U.S. military strikes on Iran would shake the regime’s political control and damage its ability to launch counterstrikes, but the Iranians probably would manage to retaliate, directly and through surrogates, in ways that risked igniting all-out war in the Middle East, according to an assessment of an attack’s costs and benefits.
The assessment said extended U.S. strikes could destroy Iran’s most important nuclear facilities and damage its military forces but would only delay — not stop — the Islamic republic‘s pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
“You can’t kill intellectual power,” said retired Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, who endorsed the report. He is a former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center and former deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
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Only a US operation bigger than the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan combined can stop Iran from its alleged pursuit of a nuclear bomb, a new military report said. Such action, however, risks igniting all-out war in the Middle East.
Amid escalating rhetoric from Israel and the US over military action against Iran, more than 30 former US diplomats, retired admirals and generals have assembled a report on the consequences of military action against Tehran. The study will be released on Thursday.
The AP received an advance copy of the document, set to be released on Thursday, and reported that the analysis assessed the risks of a possible invasion of Iran, but provided no overall conclusion or recommended course of action.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, who endorsed the report, claimed that it was intended to “stimulate thinking in the US about the objectives of a military attack on Iran beyond the obvious goal of hitting key components of Iran’s nuclear program.”
The report said that a US military attack would harm the current regime’s political standing and damage its ability to launch counterattacks, but Tehran would almost certainly retaliate, “directly and through surrogates, in ways that risked igniting all-out war in the Middle East.”
US strikes could destroy Iran’s most important nuclear facilities and damage its military forces but would only delay – not fully stop – the Islamic republic’s alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
“Clearly there is some [US] ability to do destruction, which will cause some delay, but what occurs after that?” Kearney said. “You can’t kill intellectual power.”
In assessing the costs and benefits of a possible strike, the review said that Iran could be stopped only by a military invasion and occupation “more taxing than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”
“Given Iran’s large size and population, and the strength of Iranian nationalism, we estimate that the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the US has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined,” the report said.
In the wake of recent anti-US protests across the Middle East, including violent clashes in Egypt and Yemen, the document also warned that such a strike “would add to a perception of the US as anti-Muslim – a perception linked to the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and hardened by Internet-based video excerpts of an anti-Muslim film that may have fueled Tuesday’s deadly attack on a US diplomatic office in Libya.”
The UN atomic agency’s boardapproved on Thursday, with a crushing majority, a resolution criticizing Iran, AFP reported.
The resolution expresses “serious concern that Iran continues to defy” UN Security Council resolutions for it to suspend uranium enrichment, a process which can be used for peaceful purposes but also in a nuclear weapon.
It also highlights the International Atomic Energy Agency‘s complaint that activities at the Parchin base near Tehran, where it suspects nuclear weapons research took place, would “significantly hamper” inspectors should Iran let them visit.
The resolution was introduced at the meeting of the IAEA’s 35-nation board of governors on Wednesday after days of haggling between Western nations and Russia and China, which are seen as more lenient on Tehran.
It was approved Thursday by 31 countries, with Cuba voting against and Egypt, Ecuador and Tunisia abstaining.
“I think this resolution sends a very clear signal to Iran that the diplomatic pressure is intensifying and Iran’s isolation is growing,” U.S. envoy to the IAEA Robert Wood was quoted by AFP as having told reporters after the vote.
“The time right now is for compliance over defiance and Iran needs to comply now with its obligations…. We hope that Iran will hear and understand the message and begin to cooperate with the agency,” he added.
“We are determined, with those countries that are ready, to further increase sanctions against Iran, as long as it continues to refuse to comply with its international obligations,” French foreign ministry spokesman Vincent Floreani said in a statement.
Iran’s envoy Ali Asghar Soltanieh hit back at the resolution, saying it “is not the way to resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. It will only complicate the situation and jeopardize the cooperative environment.”
The IAEA resolution stopped short of referring Iran to the Security Council, but it was significant that Western nations were able to get Moscow and Beijing on board.
The resolution “reflects the desire of member states to underscore that diplomacy is paramount and it warns Israel in two separate paragraphs that the diplomatic process should be supported,” Mark Hibbs from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told AFP.
The IAEA’s latest report on August 30 said that Iran had doubled since May the capacity at the underground Fordo site by installing around 1,000 new centrifuges.
