Iran: The Waiting Option

We may have to use force against Iran. It may provoke clashes or a conflict in the Gulf, or it may refuse any realistic diplomatic solution to its growing capabilities to produce nuclear weapons. If there is anything we should have learned from 10 years of two wars, however, it is that the cautions senior officers like Admiral Mike Mullen and General Martin Dempsey have given about the risks of war are all too accurate. War is the perfect recipe for unpredictable and uncontrollable events, and the primary law of war is the law of unintended consequences.

We do not need another economic crisis triggered by the shock of a massive rise in oil prices or what in the worst case could be several weeks in which the Gulf could not export oil through the Strait of Hormuz. We do not need a slow battle of attrition in the Gulf, and we need to be truly careful about what Iran might do if Israel or the United States launches a preventive attack.

Iran’s options are scarcely good for Iran. It would almost certainly end in escalating its way into even more trouble, but it could hurt us, our Arab allies, Israel, and the world economy a great deal in the process. In broad terms, Iran could choose to:

  • Withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and increase its long-term resolve to develop a nuclear deterrent program.
  • Create an all-out nuclear weapons program with its surviving equipment and technology base, using Israel’s strike and aggression as an excuse to openly pursue a nuclear program.
  • Shift to genetically engineered biological weapons if such a program does not already exist.
  • Immediately retaliate on Israel using its ballistic missile: multiple launches of Shahab-3 missiles, including the possibility of chemical, biological, or radiological (CBR) warheads, against Tel Aviv, Israeli military and civilian centers, and Israeli suspected nuclear weapons sites.
  • Accuse the United States of “green lighting” the Israeli strike and being the real cause of the attacks.
  • Launch political attacks on Arab regimes friendly to the United States, on the grounds they did nothing to prevent an attack on Israel’s greatest enemy.
  • Use allied or “proxy” groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas to attack Israel proper with suicide bombings, covert CBR attacks, and rocket attacks from southern Lebanon.
  • Launch asymmetric attacks against U.S. interests and allies in the Arabian Gulf.
  • Target U.S. and Western shipping in the Gulf and possibly attempt to interrupt the flow of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
  • Attack U.S. forces, ships, or facilities in the Gulf or anywhere in the world as a way of showing that Iran could attack Israel’s closest ally, the “great Satan.”
  • Strike at Israeli or Jewish targets anywhere in the world using Iranian agents or anti-Israeli proxies.
  • Try to use the United Nations and/or World Court to attack Israel for aggression and war crimes.
  • Transfer high-tech air-to-surface and guided anti-armor weapons to Hamas, Hezbollah, or other extreme anti-Israeli groups, and/or provide them with more lethal rockets, unmanned combat air vehicles, and chemical weapons.
  • Seek to use its leverage with Iraq, Syria, and Hezbollah to create an actual “Shi’ite crescent” to create a more intense range of threats to Israel.
  • Try to use the transfer of funds and arms, its Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and other covert means to influence the new regimes coming out of unrest in the Arab world to be far more aggressively anti-Israel.

At the same time, the risks and pressures that could lead to the use of force are growing. U.S. and Iranian competition over Iran’s nuclear programs has spilled over into the entire Middle East, and the world, and is nearing the crisis point. Given the importance of the Gulf in global energy security, Iran’s goals of becoming a regional power, and sociopolitical instability in the Middle East, military competition between the United States and Iran will either force some form of negotiation or continue to intensify to the point where some form of conflict becomes more and more likely.

If the latter occurs, there are no good options. The choice becomes preventive strikes of the kind where consequences are at best unpredictable, or containment and living with what could be a steadily growing regional nuclear arms race.

As has just been discussed, a preventive attack could push Iran toward negotiations. But it could also push it into a major new acceleration of its nuclear programs and the ongoing regional arms race and/or toward asymmetric warfare in the Gulf or against Israel.

