariatmadari, appointed to the editorship of the hardline Iranian daily Kayhan by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, raised regional anxiety with a 9 July 2007 editorial suggesting that the island nation of Bahrain should, after almost five centuries of separation, return to Iranian control, while the member states of the Gulf Co-operation Council (Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar), remain concerned about Iranian statements over Tehran's ability to close the Strait of Hormuz.

This does not demonstrate that such conflict is likely, nor that Tehran harbours expansionist tendencies or an irrepressible desire for expeditionary operations, but it does reflect a clear range of possible conflict areas in the region.

Given these scenarios, it is unsurprising that the US might seek to rely on a strategy that underlay US strategy during the Cold War. To succeed in an Iranian context, any containment would necessarily rely on three factors: troop deployments and US basing overseas, weapons sales to countries surrounding Iran, and diplomatic alliances. However, political constraints, regional sensitivities and concern over dealing with some regional regimes are all hindering US preparations for a containment strategy, and hence Washington's ability to enforce containment is currently limited.

Base desires

In terms of US basing, there is already a demonstrable trend towards containment. US forces surround Iran, with a total of approximately 250,000 troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, the six GCC states and Turkey. Although President Bush announced a drawdown of 8,000 troops from Iraq on 9 September, he simultaneously outlined an increase of 4,500 personnel in Afghanistan, demonstrating that even as the Iraq deployment winds down amid domestic pressure, Washington remains militarily committed to the region around Iran.

However, while these operations appear to field a formidable aggregate force, in reality the majority of these troops are already engaged in operations related to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Moreover, many of the facilities used by the US are both temporary in nature and subject to rigorous political control by regional states. Because the US presence in Saudi Arabia became a rally point for Islamist militants, for example, the Kuwaiti government imposed strict regulations on the movement of US military personnel stationed in their country. US troops, for example, are not allowed to visit tourist sites or markets in Kuwait except on periodic, escorted group tours. The Kuwaiti government also designates portions of Camp Arifjan as temporary and insists that when US forces depart, no trace of their presence should remain. In practice, this means that US officers must spend weeks engaging the Kuwaiti bureaucracy if they wish to do so much as pave a road through their tent city.

Similarly, while the US military and Oman maintain a fa├žade of co-operation, the Omani leadership undermined US confidence in its reliability when, at the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, it withheld permission for several days for the US Air Force to conduct operations against the Taliban from airfields on Omani territory because of its desire to preserve the appearance of neutrality in a fight involving co-religionists.

Qatar's importance to the US has grown since the 1995 palace coup that installed Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa ath-Thani. Al-Ubeid today is perhaps the most important US base in the region, but it alone cannot alone sustain a containment strategy. Nor does any containment mission have the depth provided by active Saudi participation. Most US military departed Prince Sultan Air Base, 80 kilometers south of Riyadh, only five years ago, leaving facility maintenance and upgrade in the hands of Saudi officials whose standards may not be up to US military requirements.

Beyond the GCC, given its extensive frontier, Iraq would be vital in any containment of Iran. However, while many members of US Congress support containment of Iran as an alternative to military action, their opposition to upgrading US facilities inside Iraq — such as the Kirkuk and Tallil Air Bases — has undercut the implementation of the containment policy they claim to support. Protracted US-Iraq negotiations over the Status of Forces Agreement has also hampered any containment strategy and muted most debate among defence planners and within the US Congress with regard to the wisdom of permanent bases inside Iraq. While the US and Iraq are likely to agree ultimately on a continued US presence, at least until 2011, the expected gradual drawdown of troops, likely to be hastened should Barack Obama win the US elections, suggests that the ability to effect containment will also gradually diminish.

Another Iranian neighbour, Turkey, could be another vital lynchpin in any US containment strategy, particularly given its membership of NATO. Yet, few US officials presently consider Turkey as a reliable ally in times of regional conflict, primarily owing to the ruling Justice and Development Party's refusal to join the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the sensitivity of 2007 negotiations over renewal of the US lease of portions of Incirlik Air Base, near Adana. In the latter example, the key question about renewal regarded Ankara's demand that it could veto missions originating from the facility, especially as they might regard Iraq and Iran. Recent Turkish overtures toward Iran and the Turkish government's unwillingness to join sanctions against the Islamic Republic have further heightened US concern. While the upper reaches of the Turkish General Staff may still be pro-American, no US planner relies on Turkey as a keystone in containment of Iran.

Finally, Pakistan, bordering Iran to the east, while long a nominal US ally will not participate actively in containment of Iran for reasons of its own instability, its orientation to counter perceived threats from India, and its involvement in Afghanistan.


Michael Rubin


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.