Last week it was reported that several European Union nations are exploring a new raft of sanctions against Iran as exasperation mounts over blocked talks on the country’s contested nuclear program.
Sources in Jerusalem told Voice of Israel government-sponsored radio Thursday that Israel has “an attainable military option that it can implement independently, without American assistance,” against Iran.
A frame grab from video posted on a militant-leaning Web site, shows Saeed al-Shihri, deputy leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Yemeni officials say a missile believed to have been fired by a U.S. operated drone in Yemen along with five others traveling with him in one car.
Security forces in Yemen have killed Said al-Shihri, described as the second-in-command of a regional branch of Al Qaeda, senior U.S. and Yemeni officials say. Al-Shihri’s death is a major blow to the militant group.
The U.S. officials said Saeed al-Shihri was killed, but could not confirm any U.S. involvement in the airstrike Monday that Yemeni leaders say killed the terrorist and five others.
Yemeni officials said the missile that killed al-Shihri was believed to have been fired by a U.S.-operated, unmanned drone aircraft. The U.S. doesn’t usually comment on such attacks although it has used drones in the past to go after Al Qaeda members in Yemen.
Al-Shihri is a former inmate of Guantánamo Bay who was released to Saudi Arabia in 2007 and put through a Saudi rehabilitation program for militants, according to the Guardian.
A Yemeni security source also told the Guardian that another Saudi and an Iraqi national were among the others killed.
The two U.S. officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to release the information to the news media.
Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch is seen as the world’s most active, planning and carrying out attacks against targets in and outside U.S. territory.
Al-Shihri’s death would amount to a major breakthrough for U.S. efforts to cripple the group in Yemen, which is considered a crucial battleground with the terror network. The impoverished nation on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula is on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia and fellow oil-producing nations of the Gulf and lies on strategic sea routes leading to the Suez Canal.
The group took advantage of the political vacuum during unrest inspired by the Arab Spring last year to take control of large swaths of land in the south. But the Yemeni military has launched a broad U.S.-backed offensive and driven the movement from several towns.
Al-Shihri would be the latest in a series of Al Qaeda figures killed in drone strikes, including U.S.-born Anwar al-Awlaki, who had been linked to the planning and execution of several attacks targeting U.S. and Western interests, including the attempt to down a Detroit-bound airliner in 2009 and the plot to bomb cargo planes in 2010.
Officials said the Al Qaeda in Yemen deputy was killed as he left a house in the southern Hadramawt province with his five companions.
Al-Shihri, who is believed to be in his late 30s, fought in Afghanistan and spent six years in the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, before being released and going through Saudi Arabia’s famous “rehabilitation” institutes, an indoctrination program that is designed to replace what authorities in Saudi Arabia see as militant ideology with religious moderation.
But he headed south to Yemen upon release and became deputy to Nasser al-Wahishi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, as the terror network’s Yemen branch is formally known. Al-Wahishi is a Yemeni who once served as Osama bin Laden’s personal aide in Afghanistan.
Al Qaeda in Yemen has been linked to several attempted attacks on U.S. targets, including the foiled Christmas Day 2009 bombing of an airliner over Detroit and explosives-laden parcels intercepted aboard cargo flights last year.
Unlike other Al Qaeda branches, the network’s militants in Yemen have gone beyond the concept of planting sleeper cells and actively sought to gain a territorial foothold in lawless areas, mainly in the south of Yemen, before they were pushed back by U.S.-backed government forces after months of intermittent battles.
The Yemen-based militants have struck at Western interests in the area twice in the past 12 years. In 2000, they bombed the USS Cole destroyer in Aden harbor, killing 17 sailors. Two years later, they struck a French oil tanker, also off Yemen.
U.S. drone strikes have intensified in Yemen in recent month, killing several key Al Qaeda operatives.
Samir Khan, an Al Qaeda propagandist, also was killed in a drone strike last year. Last October, al-Awlaki’s son was among nine killed in an airstrike. The nine also included Egyptian-born Ibrahim al-Banna, identified by Yemeni authorities as the media chief of the Yemeni branch of the Al Qaeda.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
For the past several months, the Israelis have been threatening to attack Iranian nuclear sites as the United States has pursued a complex policy of avoiding complete opposition to such strikes while making clear it doesn’t feel such strikes are necessary. At the same time, the United States has carried out maneuvers meant to demonstrate its ability to prevent the Iranian counter to an attack — namely blocking the Strait of Hormuz. While these maneuvers were under way, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said no “redline” exists that once crossed by Iran would compel an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The Israeli government has long contended that Tehran eventually will reach the point where it will be too costly for outsiders to stop the Iranian nuclear program.
