Over the summer there has been a neo-conservative led effort to propagate the case for attacking Iran militarily.  This trend is exemplified by the cover of September issue of the Atlantic monthly boldly reading: “Israel is Getting Ready to Bomb Iran.” In the issue is Jeffrey Goldberg’s article, “Point of No Return,” in which he illustrates the Israeli view that it has no choice but to commence a bombing interdiction on Iran’s nuclear facilities.  The media commentary arguing the case for bombing Iran strengthen the credibility of Israel’s threat in such a way as to convince the American public and perhaps  the Iranian regime that it is not bluffing. Although this is by no means diplomacy, Israel is engaging in a strategy of sending signals intended to discourage Iran from further developing their nuclear program. In order for the threat to be credible the signal Israel is sending must also have costs.  By issuing threats of attacking Iran, Israel is incurring the cost of appearing irrationally belligerent and reckless toward the vital interests of its allies in the international community, namely the disruption of oil flow in the Middle East caused by armed conflict.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a ceremony unveiling Iran's new long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Tehran. (Reuters)

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a ceremony unveiling Iran's new long-range unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in Tehran. (Reuters)

Such signals in effect may end-up tying the hands of Israel and the United States into actually carrying out an attack when in fact the intent may have only begun as an act of posturing.  Continued media campaigns proposing the “no-other option” scenario increase the consequences of backing down or waffling, setting a path for war which may not have been the intent in the first place.  Such campaigns disproportionately show the benefits of military action compared to the consequences and almost always depict the opposing country as the willful aggressor. But a campaign for war is only viewed negatively as propaganda depending on where one sits and the subsequent preferences followed by that view. In his timeless work, On War¸ military strategist Carl Von Clausewitz once said, “The aggressor is always peace-loving; he would prefer to take over a country unopposed.”  This is the essential crux of the issue, those aligned with Iran’s vital interest view Israel as the aggressor and those aligned with Israel see it vice-versa.

More than just a dispute between two major powers in the Middle East, there is a conflict between rational calculations of cost and benefit and blind emotions that lead to war. The nuclear question is just symptomatic of a larger issue: Iran is a dissatisfied regional power in the Middle East that is challenging the status quo and the distribution of power led by the United States.  The Bush administration and now the Obama administration have used the nebulous expression, “All options are on the table.” Let us explore some of those options along with their present and potential outcomes.

Diplomacy is the least costly option, but arguably the most difficult to achieve. It can be sub-categorized as either secret diplomacy or open diplomacy.  Israel and Iran have a long history of secret diplomacy spanning all the way from the Shah’s time and well into the reign of Ayatollah Khomeini.[1] However, after years of training and equipping Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and more recently Hamas, Iran’s actions against Israel have been more than just bellicose statements propagated by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s denial of the holocaust.[2] Yet such actions circumventing diplomacy are not just one sided.  Just as Israel identifies Hezbollah and Hamas as Iranian proxies, Iran perceives the state of Israel as a proxy for the United States.  As a result, the regime in Tehran has engaged in a three-decade tit-for-tat strategy of retaliation aimed at the U.S. vis-à-vis Israel.  Such retaliation exceeds political and economic grievances caused by sanctions or meddling in the political affairs of Iran for the past sixty years. It is a tit-for-tat retaliation for the U.S. support of dissident groups responsible for attacking Iran.

Up until the Bush administration, the United States was directly engaged in supporting groups such as the Mujahedin-E-Khalq (MeK), a terrorist organization claiming responsibility for the killing of several members of the Iranian Parliament and a failed attempt on current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s life which left one of his arms maimed.  Under the Bush administration, the United States was also supporting the internationally recognized Kurdish terrorist group PJAK and the Sunni Baluchiorganization Jundallah in conducting attacks on Iran. In a change of policy the Obama Administration made a commitment to cease support for groups such as the MeK, PJAK, and Jundallah. President Obama even went further by admitting and somewhat apologizing for U.S. involvement in the 1953 CIA sponsored coup which overthrew the once democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

Such gestures have fallen on deaf ears by the hardliners led by the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and President Ahmadinejad.  Prior to the emergence of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad  the U.S. and Iran were making headway in Track II negotiations led by reformist President Ali Khatami consisting of cultural exchanges and non-official talks.  Yet even those instances came to a halt after President Bush labeled Iran as part of an “axis of evil.”  Under the new Obama administration, relations worsened after candidates Mir Hossein Moussavi and Mehdi Karroubi lost to incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the controversial 2009 election for Iran’s President. The continuation of hardliner policies in Tehran represented by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad assured negotiations would continue to be problematic under the status quo ante.

After a failed attempt at diplomacy, the United States approached the nuclear question with the second least costly option: a U.N.-approved resolution implementing the most stringent sanctions imposed on Iran since Mossadegh’s nationalization of Iran’s oil resources. The purpose of such sanctions has been to force the Iranian regime into ceasing their nuclear program. Although such an action has imposed continued pain upon the general population and increased transaction costs for the regime, up until now it has proven to be equally as unfruitful as the diplomatic efforts of the Obama Administration.  Although the consequences are minimal compared to armed conflict, there are certainly costs incurred by American allies. Turkey, for example, which happens to be a major strategic ally for the United States, will certainly be negatively affected as a major trading partner with Iran, and it displayed its discontent by voting against the U.N. Resolution for sanctions.

Let us explore what the costs would be if the Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities and what retaliation would look like.  First and foremost, Iran has a population of nearly 70 million in a land-mass the size of Texas. Israel has just one-seventh of the population in a land mass approximately the size of Rhode Island. They are around 1500 kilometers distant.  Even with their inferior technology, Iran’s retaliation on Israel would be devastating because of its size.  But more important than Iran’s population, land-mass, and military strength is their strategic location in the Middle East. Forty percent of the world’s seaborne oil shipments go through the Strait of Hormuz, amounting to nearly twenty percent of the total shipments in the world.[3] This narrow passage happens to go through the coast of Iran. In 2008 the Commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, Mohammad Jafari, announced that if Iran were to be attacked, their first act would be to close passage by mining the Strait of Hormuz.[4] The next action stated by representatives of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps would be a bombing of Saudi oil refineries.  Some analysts believe that Iran could further cause havoc by attacking Israel using proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The disruption of oil flow at such a scale would have devastating effects on the world. So although Iran does not yet possess a nuclear weapon, its strategic location and ability to stop the flow of oil allow it to have a deterrent equally or arguably more powerful because the impact would be global and the costs of catastrophically high oil prices would be imposed on almost all countries.

The question remains: Is Israel willing to take the risk of initiating a bombing campaign which could potentially threaten the world’s oil supply and arguably the economies of the world?  Such an act at the present moment appears to be a risky proposition by Israel in the short-term, and appears irrational because the cost it will impose on itself will be higher than the benefit of setting back Iran’s nuclear program through any bombing interdiction. Just as important, such actions will impose tremendous costs for Israel’s allies.  So in conclusion, all options remain on the table, even the use of nuclear weapons, but as a rational player in the international game Israel is not likely to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities because of Iran’s strategic location coupled with its capability to retaliate.

[1] Trita Parsi. Treacherous Alliance: The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, © 2007.

[2] Robert Baer. The Devil We Know: Dealing With the New Iranian Super Power. New York: Crown Publishers. ©2008

[3] http://www.eia.doe.gov/cabs/World_Oil_Transit_Chokepoints/Full.html

[4] http://www.arabianbusiness.com/523163-iran-to-lock-down-strait-of-hormuz-if-attacked?ln=en