From Chuck Freilich
Thirty years ago, in his magnificent book on Perception and Misperception, Robert Jervis argued that people’s views are self-reinforcing. Once we believe something to be the case, we further develop an array of arguments to discount those pesky doubts that we may harbor and to fully convince ourselves that our initial position is indeed correct. Opponents of military action against Iran thus tend to be believe that its negative consequences will be broad and severe, whereas those who believe that action may be necessary, if not preferable, tend to believe that the costs are far more limited. Of course, we may all be wrong.
But before I offer my own assessment of costs, here is the good news. As I recently wrote in the Jerusalem Post, Iran is highly vulnerable to external pressure and we may never have to reach the stage of military action, if the West gets its act together. What is needed is a comprehensive policy of heavy sanctions, combined with a big diplomatic carrot.
To this end, I believe the United States should seek to fully engage Iran and offer a “grand bargain,” an array of incentives, in exchange for the nuclear program. Those who take a hard line on Iran should be especially supportive of a policy of engagement. Only if the United States exhausts all diplomatic possibilities, does it stand to gain support for major economic sanctions, let alone future military action. Iran will probably reject the offer, as it has all others, but we will only know if the option is pursued, and it is a vital way station on the road to stronger measures. Talking to Iran does not have to imply acquiescence or appeasement; it would only be a “Munich” if so conducted.
However, the United States and the West should engage from a position of strength, by imposing stringent sanctions now, such as heightened restrictions on trade credits, international banking transactions and investments in Iran. Moreover, Iran imports 40 percent of its refined gasoline products. If the West banned these sales, its economy could be brought to its knees. Oil exports make up 80 percent of Iran’s state budget. Were imports of Iranian oil banned, its economy would be brought to a standstill. Iran’s automobile industry is domestically produced, except for engines. Cut sales of engines and its economy would be greatly weakened. Should these and other measures fail, or sufficient international cooperation not be forthcoming, the United States could unilaterally impose a naval embargo on Iran, which would have the combined affect of most of these measures and then some.
Only if this, too, failed, would there be a need to consider direct military action, primarily an aerial operation, with little or no ground forces. (I believe that any such action need not be nearly as broad as some have suggested. The number of critical nodes is small.)
Those who vociferously oppose and fear the use of force against Iran anticipate “disastrous” consequences (The New York Times) or a regional conflagration (IAEA chief ElBaradie). Military action will incur costs for the United States, but far from being “disastrous,” or even heavy, I believe they will probably be limited. We should not engage in unwarranted and self-deterring risk aversion, or forget who wields the incalculably greater “stick.” Iran certainly will not.
What would be Iran’s likely response? There is little doubt that Iran will respond to a direct attack, or a blockade, but its options, heated rhetoric notwithstanding, are actually limited. What can it do in the Gulf? Attack American ships, block the Gulf? It might deliver a pinprick for the sake of appearances at home, but beyond that, the risks of escalation and the costs to Iran’s economy are too great. Iran is extremist, but not irrational. It knows perfectly well that any serious moves against U.S. forces, or an attack on Saudi oil wells, would result in a massive American retaliation. Does Iran want to invite an American attack on its oil installations as well? The nuclear sites are not enough? Who truly wields escalation dominance? Yes, oil prices will further skyrocket and Iran could add to the crisis by cutting output. But anything beyond limited temporary measures would be tantamount to Iran’s cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Iran may very well cause the United States greater difficulty in Iraq, and increased terror can be expected against U.S. and Western targets there. It is highly unlikely, however, that Iran would be willing to go beyond limited actions and risk direct military escalation—not when the United States has 150,000 soldiers on its doorstep. What some view as 150,000 American targets, look far more like a strike force to Tehran. Unlike the insurgency in Iraq, in this case we are talking about missions of the kind that the U.S. military has already been proven to be trained and equipped for. Moreover, U.S. preparations can greatly reduce, though not eliminate, the dangers of Iran’s potential responses, on all levels.
Iran is far more likely to respond against Israel, indeed, to open up with everything it, Hezbollah and Hamas have: large scale terror, rocket attacks blanketing Israel, ballistic missiles. Israel may pay a heavy price, and there is a significant danger of confrontation with Hezbollah, Hamas and, conceivably, Syria. It is a price Israel should be willing to pay.
Finally, there will undoubtedly be a strong public reaction in the Muslim world, though Arab regimes will be quietly relieved to be free of a nuclear Iran and will presumably be able to contain popular fury. If the United States plays out the diplomatic route first, international reaction will be muted.
Of course, even a fully “successful” strike would only destroy the known program. Iran, having largely mastered the technology, might be able to reconstitute it. A two-year reprieve may not be worth even the limited costs outlined above. But five years probably would be.
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