Reflections on Dealing with Iran

In a recent article from Foreign Policy magazine entitled "Eight Ways to Deal With Iran," Stephen Hadley -- a current senior advisor for international affairs at the United States Institute of Peace and former national security advisor to President George W. Bush -- generally offers some valuable strategic advice regarding Iran's nuclear regime.

However, Hadley's "Option 6: Launch a limited, and preferably clandestine military strike" appears flawed in some of its reasoning. Under this option, Hadley states the following:

"To best achieve its objectives: ... 3. As much as possible, any military action should not be clearly attributable to the United States or its ally Israel so as to make it harder for the regime to justify publicly a military response, and thus reduce the risk of Iranian retaliation, and make it harder for the regime to use the attack as a rallying point ...

A word on 'hard to attribute.' It is not that a military strike would not be detected by the Iranians -- of course it would. And the Iranians would undoubtedly believe that the United States or Israel was responsible. But the United States would want to conduct the strike in such a way as to make it as hard as possible for the Iranian regime to establish U.S. responsibility publicly. Although U.S. officials would not publicly deny responsibility for the strike, they would not acknowledge it either -- they would just refuse to comment. This is what was done by U.S. and Israeli officials with respect to the Israeli strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007. It allowed Syria's President Bashar al-Assad to decide not to retaliate and, hopefully, would in this case make it harder for Iran to justify a major retaliation -- and give Iranian-supported groups like Hezbollah a reason to reject Iranian pleas to conduct retaliatory terrorist attacks on U.S. or Israeli targets."

This is not realistic. Very few militaries have the force projection capacity to engage in effective operations in and around nuclear sites deep inside Iranian territory. Indeed, the United States is likely the only nation (other than a neighboring state, which could conceivably include Israel) that could -- and would wish to -- engage in such actions with a reasonable chance of success. If there is any form of a physical attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, all serious individuals will know that one of two nations -- or a combination thereof -- were responsible for the activities: the United States and/or Israel. To think otherwise is not rational.

Cyber-attacks (e.g., the Stuxnet virus) are much easier to diffuse and confuse in terms of responsibility, primarily because the source activities can be (read: likely are) external (unless domestic operatives are involved) and also because the software expertise available to develop such codes can be reasonably attributed as potentially arising from any number of global state and non-state actors. Such is not the case for a physical (kinetic) military strike. The options for perpetrators are very limited, as noted above. Based on this reasoning, the United States should not rely on the capacity to obfuscate responsibility for any military strikes on Iran. It would not be only "the Iranians [that] would undoubtedly believe that the United States or Israel was responsible," all right-thinking individuals -- especially the media -- would believe this, and they would undoubtedly be correct.

Regarding "the Israeli strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in 2007," the absence of a Syrian response is less plausibly assigned to any lack of proof regarding the cause of the event, and more plausibly to Syria's awareness that it would stand to lose more by any retaliatory measures against who it knew was the source of the attacks than it would stand to gain by any retaliatory attacks (which -- had they been aimed at Israel -- could have brought the United States into the conflict in defense of Israel). To think that regimes such as that of Syria care what can be proven, or not proven, in the court of public opinion seems an undesirable platform upon which to found national security doctrines that apply to other rogue states.

Hadley goes on to state that "to protect Israel from any Iranian retaliation, the United States could privately inform Iran that Israel was not responsible for the strike and that Iran risks a major U.S. military response for any attack against Israel." One would imagine that Iran would sensibly not believe everything the United States told it regarding the source of an attack. Furthermore, since only two nations appear both capable and desirous of such military strikes against Iran, by the US telling Iran that Israel was not the culprit, the US would effectively be admitting guilt to Iran, thereby justifying an Iranian response against the United States.