ASCF Report | 10.1.13
By Alan W. Dowd
Iran’s new political leader,
Hassan Rouhani, has launched a charm offensive aimed at convincing the West
that Tehran has turned over a new leaf—and that it’s time to lift the sanctions
that have crippled Iran’s economy. But if Tehran’s tactics have change, its
goals have not. Although Rouhani has struck a less belligerent tone than his
predecessor, the real power in Iran continues to reside in the supreme
religious council, which remains committed to joining the nuclear club. After
all, the centrifuges continue to spin.
The IAEA concludes that Iran
“has carried out activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device.”
In fact, to conceal its progress toward the nuclear finish line, Iran recently paved over a
massive military site where nuclear-weapons experiments were conducted, making
it virtually impossible for IAEA inspectors to test soil samples for telltale
signs of weapons-grade nuclear material. U.S. and European intelligence agencies
estimate that Tehran could produce weapons-grade plutonium by 2014. In August, a Sierra Leone man was nabbed in a sting
as he tried to sell 1,000 tons of yellowcake uranium to Tehran.
In tandem with its nuclear
program, Tehran is standing up a sophisticated missile program. Satellite
imagery reveals that Iran has constructed new launch sites
for long-range missiles. The Pentagon reported in 2012 that Iran may be able to flight-test an
ICBM by 2015. And the British government revealed in
2011 that Iran had carried out tests of missiles capable of delivering a
nuclear payload. Add it all up, and the product is a gathering threat to
U.S. national security.
President Barack Obama warns,
“A nuclear-armed Iran is not a challenge that
can be contained.” He’s right about this. The rules of containment and
deterrence simply don’t apply to Iran’s government—a regime that uses terrorism
as a tool of foreign policy. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin
Netanyahu explains, “Deterrence worked with the Soviets, because every time the
Soviets faced a choice between their ideology and their survival, they chose
their survival. But deterrence may not work with the Iranians once they get
If we read between the lines, Israel and the United States agree that once Iran
adds a nuclear weapon to its arsenal, it will be too late, which means Israel
or the United States—or both—must be prepared to take action to prevent Iran
from joining the nuclear club. If that’s the given, to what degree should the
United States be involved? Reagan’s presidency offers some helpful lessons.
First things first: let’s put to rest the notion held by some revisionists that
Reagan would take a hands-off approach to this mushrooming threat. After all,
it was Reagan who said, “For the sake of humanity, we must be willing to
undertake military action and covert operations to prevent the spread of
nuclear knowledge and weapons to terrorists and hostile states.”
Reagan’s example reminds us
that there are many levers of American power—and hence, many ways America could
support counter-proliferation efforts against Iran’s nuclear program.
War by other means
It’s worth noting that Israel and
the United States have already conducted counter-proliferation operations
against Iran. They just happened to do so in cyberspace. The Stuxnet computer
virus targeted the computers that run Iran’s uranium-enrichment program
and centrifuges. The good news is that Stuxnet hindered Iran’s nuclear program;
the bad news is that it only delayed an Iranian bomb—and once Stuxnet was
exposed, Tehran hardened its systems against follow-on cyberattacks.
More can be done. For example, given what Iran has
perpetrated against U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s time for
Washington to show Tehran that two can play the proxy-war game. That was the
message Reagan sent with his aid-to-anticommunists program. The mullahs, like
the Soviets, have many enemies. Some are in neighboring countries; some are in Iran; some appear to be already at work targeting the regime. Perhaps some are
worthy of America’s quiet support. Just as Reagan sent Stinger missiles to
fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and fax machines into Poland to aid
Solidarity’s struggle against Moscow’s puppets, the U.S. should quietly send
satellite dishes, laptops, smart phones and other technology to help the
Iranian opposition organize a movement to topple their rulers.
One thing America should not be quiet about is the backwardness of the Iranian
regime. Speaking about the Soviets, Reagan argued
that “a little less détente…and more encouragement to the dissenters might be
worth a lot of armored divisions.” Washington should call for an opening of
Iran’s political prisons, an end to the dictatorship of the mullahs, and the
beginning of an Iran that is free and self-governing.
Silence is golden
In 1981, Israel was faced with a fast-evolving nuclear threat from Iraq.
Intelligence indicated that uranium was on its way from France, leaving Israel
with a narrow window for action. In response, Israel launched a preemptive
strike against Saddam Hussein’s Osirak nuclear facilities.
The episode is instructive
for what Reagan did not do. Although the U.S. sent a communication to Israel
expressing muted criticism of the strike, Reagan did not publicly undercut
Israel. “We are not turning on Israel,” Reagan wrote in his diary. He vowed to
protect Israel from U.S. sanctions, noting, “Iraq is technically still at war
with Israel.” He later used his memoirs to add, “I had no doubt that the Iraqis
were trying to develop a nuclear weapon.” Indeed, Israel’s Osirak strike spared
Washington from a nuclear showdown with Baghdad a decade later.
