The long U.S. military presence in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt is likely drawing to a close. What once worked to assure stability in the region and keep the oil flowing will not work in the face of Iranian nuclear capability, and the administration is disinclined to rethink a workable strategy. The United States will likely reengage, but only when the resulting chaos spreads to our shores, as it surely will.
How different it was twenty-five years ago this month, when President Bush (41) said Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait “would not stand.” American and allied forces rushed to the battlefield despite concerns about Iraq’s unconventional weapons — primarily poison gas, which had already been used against the Kurds in the north. But Israel provided a counter-threat to Saddam, letting him know that if Israel were threatened with chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons it would join the war. It was a threat Saddam took seriously, as his nuclear program at Osirak had been destroyed by Israel a decade earlier.
Israel’s counter-threat worked. Iraq fired some 80 Scud missiles at Israel and Saudi Arabia. None had chemical or biological warheads; and, of course, none were nuclear.
Without actually fighting, Israel proved to be a key security asset that allowed American troops to operate with relative freedom against Iraq.
Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, on the other hand, will similarly constrain American military planning, but this time Israel will not be able to offer a counter-threat. In the simplest terms, the U.S. facing a nuclear Iran will either have to significantly change how it deploys to the Middle East and Persian Gulf, or get out of harm’s way. The weakening of the overall American military posture under sequestration makes the latter most likely.
There are a number of factors that need explication:
- Prior to the Israeli strike on Osirak, Iran had sent its own Phantom jets to try to knock out Iraq’s centrifuge facility adjoining the reactor; reports have it that the Iranians also shared photo reconnaissance with Israel of their raid to help Israel pinpoint the right targets and finish the job. Israel’s strike caused a firestorm in American policy circles because Washington had a secret relationship with Saddam Hussein and was turning a blind eye to the transfer of nuclear technology to that country. But Iraq could never be sure whether/when Israel would strike again. Thus Israel created an enforceable red line. The U.S. has none with Iran.
- The Shah of Iran was after nuclear weapons and delivery systems. The work started by the Shah simply continued under the Mullahs. As with Iraq, technology from many countries, Western and otherwise, flowed into Iran and is still pouring in. The scope of the Iranian nuclear drive dwarfs anything Iraq attempted.
- All “wannabe” nuclear powers follow multiple paths to weapons development. No country can afford to risk everything on a single solution that could fail for technical reasons, be blocked politically, or destroyed by a hostile force. Iran may be unique because it has positioned some of its nuclear weapons development capabilities outside the country, most notably in Syria where there were at least three sites, one of which was destroyed by Israel, and North Korea. Iran also has a very sensitive relationship with South Africa, which has highly enriched weapons grade uranium, enrichment facilities, and knows how to build nuclear weapons.
- Once Iran reaches nuclear weapons operational capability, if the United States wants to continue as the guarantor of regional stability it will have to introduce active nuclear forces into the region as a deterrent. Or, alternatively, it can decide to pull back from the area. But no responsible American planner can overlook the fact that Iran can achieve an operational capability in perhaps as little as five years. Not for nothing did the Obama administration keep the Pentagon out of the Iran negotiations. President Obama and Secretary Kerry were seeking a political — not a military — deal. The JPCOA is not an arms control agreement.
- This leaves Iran as an emerging nuclear power facing Israel, which is also a nuclear power. What isn’t clear is whether the Israelis can risk a nuclear Iran or whether Israel has to conjure a way to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities. Prime Minister Menachem Begin acted on multiple fronts to kill the Iraqi program: before Osirak was taken out, Saddam’s nuclear accomplices in Europe were raided and bombed and at least one top Iraqi scientist was killed in France. Iran is much farther down the road than Iraq was and it has moved some of its assets offshore — in some cases to points outside Israel’s reach, i.e., North Korea. Europe will likely step up its cooperation with Iran to supply nuclear knowhow, just as the Russians are upping the ante.
An American pullback from the Gulf is not anathema to the Obama administration or to the American public, and one can argue it has already happened. The U.S. is gone from Iraq and nearly so from Afghanistan. It is no longer either the protector of European and Asian energy supplies or the strategic partner of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, or Israel. Middle Eastern oil is no longer essential to the United States, which is nearly energy independent. Americans generally see no reason to protect oil resources for other countries, and are horrified by a culture war in the Middle East that is entirely alien to American values. The American public may be inclined to accept a decision that the U.S. can reduce its posture in the Gulf and not seek to play a significant military role in the area.
This is an uncomfortable and dangerous situation and without some dramatic intervention does not augur well for the future. The spread of chaos under Iran’s nuclear shield will ultimately require a return of U.S. power, but it will happen under conditions far less favorable.