Scowcroft, Brzezinski Call for Clear Thinking on Military Action on Iran
Today a senior group of bipartisan security experts at the highest levels – retired Cabinet secretaries, diplomats, military leaders and intelligence specialists – released a comprehensive study on the potential costs and benefits of a military strike on Iran. The group issues a sober warning that “a foundation for clear thinking about the potential use of force against Iran” is lacking in the public discussion to date. Signatories include Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard L. Armitage, Col. Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Chuck Hagel, Gen .Anthony C. Zinni, Leslie H. Gelb, Lee H. Hamilton, Ellen Laipson, Adm. William Fallon, Amb. Thomas R. Pickering, Amb. William Luers, and others. Other analysts have recently sounded the same alarm. While the Iran Project report explicitly does not make policy recommendations, CSIS’s Anthony Cordesman concludes in his recent study, “The best way out is successful negotiations.”
A military strike likely to delay, not prevent a weapon – while also increasing Iran’s motivation to attain a bomb. The Iran Project report finds, “U.S. policy statements indicate that the objective of military action against Iran would be to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. … a military action involving aerial strikes, cyber attacks, covert operations, and special operations forces would destroy or severely damage many of Iran’s physical facilities and stockpiles. But in our judgment, complete destruction of Iran’s nuclear program is unlikely; and Iran would still retain the scientific capacity and the experience to start its nuclear program again if it chose to do so.” The group echoes conclusions of Israeli and U.S. intelligence by concluding, “We believe that extended military strikes by the U.S. alone or in concert with Israel could delay Iran’s ability to build a bomb by up to four years—if the military operation is carried out to near perfection, with all aircraft, missiles, and bombs working to maximum effect. A military strike by Israel alone, with its more limited military capacity, could delay Iran’s ability to build a bomb for up to two years. The distinction between preventing and delaying Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon would be a critical one, when considering the objectives of war.”
The Iran Project signatories add, “we believe that military action probably would reduce the possibility of reaching a more permanent political resolution of concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. In fact, we believe that a U.S. attack on Iran would increase Iran’s motivation to build a bomb, because 1) the Iranian leadership would become more convinced than ever that regime change is the goal of U.S. policy, and 2) building a bomb would be seen as a way to inhibit future attacks and redress the humiliation of being attacked.” [Iran Project, 9/13/12]
A strike on Iran would not be short, simple or “surgical.” Contrary to the common misperception, the Iran Project signatories “are assuming that the U.S. would deploy a full array of aircraft and conventional weapons against Iran, in standoff strikes that could last for several days or weeks, or longer.” The report explains, “Such an action would include first destroying Iranian air defense and command and control facilities, which are generally regarded as relatively old and unsophisticated, in order to assure accurate and effective attacks on intended targets with low American casualties. For attacking deeply buried targets, like Iran’s Fordow enrichment facility (which is 200–300 feet underground), the U.S. would use its B-2A stealth bomber armed with the GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), a 30,000-lb “bunker-busting” bomb. Experts disagree about whether or not a bomb of this sort is capable of destroying or merely damaging the Fordow facility. The United States would also have the option of using missiles, drones, and special operation forces to reach some high-value targets… The U.S. would need to rely on its own intelligence to determine the accuracy of completed strikes and the degree of damage to key targets, since Iran would almost certainly move quickly to expel inspectors from the IAEA… If initial U.S. actions fail to produce the desired damage or if the list of targets grows once strikes begin, more sorties and multiple waves of attack would be necessary, extending the duration of the campaign.” [Iran Project, 9/13/12]
The costs of a strike on Iran would be enormous and “very destabilizing.” Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, has warned of the instability a strike could produce: “The U.S. is aware that the action of a military strike could be destabilizing for the entire Middle East region and potentially generate a nuclear weapons race in that part of the world…I think an attack would also be, by us or by anybody else, be very destabilizing.” The forms of such instability may likely include:
[Mike Mullen via CSIS, 9/10/12. The Iran Project, 9/13/12. Anthony Cordesman, 9/10/12. Gregory Newbold via AP, 9/13/12. International Campaign for Human Rights, 7/25/11]
Severe economic consequences: The study by the Iran Project explains, “Despite the overmatch enjoyed by the U.S. Navy and possible coalition partners, Iran might succeed in closing the Strait for days or even weeks by deploying a substantial number of mines and then using its naval forces and land-based anti-ship missiles to hinder efforts at clearance. Such an outcome obviously would drive oil prices higher.” Even modest increase in oil prices would result in severe economic consequences. As Cordesman highlights, “a sustained US$ 10/barrel increase in the price of oil could lower growth of global GDP by 0.5 percentage points (pct pts) in the subsequent year.”
The risk of the conflict escalating to “full scale combat:” Iranian retaliation could be extensive. According to CSIS, “Iran most probably will accuse Israel to be part of the Strike and will try to retaliate, either by launching a Ballistic Missile on Israel carrying conventional or WMD (chemical, biological, radiological) and activating Hezbullah to launch cross border attacks against Israel…Iran would also try to attack any U.S. military airbases that are active in the Gulf even if they are stationed in GCC countries.”
Given the probable severity of the Iranian response to a strike, the Iran Project’s warning is especially chilling: “Any Iranian retaliation could lead to Israeli or U.S. responses that in turn might provoke additional Iranian responses. The consequences are uncertain, but an escalation spiral certainly could result, with either or both sides taking actions that neither side contemplated before an initial strike—particularly since what one side sees as a completely justified retaliation may very well be perceived by the other side as a deliberate escalation. Given the “fog of war,” high levels of mutual distrust, the absence of communication among regional combatants, and the ability of events to overtake even the most careful planning, miscalculation and uncontrollable escalation to full scale combat cannot be discounted.”
Regional turmoil: Iran Project signatory Lt. General Gregory Newbold (retired) tells the Associated Press: “Planners and pundits ought to consider that the riots and unrest following a Web entry about an obscure film are probably a fraction of what could happen following a strike — by the Israelis or U.S. — on Iran.”
A strike would have “ruinous consequences” for human rights in Iran and undermine American influence. A study by the International Campaign for Human Rights warns that “an attack on Iran, no matter how limited in scope, would have ruinous consequences for Iranian society by entrenching the authoritarian regime, intensifying human rights abuses and likely thwarting the democratic aspirations of a large portion of the populace. With a military attack, the United States risks provoking the ire and distrust of the segment of Iranian society most open, and least adverse, to the United States and its allies. The United States would lose much of its ability to influence human rights developments in Iran, while prolonging US-Iranian hostilities for another generation.”
What We’re Reading
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The new Somali president Hassan Mohamud survived unharmed a suicide bombing that killed 8 people.
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Cuba said it is ready to negotiate with the U.S. on the case of the American contractor Alan Gross, who has been detained since 2009.
A group of conservatives in the U.S. House of Representatives called for foreign aid to Libya and Egypt to be stripped from a six-month federal funding bill.
Commentary of the Day
Ambassador Wendy Chamberlin, Major General (ret) Paul Eaton, Brian Katulis and Tom Malinowski contextualize the violence in Libya and Egypt.
Ed Husain argues the West must puncture the worldview among many Arabs that the U.S. is at war with Islam.
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