Home inFocus Advice to the Next President (Fall 2008) Facing Down Iran

Facing Down Iran

Ari Rudolph and Sarah Stern Fall 2008

Dear Mr. President,

You are taking office during a perilous time. Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, acknowledged in April of this year that the Islamic Republic is installing 6,000 more centrifuges to enrich uranium. Elements within this dangerous regime, who would like nothing more than to enable the “coming of the Twelfth Imam” through a messianic apocalypse, may have found its modus operandi—the nuclear bomb. Thus, no issue will be more pressing during your presidency than the Iranian nuclear standoff. How you handle this threat will define your legacy.

The Iranian Challenge

Of the thousands of nuclear weapons currently in existence, only two have been used in non-training exercises—and only to end World War II. The world’s nuclear powers (U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France, India, Pakistan, North Korea, and probably Israel) have been careful, thus far, to ensure that all atomic weapons are safely tucked away—although some questions remain about Russia’s nuclear security. This is something that cannot be guaranteed if Iran’s mullahs acquire nuclear weapons. Indeed, they relentlessly call for the annihilation of Israel, America, and the West.

Moreover, if Shi’ite Iran attains nuclear weapons, surrounding Sunni states will undoubtedly respond to the threat by seeking weapons of their own. Consequently, there exists a very real potential for a deadly arms race. According to a May 2008 report by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, at least 13 Middle Eastern countries—Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Oman, Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Turkey, and Yemen—have either announced new plans to explore atomic energy or to revive pre-existing nuclear programs. Bradley Bowman, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee earlier this year that consequent to the Iranian procurement, “the future Middle East landscape may include a number of nuclear armed or nuclear weapons-capable states vying for influence in a notoriously unstable region.”

Should the Saudis, for example, one day achieve the technology to produce nuclear power, they too could undertake plans for a covert weapons program. It would be a nightmare scenario if nuclear technology fell into the hands of Wahhabi extremists and other Islamist non-state actors.

Mr. President, in order to prevent the arming of Middle East states and to prevent a multiple-state nuclear standoff, Washington must stop the Iranian nuclear program.

Any Iran strategy should essentially take one of two forms: preemption or deterrence. The former implies stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons; the latter would deter Iran from using those weapons once acquired.


Employing a strategy of deterrence in the face of a nuclear Iran should involve three main tactics: the use of missile defenses; the threat of mutually assured destruction; and Israel’s inclusion into a regional defense organization (such as NATO), or a grouping that is based on shared Western values. For deterrence to succeed, all three tactics must be employed simultaneously.

A technologically advanced missile shield represents the key component of any deterrent strategy. European nations need to be convinced that this technology serves their own interests, (the Iranian Shahab 5 missile may have a range that can reach any point in Europe), and that it would be to their benefit to erect a protective umbrella not just around Israel, but also around all of the free world. One problem with the missile shield, however, is its accuracy rate. What if one missile gets through? A nuclear bomb in Tel Aviv or London would be devastating to either nation.

The second tactic is to rely on MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction. MAD is achieved when two countries, each with the ability to destroy the other, reach a stalemate, and are too scared to strike first. This was believed to have been the case between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. However, the MAD scenario requires rationality on the part of both actors involved (i.e. each side does not want to be destroyed)—something that cannot be assumed when analyzing the behavior of the apocalyptic mullahs in Tehran.

The final tactic—Israel’s inclusion in a regional grouping—poses the same problem as MAD. Iran’s leaders may welcome a “war to end all wars.” However, if Israel (or other Middle East nations) were to join an alliance of democratic, Western nations, while other deterrent factors are employed, war could possibly be averted.

Unfortunately, this deterrent strategy relies on assumptions about potentially flawed technology and questionable Iranian intentions. Preemption may actually pose fewer risks.


There are three types of preemption: political/diplomatic, military, and economic.

The first involves high level talks whereby a carrot and stick approach is employed: Iran is offered incentives to stop enriching uranium while being threatened with punishment if it fails to do so. Diplomatic preemption—also termed “coercive diplomacy”— is currently at a zenith, but has thus far yielded no results. Iran does not take Washington’s threats seriously; it believes that, ultimately, the U.S. will not risk going to war in yet another country.

Economic pressure, the second preemptive option, includes sanctions and embargoes. While these economic punishments have hurt some sectors of Iran’s economy, they have failed to date. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, Iran has benefited substantially from high world oil prices and its “international trade… has increased dramatically over the past few years, reaching nearly $140 billion in 2007.”

Michael Jacobson, an analyst from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, however, maintains that economic pressure has actually been successful. Indeed, the U.S. Treasury has convinced many international financial institutions “that doing business with Iran is risky business.” Many European banks have heeded the call. Chinese and UAE banks are even coming around. However, if pressure is not applied uniformly across all sectors of the Iranian economy, these efforts may be for naught.

The third preemptive option is a military strike on Iran designed to prevent Iran from attaining nuclear weapons. This option is the one that, without a doubt, the international community is most eager to avoid.

Problems with Preemption

Preemptive force poses several serious pitfalls. First, an attack is difficult to justify. After all, Iran only wants what other countries already have. Second, the actual strike would be a logistical nightmare. As of 2004, the IAEA listed at least 22 locations in its “List of Locations Relevant to the Implementation of IAEA Safeguards in Iran.” This does not include other military targets to prevent a conventional response. Given the enormous number of targets, success is not guaranteed.

There are other complications. Assuming a strike is executed without U.N. approval, the diplomatic outcry would be overwhelming. Much of those protests would stem from the fact that oil prices will almost certainly skyrocket to levels never before seen. Moreover, a strike against Iran may prompt the mullahs to order a spate of terrorist attacks by Hezbollah, Hamas, and other client terrorist organizations.

For these reasons, along with a fear of civilian casualties, a military strike is the last option.

The Choices Ahead

As our next president, you will need to reach out to the international community to either pave the way for tougher diplomacy, tougher sanctions, or a potentially difficult military confrontation. Perhaps even a combination involving all three preemptive options should be considered, as each one does not preclude the others.

It must be emphasized that a nuclear Iran will forever change the balance of power in a world already destabilized by militant Shi’ism. Europe will be the key; this is not just Israel’s, America’s, or the Sunni world’s problem.

If diplomacy and sanctions have failed by January 2009, Mr. President, you may inherit the difficult task of easing the way for a preemptive strike, both among Americans and America’s allies. This step will be one you will not relish. However, it will signal to the Iranians that the U.S. is prepared to attack if necessary, and add teeth to our other options. The world will undoubtedly hold its breath while the mullahs decide whether to maintain their defiance or stand down in the face of a mobilized U.S. military.

History, it seems, has chosen you to lead us through these perilous waters.

Sarah Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET). Ari Rudolph is a Senior Fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth.