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August 15, 2012

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Preparing for the Post-Iran-Strike World … And a New Iran

by Mike M

The United States now faces an unprecedented likelihood that, some time within the next 12 months, it will be dealing with the aftermath of an Israeli strike on the Iranian nuclear program.  And while this has been a looming possibility for years—and countless articles, exercises, and policy discussions have been devoted to the “what if” and “day after” questions—a number of recent reports suggest that the Israeli government is either putting its final bluff on the table, or gearing up for a possible strike this fall.

Reading the relevant sections of David Sanger’s Confront and Conceal is useful, if depressing, background.  Sanger makes clear that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak simply have this bit between their teeth—despite the contrary views, grounded in different readings of the intelligence, of such über-hawks as former Mossad chief Meir Dagan.  These contrarians argue that Iran is not as close to weaponization as Netanyahu and Barak claim, and that a strike would be counterproductive.

The United States, then, is being enveloped by a double strategic dependence—first, on an ally from whom it is politically impossible to show any strategic distance; and second, on a specific leadership cadre within that ally that is imposing its own narrow perspective on an issue.

Iran could make this a lot easier, but it’s just not playing ball.  After stoning the administration’s offer of an olive branch, it has continually refused the chance to sidestep sanctions by agreeing to a compromise.  The Islamic regime seems determined to walk a slow-motion version of Saddam Hussein’s path—effectively halting some degree of its nuclear work (according to some reports), but never being willing to make that decision final, permanent, or public to the degree that would satisfy key members of the international community.  That hesitation guarantees ultimate confrontation.

Which means one urgent thing to do now is to begin considering what the world looks like the day after Israel strikes.  The most extreme versions of a “world on fire” are most likely blown out of proportion.  Nonetheless it is very likely to be a world in which:

  1. Iran is suddenly one or more years further away from nuclear weapons.
  2. Israel feels slightly more secure in that regard—but less secure in the wake of violent and destructive retaliation, both distant (missiles) and close-in (Hezbollah/Hamas rocket and terror attackes) organized by Tehran.  The tradeoff in the Israeli mindset is unclear, especially when weighing the idea that this has all bought merely a postponement, and an ambiguous one at that.
  3. If the case of Iraq is any guide, Iran is vastly more determined to acquire a weaponized nuclear arsenal.
  4. Iran has retaliated in a half-dozen substantial ways—some led by elements of its regime taking their own radical initiative—that inevitably drag the United States into some degree of regional conflict and spark a natural instinct in the U.S. military and national security community to “hit back and teach them a lesson.”
  5. Iran and Saudi Arabia (which has absorbed some of Iran’s retaliatory anger) have entered a more profound and violent stage of perpetual conflict.
  6. Iran’s more extreme regime elements, feeling desperate and surrounded, reach out for partners in the exploding catalogue of extremist groups around the world—being able to offer a whole range of special weapons and materials as part of the bargain.
  7. Internally, a more besieged regime in Tehran will tolerate even less dissent and demand more overt demonstrations of loyalty.

In other words:  The aftermath of a strike will substantially deepen the inability of the Islamic Republic of Iran and some elements of the international community to coexist—and thereby, make it more necessary for countries as diverse as Israel, the United States, Saudi Arabia, other Gulf nations, and perhaps even others like Great Britain, France and Turkey to develop a more overt and ambitious policy of undermining the regime and bringing on a successor.  It is difficult to see the dynamics of a post-strike Iran playing out any other way, unless the leaders of the regime react with a quietude and discretion that seems exceptionally improbable.

How ironic, then, that after beginning his administration with a message to the Iranian people calculated to demonstrate his respect for their sovereign government, President Obama may end his first term (or his administration, depending on events) caught in a spiral of conflict because the very same regime has proven itself too dangerous and irresponsible to be allowed to continue to operate as a sovereign entity.

This would be a rather odd outcome, though—because many experts have long argued that the substantial number of “pragmatic” hard-liners in Tehran would always find ways to wriggle out of fundamental confrontation moments.  And indeed, there is still a sliver of a chance for such instincts to show themselves.  The remaining hope is for some interlocutor besides the U.S. or Israel to reach out to Tehran and say, “This is really it.  Tel Aviv is in the last phase.  You are already losing billions to the sanctions.  You are now about to forfeit decades of investment in your nuclear infrastructure—after which you will still be under sanctions if you don’t allow nuclear inspectors.  So make a deal, compromise, get on with your life.”

The key to such a bargain would be to find some arrangement (nuclear fuel swap etc.) that “sets Iran’s clock back”—delays its nuclear aspirations—by something like the same time frame as an Israeli strike (e.g. one to three years, according to some estimates).  That way Washington can go to Israel and say, Look, you get the same bang for your buck without a strike.  And Iran’s friends/partners can say, You’re going to absorb this much of a delay anyway—take the deal and get some reduced sanctions in the bargain.

Would Tehran agree?  Maybe.  The bigger barrier may be that the Netanyahu crowd is now so far into its own self-defined world of clocks and windows of opportunity that there remains no conceivable deal whose provisions would be rigorous enough to satisfy them.  (And, like the Bush crowd circa 2002, they may be not-so-secretly in love with the idea of striking for its own sake, convinced of the deterrent value of blowing stuff up once in a while.)  In one sense the logic of the bargain sketched out above seems unimpeachable.  But if I were in a Washington policymaking office, I’d start preparing for a post-strike world.  And that means–as fundamental, dangerous, dramatic and arrogant as it seems–what may be destined to become the unavoidable endpoint of current trends:  a strategy to generate, without Iraq/2003-style warmaking, a new sort of governing structure in Iran.

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