Thursday, December 02, 2010

So, when is the US going to attack Iran?

I've come across some commentators who believe the US is not imminently going to attack Iran, but is preparing to do so now. I essentially agree with that view, except that "preparing" has a stronger implication of the an attack eventually and even unconditionally happening than I think is warranted.

By the phrase “preparing for war”, a commentator argues that the US plans, over time, to degrade Iran’s defensive capabilities while increasing its offensive capabilities until it can attack with less harm to US interests.

I think that is the race. Can the US degrade Iran’s defensive capabilities while increasing its offensive capabilities to the point that it is comfortable attacking. The US is giving that a shot because it has nothing to lose in doing so.

If Obama wakes up tomorrow and has a report that surprisingly Iran’s retaliatory options have evaporated, he will order an attack tomorrow. I think, and disagree with some people who believe Iran prevents a US attack by its cooperation with the IAEA or public relations efforts to make its case to the world, that the state of Iran’s defensive capabilities is almost the only factor at this point in determining whether or not a US president attacks Iran.

But while the US has a risk-free gamble that Iran will one day be weak enough to attack, and the US is taking that gamble, I don’t expect it to pay off. The US is preparing to attack Iran but will never be prepared. Once Iran’s ability to have US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan killed is reduced, Iran is likely have other ways to kill US soldiers, based in UAE and Kuwait.

I also want to write that I still think the ability to kill US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan are Iran’s main deterrent. US generals have seemed confident that they could keep the shipping routes reasonably clear in a war and the US has a strategic reserve of oil that it would use to pressure other countries if the flow is disrupted.

By the time the US is out of Iraq and Afghanistan, then there one of three possibilities will happen: 1) Iran will have developed a credible threat to kill US soldiers in bases other than Iraq and Afghanistan 2) Iran will have developed nuclear weapons and a credible way to deliver them either to Israel or US bases 3) Iran will be attacked.

I think 1) and 2) together, are more likely than 3). So I don’t predict an attack.

About an attack. The US does not think an attack could prevent Iran from building nuclear weapons, but instead could delay it for the amount of time it would take to build more centrifuges and set them up and make new fissile material.

The US would take a delay in Iran’s nuclear program if there was no cost. The US does not attack Iran today because it values the US lives it would lose more than it values what it publicly calculates as a two or three year setback in Iran’s nuclear program.

I don’t think the delay would actually be two or three years, especially if LEU is partially recoverable after an attack which seems plausible. And certainly if Iran has enough notice of an attack to put its already enriched LEU somewhere secure. But whatever the delay is, now, when Iran would kill US soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan in response, it is not worth it.

Once the soldiers are gone, the US could attack Iran for free. It would have a chance of harming Iran’s nuclear program and even if it doesn’t work, the US would not have lost anything. “Free” gambles characterizes the US approach to Iran’s nuclear program. The sanctions, aiming for preventing nuclear capability, killing scientists, the color revolution, these are all things that are unlikely to work, but trying them has no consequence for the US so it does.

These no-cost attacks on Iran will continue until Iran can develop and communicate immediate consequences for US actions. Until Iran establishes that the US has something to lose.

I think that over the medium term, Iran can deter a US attack if it establishes a way to kill US soldiers in the region even after the US leaves Iraq and Afghanistan. If not, those who argue that the US will eventually attack Iran are right. Not necessarily to end Iran’s program or even to delay it, but as a no-cost gamble where if it hurts Iran, good and if it does not, the US has not lost anything.

I still do not see an attack while there are substantial US troops in Iraq and/or Afghanistan.


Arnold Evans said...

I find myself fairly often, sometimes once a day, sometimes more often than that writing long comments over at

I've decided to experiment with converting some of the longer ones into free-standing posts here.

lidia said...

welcome back, Arnold.

Very interesting analysis. My two cents though - if USA is going to wait till they have no troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Iranians could sleep unditurbed. I just cannot see USA leaving those places anytime soon.

On the other hand, USA troops could be booted out of Iraq and Afghanistan, but in such case I doubt that attacking Iran would be a priority to USA.

Arnold Evans said...

Lidia, the game is basically over. I can't come up with a plausible way, today, that the US could prevent Iran from building a nuclear weapon if Iran chose to build one.

This situation is only moving in Iran's favor from here.

The reason the US doesn't evacuate Iraq and Afghanistan now so that it can safely attack Iran is that if the US evacuates, Iran will harden its nuclear program, the US will not be able to meaningfully attack, and will have evacuated Iraq for nothing.