Preventive strikes by Iran are very implausible
Do you believe that “the Iranian problem” can be solved by peaceful means?
While there is currently no overt military dimension to Iran’s nuclear program, Tehran’s lack of transparency and unwillingness to provide answers to the IAEA seem to indicate that it wants, at the very least, to possess the capability (technologies, fissile materials, and know-how) to build nuclear weapons quickly – in a year or so – that could make it a “threshold nuclear state”.
The ability to “solve” this “problem” peacefully depends on how important the prospect of becoming a “nuclear threshold state” is to Tehran. If this is not perceived as a vital objective then there is still hope that incentives given by external powers and backed by a strengthening set of sanctions can lead Tehran to reconsider its current policy, even though all previous attempts to find an agreement have failed. If, however, becoming a “nuclear threshold state” is identified not as a secondary objective, but as the primary objective of the Iranian leadership, then the chances for a peaceful solution seem less likely.
Nonetheless, this doesn't necessarily mean that a military option would be effective: the historical record in this regard is, at best, mixed; Iran is much stronger – and bigger – than either Iraq was in 1981 or Syria in 2007; its nuclear program is composed of facilities dispersed in various locations, some of them buried under several dozen meters of rock; its scientific community seems to have accumulated a significant amount of nuclear expertise, most of which would survive both the air and covert assassination campaigns.
How real is a threat of strikes on Iran even though the military purpose of its nuclear program isn’t proven?
When discussing the possibility of an airstrike, a distinction should be made between the United States and Israel, as they seem to be on two separate tracks (at least for now), even though changes, whether they be events or Iranian behaviors, may bring them back on the same track.
Inside the Obama administration, as has been repeatedly stated in the past months by officials from both the Pentagon and the intelligence community, and as was illustrated during Netanyahu’s last trip to Washington, there doesn’t seem to be any appetite for a military operation against Iran in the near term.
On the other hand, I think that we must not underestimate Israel’s determination and sense of urgency regarding Iran’s nuclear capabilities. Seen from Tel Aviv, it seems that the window of opportunity for Israel to cause significant damage to the Iranian facilities using air strikes will be closing by the end of this year. Surely, an Israeli airstrike most probably wouldn’t be able to do more than, at best, delay the Iranian program for a couple of years. However, even such a limited success could be seen by the Israeli leadership as worth the risks of retaliation following a military operation: if everyone in Israel’s security cabinet is firmly convinced that sanctions don’t work, and that whatever the decision they make – either the current strategy or strikes – they will be confronted with a severely degraded security environment, then Tel Aviv may pursue a military option.
In the near term, what should be done to protect the US, Israel and their allies from potential preventive Iranian strikes? May Western interests in Azerbaijan (BTC pipeline, etc.) become targets of Iranian attack?
In the present context, preventive strikes by Iran are very implausible due to their tremendous political and military consequences. The lack of international support for an Israeli air campaign is at least as much a reflection of a general norm rejecting aggression and the use of military force for offensive purposes as it is the result of Tehran’s deliberate policy of ambiguity regarding the finality of their nuclear program. A clear case of aggression coming from Tehran would not only isolate it and alienate potentially supportive states such as Russia, China, or Turkey, but it would also lift the “burden of escalation” from Israeli or Western shoulders. While it is always politically costly to initiate an unprovoked military campaign, self-defense is a right enshrined in the UN Charter. Tehran is most certainly aware that, if anything, launching a preventive attack would have the negative effect of untying its enemies’ hands, considerably increasing their political and military freedoms of action.
Right now Israel, the United States, and their allies in the region already possess the kind of military capabilities that are required to deter or defeat any Iranian conventional military attack. These capabilities, however, prove less effective in deterring Tehran from supporting attacks by irregular proxy groups such as Hezbollah or Hamas. While the possession of nuclear weapons by Iran would have a direct influence on the credibility of Israeli and US deterrence and defense postures, it is not clear whether this would lead Iran to adopt a more assertive or aggressive foreign and security policy.