The Israeli and American positions are intimately connected, but the precise nature of the connection is less clear. Israel publicly casts itself as eager to strike Iran but restrained by the United States, though unable to guarantee it will respect American wishes if Israel sees an existential threat emanating from Iran. The United States publicly decries Iran as a threat to Israel and to other countries in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, but expresses reservations about military action out of fears that Iran would respond to a strike by destabilizing the region and because it does not believe the Iranian nuclear program is as advanced as the Israelis say it is.
The Israelis and the Americans publicly hold the same view of Iran. But their public views on how to proceed diverge. The Israelis have less tolerance for risk than the Americans, who have less tolerance for the global consequences of an attack. Their disagreement on the issue pivots around the status of the Iranian nuclear program. All of this lies on the surface; let us now examine the deeper structure of the issue.
Behind the Rhetoric
From the Iranian point of view, a nuclear program has been extremely valuable. Having one has brought Iran prestige in the Islamic world and has given it a level of useful global political credibility. As with North Korea, having a nuclear program has allowed Iran to sit as an equal with the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, creating a psychological atmosphere in which Iran’s willingness merely to talk to the Americans, British, French, Russians, Chinese and Germans represented a concession. Though it has positioned the Iranians extremely well politically, the nuclear program also has triggered sanctions that have caused Iran substantial pain. But Iran has prepared for sanctions for years, building a range of corporate, banking and security mechanisms to evade their most devastating impact. Having countries like Russia and China unwilling to see Iran crushed has helped. Iran can survive sanctions.
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While a nuclear program has given Iran political leverage, actually acquiring nuclear weapons would increase the risk of military action against Iran. A failed military action would benefit Iran, proving its power. By contrast, a successful attack that dramatically delayed or destroyed Iran’s nuclear capability would be a serious reversal. The Stuxnet episode, assuming it was an Israeli or U.S. attempt to undermine Iran’s program using cyberwarfare, is instructive in this regard. Although the United States hailed Stuxnet as a major success, it hardly stopped the Iranian program, if the Israelis are to be believed. In that sense, it was a failure.
Using nuclear weapons against Israel would be catastrophic to Iran. The principle of mutual assured destruction, which stabilized the U.S.-Soviet balance in the Cold War, would govern Iran’s use of nuclear weapons. If Iran struck Israel, the damage would be massive, forcing the Iranians to assume that the Israelis and their allies (specifically, the United States) would launch a massive counterattack on Iran, annihilating large parts of Iran’s population.
It is here that we get to the heart of the issue. While from a rational perspective the Iranians would be fools to launch such an attack, the Israeli position is that the Iranians are not rational actors and that their religious fanaticism makes any attempt to predict their actions pointless. Thus, the Iranians might well accept the annihilation of their country in order to destroy Israel in a sort of megasuicide bombing. The Israelis point to the Iranians’ rhetoric as evidence of their fanaticism. Yet, as we know, political rhetoric is not always politically predictive. In addition, rhetoric aside, Iran has pursued a cautious foreign policy, pursuing its ends with covert rather than overt means. It has rarely taken reckless action, engaging instead in reckless rhetoric.
If the Israelis believe the Iranians are not deterred by the prospect of mutually assured destruction, then allowing them to develop nuclear weapons would be irrational. If they do see the Iranians as rational actors, then shaping the psychological environment in which Iran acquires nuclear weapons is a critical element of mutually assured destruction. Herein lies the root of the great Israeli debate that pits the Netanyahu government, which appears to regard Iran as irrational, against significant segments of the Israeli military and intelligence communities, which regard Iran as rational.
Avoiding Attaining a Weapon
Assuming the Iranians are rational actors, their optimal strategy lies not in acquiring nuclear weapons and certainly not in using them, but instead in having a credible weapons development program that permits them to be seen as significant international actors. Developing weapons without ever producing them gives Iran international political significance, albeit at the cost of sanctions of debatable impact. At the same time, it does not force anyone to act against them, thereby permitting outsiders to avoid incurring the uncertainties and risks of such action.
