The Washington-Based Nixon Center recently held a seminar on Iran, considering various options for dealing with the regime in Tehran, and its nuclear program. The World Tribune finally published a brief summary of the meeting today--better late than never, I suppose. A quick Google search revealed only sporadic press coverage of the event; the Washington Post, for example, completely ignored the event. Perhaps the prospect of writing about a center named for the paper's arch enemy is simply too much to bear.
According to the World Tribune, the Nixon Center's 23 March seminar featured some interesting observations on Iran's nuclear program, and the ability of the U.S. and Israel to interdict it. The bottom line, according to retired Colonel Patrick Lang (former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency's Middle East section) is that only the U.S. has the military power to conduct the sustained air campaign needed to disrupt Tehran's nuclear effort. He calculates that it would take at least "1,000" combat sorties to inflict sufficient damage on Iran's nuclear program to set the program back a few years. Lang emphasized that the goal of any military effort should be to significantly delay or disrupt Tehran's nuclear efforts, suggesting that it would be virtually impossible for airpower to permanently halt the program.
Regarding a preemptive Israeli attack, Lang observed that the Jewish state lacks the military resources to mount a sustained air campaign against Iran. That may be true, but his assessment of Israeli intentions is a bit off the mark, in a couple of respects. First, the Israelis believe they can inflict enough damage to disrupt the program by a few years--simply by targeting a handful of key facilities, with a relatively small strike package (say, less than 30 aircraft). Such a plan leaves little margin for error, but the Israelis believe they can be successful.
Other Israeli options--previously discussed in this blog--envision a commando attack accompanying the air strikes, increasing the risk for its military forces, but improving overall prospects for success. The IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) have invested heavily in developing a capability to strike Iran, primarily through the acquisition of the F-15I long-range strike fighter and the Jericho II medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). It would be a mistake for Tehran--or anyone else--to underestimate Israel's ability and willingness to target Iran's nuclear program. Lang (a former Army officer) is apparently out of his element in discussions about airpower; for example, he downplays the prospects of an Israeli airstrike because the Israeli Navy lacks aircraft carriers. Simply stated, the Israelis don't need a Nimitz-class carrier to hit Tehran; just a force of 20-30 F-15Is and F-16s, refueled in flight by KC-707 tankers. That force would be sufficient to hit key targets at Iran's four major nuclear facilities, and (if successful)inflict significant damage. The unknowns in that equation are (a) the number of covert nuclear sites, located away from the primary facilities, and the ability of the IAF to target deep underground complexes using JDAM.
Discussing U.S. capabilities, Colonel Lang seems to be on firmer ground. His estimated number of required sorties is certainly reasonable, if perhaps a bit low. He is also correct in noting that any campaign against Iran would put on strain on U.S. forces in Iraq, as well as American political and military initiatives throughout the Middle East. He also downplayed a potential ground invasion of Iran, saying that "no real army can be sustained by air transportation." That's an indirect slap at the Navy, hinting that our fleet would be unable to sustain navigation through the Strait of Hormuz. In reality, it would be Iran that would be hard-pressed to close the Strait. The U.S. could mount an invasion of Iran--the real problem is finding enough "boots," with much of the Army currently tied up in Iraq.
On the political front, Ray Takeyh, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, described the Iranian public as "apathetic," with no serious opposition groups that could engineer regime change from within. He described the central government in Iran as 'strong" and suggested that the theocratic regime will be around for some time to come.
Does any of this sound familiar? In the late 1980s, we were saying similar things about the former Soviet Union, particularly in regard to the supposed resilience and durability of the communist government. During those days, the conventional wisdom was "negotiate with the Soviets, they're here to stay." Twenty years later, a similar strain of though seems to be emerging on Iran. The military option is unthinkable (to some degree) and the regime seems impervious to change. We need to talk with the Iranians, not provoke them.
Thankfully, leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher saw beyond the Soviet facade, and chose a more direct approach, hastening the demise of communism in eastern Europe. In some ways, the menace posed by Islamic fascism sponsored by Iran is an even tougher challenge, but it is not insurmountable. We need to encourage domestic opposition groups, develop military options that are viable, and engage Iran on clear, unwavering terms. If we don't the terrorist cancer that originates in Tehran will continue to metastisize and grow, creating dire security implications far beyond the Persian Gulf. Unfortunately, the rhetoric expressed at the Nixon Center is reflective of increasingly timid thinking--and action--toward Iran, something that encourages (rather than discourages) the government in Tehran.