No Easy Choices When Facing a Nuclear-Armed Gorilla

This year’s Herzliya conference in Israel has just concluded. The three-day conference on Israel’s security, which drew nearly a thousand participants, was both wide-ranging and intense. Although only a few of the speeches and panels directly addressed the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Iran was the eight hundred pound gorilla behind the scenes in every session.

To say that Israelis are paranoid when it comes to Iran and its fanatical president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who seethes with hatred for Jews and Israel, is an understatement. Although the Obama Administration and America’s milquetoast allies in Europe debate endlessly as to whether or not Iran has nuclear weapons – or the ability to enrich uranium to the threshold level needed for a bomb – Ahmadinejad announced on February 11, at the 31st anniversary of the Islamic revolution, that Iran had become “a nuclear state.”

Anyone who believes that Iran’s nuclear program is for peaceful purposes is either a fool or an Iranian dupe. And the Israelis know that time is running out: If the Iranians do not have a bomb and a workable delivery system today they soon will have both. In addition to possessing the ability to launch a missile attack, Tehran can always provide a nuclear device to a terrorist group – which could then smuggle it into one of America’s great cities and detonate it. Or it could be used, with devastating effect, as the warhead of a short-range missile launched from a rusty freighter lying in international waters off the U.S. coast. The conclusion is obvious: If the United States or Israel wants to do something about the Iranian nuclear program, the window of opportunity is extremely small and narrowing with every passing day.

A Casual Comment at a Memorable Lunch 

A few years ago this author had an informal lunch in Jaffa with a high-ranking former Israeli general and a former head of the Mossad. In Israel, former military and intelligence officials tend to be traditional Labor Party supporters, rather than adherents of the right-wing Likud or one of the minority parties – in large measure because ultra-Orthodox Jews, one of the key constituencies of Likud, do not generally serve in the military or spy services, and are specifically exempted by law if they are studying full time in seminaries. The general who was my lunch companion leaned over and said to me, “The only question [Israel’s major political parties] are united on is Iran. We can absorb only one hit, and we cannot permit that to happen.”

Israel and the United States are rapidly running out of options regarding Iran and the future of its nuclear program. It already is known that Iran possesses intermediate-range missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to Saudi Arabia or to the southern rim of Europe. Not wanting to repeat the mistake Iraq made when it built the above-ground Osirak nuclear reactor – which was bombed by Israel in 1981 – the Iranians have buried their enrichment and other nuclear facilities (at least 16 major sites and as many secondary sites) deep underground. It is now questionable whether all of those sites could be destroyed, even with U.S.-made 30,000-pound bunker busters capable of burrowing far into the earth. As U.S. General David Petraeus has observed, “Well, they (Iran) can certainly be bombed. The level of effect would vary with who it is that carries it out, what ordnance they have, and what capability they can bring to bear.”

The consequences of launching a preemptive attack on Iran, either by Israel or the United States, are troubling at best. Even if Iran’s nuclear program were substantially crippled or totally destroyed, the Iranians would simply start over again – and, because of the knowledge and experience they have already amassed, they could rapidly reestablish their nuclear program. Moreover, in retaliation for an attack, the current regime in Tehran would probably, like a wounded and cornered bear, activate its terrorist resources around the globe and throw them at Israel, the United States itself, and U.S. allies – especially the conservative Arab regimes in the Gulf. Iran is governed by a Kamikaze regime and could reasonably be expected to do everything in its power to make United States pay, and pay dearly, for any preemptive actions taken against Iran.

One also can assume that both Hamas and Hezbollah would launch massive attacks against Israel. Iranian-backed terrorists also would target American embassies and business around the world, and might conceivably carry out attacks in the United States more deadly and debilitating than those suffered on 9/11.

Iran already has threatened to attack the Arab states in the Gulf and to block the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, which is only 29 miles wide at its narrowest point and through which 20 percent of the world’s oil passes. Oil prices would skyrocket and petrol shortages could immobilize entire nations. Numerous already weakened economies could be expected to tighten even more, throwing tens of millions out of work and devastating major stock markets around the world.

Several Options – None of Them Good 

New economic sanctions are unlikely to dissuade Iran from pursuing its nuclear ambitions, and Russia and China are major question marks in terms of their support for more stringent sanctions. The only sanctions regime likely to work, in fact, would have to isolate Iran completely – both economically and politically – from the rest of the world. That option, of course, would have its own risks.

Nonetheless, if the decision is made to attack Iran, the goal must be regime change, and not simply the disruption of the Iranian nuclear program. There have long been tensions between Iran’s military and the Revolutionary Guards, which serve as the private army of the mullahs and not only receive the newest and best equipment but also operate businesses that dominate whole sectors of Iran’s economy. Probably one of the best solutions, therefore, would be to support an army seizure of the government by someone, or some group, ruthless enough to purge the government of the mullahs and their followers.

Any preemptive attack on Iran is likely to have far-reaching and grave consequences. The same can be said, though – even more emphatically – for failing to act and thereby permitting Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. Either way, U.S. intelligence agencies – as well as the nation’s law-enforcement, first-responder, and homeland-security communities – must begin making immediate contingency plans for the worst-case scenarios likely to develop from whatever decisions are made to deal with the Iranian conundrum.

Neil C. Livingstone
Neil C. Livingstone

Dr. Neil C. Livingstone, chairman and CEO of ExecutiveAction LLC and an internationally respected expert in terrorism and counterterrorism, homeland defense, foreign policy, and national security, has written nine books and more than 200 articles in those fields. A gifted speaker as well as writer, he has made more than 1300 television appearances, delivered over 500 speeches both in the United States and overseas, and testified before Congress on numerous occasions. He holds three Masters Degrees as well as a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. He was the founder and, prior to assuming his present post, CEO of GlobalOptions Inc., which went public in 2005 and currently has sales of more than $80 million.



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