Up to this point, the Iranians have not even fielded a device for testing, let alone a deliverable weapon. For all their activity, either their technical limitations or a political decision has kept them from actually crossing the obvious redlines and left Israel trying to define some developmental redline.
Iran’s approach has created a slowly unfolding crisis, reinforced by Israel’s slowly rolling response. For its part, all of Israel’s rhetoric — and periodic threats of imminent attack — has been going on for several years, but the Israelis have done little beyond some covert and cyberattacks to block the Iranian nuclear program. Just as the gap between Iranian rhetoric and action has been telling, so, too, has the gap between Israeli rhetoric and reality. Both want to appear more fearsome than either is actually willing to act.
The Iranian strategy has been to maintain ambiguity on the status of its program, while making it appear that the program is capable of sudden success — without ever achieving that success. The Israeli strategy has been to appear constantly on the verge of attack without ever attacking and to use the United States as its reason for withholding attacks, along with the studied ambiguity of the Iranian program. The United States, for its part, has been content playing the role of holding Israel back from an attack that Israel doesn’t seem to want to launch. The United States sees the crumbling of Iran’s position in Syria as a major Iranian reversal and is content to see this play out alongside sanctions.
Underlying Israel’s hesitancy about whether it will attack has been the question of whether it can pull off an attack. This is not a political question, but a military and technical one. Iran, after all, has been preparing for an attack on its nuclear facilities since their inception. Some scoff at Iranian preparations for attack. These are the same people who are most alarmed by supposed Iranian acumen in developing nuclear weapons. If a country can develop nuclear weapons, there is no reason it can’t develop hardened and dispersed sites and create enough ambiguity to deprive Israeli and U.S. intelligence of confidence in their ability to determine what is where. I am reminded of the raid on Son Tay during the Vietnam War. The United States mounted an effort to rescue U.S. prisoners of war in North Vietnam only to discover that its intelligence on where the POWs were located was completely wrong. Any politician deciding whether to attack Iran would have Son Tay and a hundred other intelligence failures chasing around their brains, especially since a failed attack on Iran would be far worse than no attack.
Dispersed sites reduce Israel’s ability to strike hard at a target and to acquire a battle damage assessment that would tell Israel three things: first, whether the target had been destroyed when it was buried under rock and concrete; second, whether the target contained what Israel thought it contained; and third, whether the strike had missed a backup site that replicated the one it destroyed. Assuming the Israelis figured out that another attack was needed, could their air force mount a second air campaign lasting days or weeks? They have a small air force and the distances involved are great.
Meanwhile, deploying special operations forces to so many targets so close to Tehran and so far from Iran’s borders would be risky, to say the least. Some sort of exotic attack, for example one using nuclear weapons to generate electromagnetic pulses to paralyze the region, is conceivable — but given the size of the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem-Haifa triangle, it is hard to imagine Israel wanting to set such a precedent. If the Israelis have managed to develop a new weapons technology unknown to anyone, all conventional analyses are off. But if the Israelis had an ultrasecret miracle weapon, postponing its use might compromise its secrecy. I suspect that if they had such a weapon, they would have used it by now.
The battlefield challenges posed by the Iranians are daunting, and a strike becomes even less appealing considering that the Iranians have not yet detonated a device and are far from a weapon. The Americans emphasize these points, but they are happy to use the Israeli threats to build pressure on the Iranians. The United States wants to undermine Iranian credibility in the region by making Iran seem vulnerable. The twin forces of Israeli rhetoric and sanctions help make Iran look embattled. The reversal in Syria enhances this sense. Naval maneuvers in the Strait of Hormuz add to the sense that the United States is prepared to neutralize Iranian counters to an Israeli airstrike, making the threat Israel poses and the weakness of Iran appear larger.
When we step back and view the picture as a whole, we see Iran using its nuclear program for political reasons but being meticulous not to make itself appear unambiguously close to success. We see the Israelis talking as if they were threatened but acting as if they were in no rush to address the supposed threat. And we see the Americans acting as if they are restraining Israel, paradoxically appearing to be Iran’s protector even though they are using the Israeli threat to increase Iranian insecurity. For their part, the Russians initially supported Iran in a bid to bog down the United States in another Middle East crisis. But given Iran’s reversal in Syria, the Russians are clearly reconsidering their Middle East strategy and even whether they actually have a strategy in the first place. Meanwhile, the Chinese want to continue buying Iranian oil unnoticed.