If Israel moves against Iran
alone, Washington at the very least should offer unequivocal public support.
But before letting Israel cross that threshold on its own, the American people
should remember Reagan’s commonsense observation about Iraq being in a state of
war with Israel. In the same way, Iran is at war with the United States. That
was true in 1979-81, when Iran invaded the U.S. embassy and held America
hostage; in 1983, when Iranian-backed terrorists bombed American peacekeepers
in Beirut; in 1996, when Tehran funded the Khobar Towers attack; in 2003-08,
when Iranian-built IEDs killed and maimed American serviceman in Iraq; and for
more than a decade in Afghanistan.
Friends in need
When Argentina invaded
Britain’s Falkland Islands, Reagan ordered his divided national-security team,
“Give Maggie everything she needs to get on with it.” Washington created a
special task force within the Pentagon to coordinate with the Brits; allowed
the British expeditionary force to use U.S. bases for refueling and resupply;
provided Britain weaponry and logistics materials; and, as we learned decades
later, secretly offered to loan the amphibious aircraft carrier USS Iwo Jima to the Royal Navy.
Given that Iran’s nuclear assets are further away from Israel than Osirak,
better defended and more dispersed, Israel will need all the help it can get to
neutralize Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.
Yet Obama’s dithering response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons has
done little to engender confidence among Israeli policymakers. “The theory that
the U.S. will come to Israel’s aid at the last minute, and attack Iran to lift
the nuclear threat, seems less and less likely,” said one Israeli military analyst, citing the
administration’s “weak, hesitant and
vacillating” response to Syria.
The language of force
Further up the ladder, the
Obama administration could borrow a page from Reagan’s Libya playbook, using
limited strikes to send a broader message about U.S. seriousness.
After Qaddafi claimed a vast
swath of the Mediterranean, Reagan ordered the Sixth
Fleet to defend freedom of the seas. When Libya’s air force challenged the
Americans, Reagan authorized the Navy to pursue Qaddafi’s planes “all
the way into the hangar.” U.S. F-14s responded with deadly force, making it
clear to Qaddafi that there would be high costs for flouting international
norms. Soon after,
Reagan ordered airstrikes against Libya’s military and intelligence machinery
to punish Qaddafi for a spasm of terrorist attacks. Qaddafi finally got the
In a similar way, Washington
could decide it has had enough with Iran’s support for the Taliban,
interference in Iraq and Syria, bankrolling of Hezbollah, threats to close the
Strait of Hormuz, deployment of agents into South America, and attempts to assassinate allied diplomats on American soil—and communicate in the only language
terrorists and tyrants seem to understand: force.
The message delivered by force of
arms can be limited (as Reagan illustrated in Libya) or expansive (as Reagan
illustrated in Iran of all places). Most Americans
forget that on a single day in 1988, the United States decimated Iran’s navy. After Iran attacked unarmed oil
tankers, harassed U.S. planes and laid mines that ripped through a U.S.
warship, Reagan ordered a series of punishing military responses against
Iranian naval assets. In the span of a few hours, the U.S. Navy captured an
Iranian ship, set Iranian oil platforms and fast-boat bases ablaze, and
eliminated six Iranian warships.
What’s important to keep in
mind relative to today’s Iran is that Israel and the United States hold more
cards than the mullahs. To be sure, Iran has capabilities—missiles that can hit
American bases, mine-laying boats that can constrict the Strait of Hormuz,
agents that can spread terror—but Iran is surrounded by hostile neighbors:
Israel and Azerbaijan have developed a discreet security relationship that
could be leveraged. Turkey is a NATO ally. Afghanistan is dotted with U.S.
bases. The Persian Gulf is an American lake. Saudi Arabiahas reportedly tested how it would “stand down” its air defenses to make way
for an Israeli strike force.
These options may sound frightening, but we must keep in mind three realities.
First, these and other
contingencies are surely on the books. We know, for example, that the U.S.
military has planned counter-proliferation strikes against Iran. In the
1990s, the Pentagon developed plans for
counter-proliferation strikes against North Korean nuclear sites. And in the
1980s, Reagan himself contemplated preemptive military strikes against Qaddafi’s chemical-weapons arsenal.
Second, these contingencies
must be weighed against the alternatives. As Syria drops chemical weapons and
North Korea tests nukes, we catch a glimpse of a world with WMD-armed tyrants
in ascent—and America in retreat. Given the havoc a non-nuclear Iran has
raised, imagine what it would be able to do with a nuke.
Third, as Washington, TR and
the best way to avoid war is to have the resources and resolve to wage it. A
credible threat of force may be the only thing that gets a tyrant’s attention.
The challenge is
to choose the least bad option. We are rapidly approaching a juncture where
doing nothing is no longer an option. One
thing we know from Reagan’s record is that doing nothing was never an option
*Dowd is a senior fellow with the American Security Council Foundation, where he writes The Dowd Report, a monthly review of international events and their impact on U.S. national security.