Such a nuclear arms race might lead to the creation of some form of military containment that creates a successful mix of deterrence and defense on the part of all the nations involved, but it might equally lead to Iran and Israel targeting their respective populations at a potentially catastrophic level, which would inevitably involve the United States and the Arab states in an ongoing race to find suitable forms of defense, deterrence, and containment.

A failed preventive attack would almost certainly lead Iran to be far more aggressive. A partially successful Israeli attack might do little better. A truly successful preventive attack would have to be carried out by the United States. At least briefly, it would have to be a major air and missile war, and it would probably have to be followed by years of constant patrolling, threats to use force, and occasional re-strikes.

If not, even a relatively successful preventive strike could be a temporary solution at best. The current level of maturity in Iran’s program nearly guarantees that Iran could rebuild its program without such a military overwatch and the willingness to use additional force. Moreover, without such follow-up, a strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure might provide the Iranian regime with a justification to pursue nuclear weapons and drive the program deeper underground.

The best, lasting solution to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs is some form of negotiated political solution—one driven by compromise and a “carrot and stick” approach. Such an approach would consist of offering Iran economic and other incentives to shelve its nuclear program, not simply penalizing it for continuing efforts at weaponization and refusing to comply with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

The risk is all too obvious, however, that the present situation will remain intractable. Over the last decade, negotiations between the United States and its allies, on the one side, and Iran, on the other, have collapsed time and again due to the refusal of both sides to accept the basic demands of the other.

Furthermore, the historical tension between the United States and Iran, as well as an Iranian foreign policy and military doctrine that are centered on neutralizing U.S. conventional power in the region, make it unlikely that Iran will give up the added deterrence, perceived increase in regional influence, and ability to intimidate that only a nuclear breakout capability or deployed nuclear force can provide.

Iran is all too likely to continue to develop its ballistic missile program as both a weapon of intimidation and a means to deliver a nuclear warhead should Iran successfully miniaturize a nuclear device. Given the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles, U.S. installations in the Gulf, U.S. allies in the Middle East, and much of southeast Europe will then be in range of an Iranian nuclear missile.

Grim and uncertain as the prospect is, the United States must then consult with its Arab Gulf and European allies and seriously consider preventive attacks. It should seek to keep Israel out of the equation simply because of the tension any Israeli role would create in terms of Arab reaction and its impact on Islamic extremism and terrorism.

The alternative is containment, and this means that key U.S. allies, the flow of world energy exports, and U.S and global economies would have to live under the growing shadow of an Israeli-Iranian nuclear arms race—moreover, an arms race where the forces involved ensure that the primary targets will be the other country’s population centers.

Accepting the risk of containment requires a belief in Iran’s restraint, in mutual deterrence based on a new regional form of mutual assured destruction, and accepting the risk that other nations will join the race. It involves the risk of some miscalculation or accident triggering a disaster with massive humanitarian and economic costs.

Accepting that risk also means the United States must do everything possible to provide its Arab allies, Turkey, and Europe with missile defenses and to improve Israel’s missile defenses. It means making good on the U.S. offer of extended deterrence to protect other states—potentially dragging the United States into at least the periphery of a regional nuclear arms race and potential nuclear conflict. It also means living with the near certainty of tying the continuing asymmetric arms race in the Gulf, and the constant risk of clashes or more serious conflicts, to the risk of a linkage between Iran’s use of asymmetric warfare and future acquisition of nuclear forces.

This is why the best current option is a “waiting option” that relies on diplomacy, sanctions, and the offer of incentives. It too is filled with risks that will increase on both a short- and long-term basis. It is, however, currently the least bad of a range of bad options, and it does give time for sanctions to work, for dialogue to have an impact, and for the Iranian regime to change its position.

The prospect of such a change really altering Iran’s actions and ambitions is all too uncertain—and many of the claims that the regime is fragile and easy to change seem a triumph of hope and ideology over common sense. Yet, successful negotiations, containment, and waiting do seem to be far better than talking about war as if it had predictable and safe results.

Reprinted with permission from CNN Global Public Square,

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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