It is the U.S.-Israeli byplay that is most fascinating. On the surface, Israel is driving U.S. policy. On closer examination, the reverse is true. Israel has bluffed an attack for years and never acted. Perhaps now it will act, but the risks of failure are substantial. If Israel really wants to act, this is not obvious. Speeches by politicians do not constitute clear guidelines. If the Israelis want to get the United States to participate in the attack, rhetoric won’t work. Washington wants to proceed by increasing pressure to isolate Iran. Simply getting rid of a nuclear program not clearly intended to produce a device is not U.S. policy. Containing Iran without being drawn into a war is. To this end, Israeli rhetoric is useful.
Rather than seeing Netanyahu as trying the force the United States into an attack, it is more useful to see Netanyahu’s rhetoric as valuable to U.S. strategy. Israel and the United States remain geopolitically aligned. Israel’s bellicosity is not meant to signal an imminent attack, but to support the U.S. agenda of isolating and maintaining pressure on Iran. That would indicate more speeches from Netanyahu and greater fear of war. But speeches and emotions aside, intensifying psychological pressure on Iran is more likely than war.
“War and Bluff: Iran, Israel and the United States is republished with permission of Stratfor.”
By Gil Ronen
Pundits have noticed a toning down of the talk coming from Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu regarding an Iran attack. In the past week and a half, Netanyahu has been talking about the need for the West to set “red lines” that would constitute a casus belli if Iran crosses them. Previously, the messages coming from the Prime Minister were mostly ones signaling Israel’s resoluteness to attack Iran before the U.S elections.
What happened? The most popular theory in Israel’s punditsphere is that Defense Minister Ehud Barak suddenly bailed out of the proverbial ship heading for an attack on Iran. Barak began voicing his trust in the American resolve vis-à-vis Iranian nuclear weapons and said Israel and the U.S. see the matter eye-to-eye.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who is probably the minister closest to Netanyahu, went on Israel’s most highly rated newscast – the Channel 2 Friday evening weekly summary – and laid into Barak in an unusually harsh way. Steinitz raised the possibility that Barak is “stinging” Netanyahu as he stung political allies in the past.
Netanyahu faces an extremely hostile and unabashedly political press at home that militantly opposes an Iranian strike by Israel, as well as pressure by the U.S. and other nations, to refrain from such an attack. However, as long as he had Barak by his side on this matter, he had the political maneuvering room to carry out the attack despite these pressures.
Barak, a former leader of the Labor party, is perceived as a scion of the “Old Guard” leftist elite that ruled Israel until Likud took over, and still does rule Israel through the court system and other institutions, in the eyes of many. Therefore, having him onboard made it easier for Netanyahu to represent an Iran attack as a matter of survival, rather than a partisan political issue.
If Barak has bailed the ship of imminent attack, Netanyahu may feel that he has been left in the lurch without enough support for a strike he sees as vital for national survival – even though it is he, in the end, who can give orders for such an attack, with or without Barak.
There are many other possible explanations, however, for the toning down of the rhetoric from Netanyahu’s quarters.
One is that Netanyahu wants to lay low before he pounces on Iran. Barak’s statements could be part of a scheme intended to lull the enemy into complacency.
Another is that Netanyahu and Barak are more optimistic than they were regarding the possibility that Mitt Romney will replace Barack Obama at the White House. Israel may feel that once a second-term Obama administration is in place, the U.S. will be much more openly hostile to the Jewish state and may take active diplomatic or military measures to stymie a preemptive Israeli strike on Iran. If, however, Romney is elected, the chances that the U.S. would allow Israel to face Iran alone are much smaller.
Yet another possibility is that Israel has been given a commitment of some kind by Obama behind the scenes, and that this commitment convinces it that it will not have to face Iran alone.
Perhaps is that a military development on the ground or a secret technological advance are making Israel more confident that the Iranian challenge will be dealt with effectively before it can make a nuclear bomb.
All of the above are no more than informed speculations, however. It should be noted that the change in rhetoric is not a complete one, and that an Israeli attack on Iran is still possible at any time.