Responding to my last post about Iranian options for responding to an Israeli strike, a friend observed that I neglected to discuss Iran's increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile capability. Iran has at least dozens and possibly hundreds of medium-range ballistic missiles that could reach Israel. Even with conventional explosives, this is a serious concern, especially if they struck Tel-Aviv and other Israeli populations centers. Saddam's missile strikes on Israel in the first Gulf War were primarily a fizzle. But the knowledgeable observers believe that Iran's program is far more advanced and at least some in the Israeli defense establishment are worried.
Of course, unleashing large numbers of deadly accurate ballistic missiles would do little to inspire international confidence that Iran is completely. After an Israeli strike, Iran would reap international sympathy, particularly among many general publics around the world. Governments would feel differently. These governments may not like Israel much, but they would respect that Israel's action was based on sober intelligence estimates. If Iran demonstrated a sophisticated ballistic missile capability, many governments at around the world would become very concerned about Iran's intentions. Missiles that can reach Israel can reach Europe as well.
Iran has a credible response that does not depend on proxies, but using it might have serious consequences. Of course Iran's leadership may feel the need to respond due to its own domestic pressures, and Israel would have to prepare for that – although it remains unclear if the Israelis are seriously preparing to strike or if talk of a strike is simply a ploy to keep international pressure on Iran.
Ultimately, political decisions are difficult ones in which leaders have to make determinations about which option is least bad. A nuclear Iran is a very bad outcome, but the options to prevent it are, to say the least, imperfect.
Regime change would be nice, but it is not immediately practical. Overthrowing governments is not easy (and an actual invasion would probably be beyond American capabilities) that the US was successful at it in Iran half a century ago, does not mean that it can happen (particularly with an Iranian leadership and populace aware and deeply paranoid of the possibility). Even if it were possible, revolutions take on a life of their own. There are plenty of Westernized advocates for democracy in Iran. These figures communicate easily with Westerners, but when the revolution comes the situation can be remarkably fluid and it is difficult to know what sentiments will prevail. We have seen this as Egypt unfolds. The liberal Facebook youth seemed to be the harbingers of a new Egypt, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis quickly emerged as the real powers on the street.
While there is much to recommend the Solidarity approach (and it is unfortunate that the US has quibbled about supporting Iranian democratizers for the past decade and a half) it is not clear that it can come before Iran acquires a nuclear capability. Further, fear of being overthrown may lead the Iranian leadership to accelerate its efforts to acquire WMD as insurance.
An Israeli strike has some limitations as a policy option. The Israel Air Force would be working at its maximum effective range and may only inflict limited damage. This would delay Iran's program - possibly buying time for other policies to take effect, but would not stop it. Further, it might garner sympathy for Iran and reduce the willingness of the international community to pursue sanctions.
The US could bring far more devastating capabilities to the fore. There are many, many targets but the US has the resources to carry out a sustained campaign, rather than a one-off strike. This could seriously delay the Iranian program (and also hit their ballistic missile program). This would not come without significant costs. The US would use bases in the Gulf and Central Asia, the host countries would be targets to Iranian responses (which could lead them to refuse permission.) Even long-range US based aircraft would need to use air corridors from countries that would be concerned about Iranian retaliation. Plus the United States would be embroiled in yet another war in the Middle East, which would anger people worldwide and complicate American initiatives.
In terms of practically stalling Iran's program this option offers tremendous advantages. Unfortunately it comes at very high costs, and it may fail. If, after the strikes the Iranians maintain a substantial nuclear capacity, they will pursue acquiring a nuclear weapon with an absolute single-mindedness.
Another option is the status quo, this is not without it's advantages. In fact, I've argued (among others) that the primary purpose of Israeli threats is to maintain the status quo in which significant sanctions are harming Iran's economy. In addition, there is a reasonably effective covert campaign against the Iranian program. It is possible that the public aspects (which include cyber-attacks and assassinations) are only the tip of the iceberg. Iranian nuclear capability has been an issue for over twenty years and they have still not built a bomb, if the status quo buys more time at a relatively low-cost it is an effective policy.
But time for what? Are we waiting for the regime to fall or for the sanctions to bite hard enough that the regime is desperate for an agreement?
Finally that leaves negotiations as a possibility. Besides in incredible difficulty in actually carrying them out (an issue I’ll have to leave to experts) it requires the core unpleasant choice. The Iranian regime will demand security guarantees that effectively remove the regime change option. So Tehran may not get the bomb, but the lifting of sanctions will mean the mullahcracy is firmly in place. This may be preferable to an Iranian bomb – but it is not a good outcome.
There is the possibility that in the two-level hall of mirrors that would be US-Iranian negotiations - serious talks with the West would spiral back into Iranian politics in such a way that would empower reformers and any student of history knows that regimes are at their most vulnerable when they try to reform. This could create some interesting possibilities but it will require excellent timing and adroit diplomacy.
With the Soviet Union, the US managed negotiations will also pressing on human rights issues that ultimately undermined the regime. But the mullahs are no fools, they will do whatever they can to take that card out of US hands – in effect their bomb capability is an ace in this poker game from hell.