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Why a U.S. Attack Against Iran Is Unlikely Why a U.S. Attack Against Iran Is Unlikely

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National Security

Why a U.S. Attack Against Iran Is Unlikely

Two retired U.S. senior Persian Gulf experts--one a diplomat, the other a Navy admiral--said at separate events on Tuesday that a military strike against Iran's nuclear sector appears both inadvisable and unlikely, at least for the time being (see GSN, June 7).

The possibility that Washington would launch an attack against Tehran "seems to be as close to zero as one can get it, for which I'm deeply happy," said Thomas Pickering, a career ambassador who also served as undersecretary of State for political affairs from May 1997 to December 2000.


Although the situation could change, the use of force seems unlikely for the remainder of President Obama's current term in office, Pickering said at a panel discussion sponsored by the Arms Control Association.

William Fallon, a retired admiral who headed U.S. Central Command in the Middle East and South Asia, weighed in on the same matter in remarks minutes later at a different forum.

He said there is probably "little chance" of a U.S. or Israeli strike against Iran, adding that "we ought to be working pretty hard to focus on other things that would have us in a different place."


The remarks came on the heels of an announcement on Monday by Yukiya Amano, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog chief, that there are new indications that Iran has engaged in weapons-related atomic activities.

The International Atomic Energy Agency has acquired "further information related to possible past or current undisclosed nuclear-related activities that seem to point to the existence of possible military dimensions to Iran's nuclear program," Amano told his organization's 35-nation board of governors.

The agency released a report last month saying that Tehran has developed and tested a number of technologies believed to apply solely to nuclear weapons (see GSN, May 25).

A U.S. effort--along with China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom--to persuade Iran to limit or stop its uranium enrichment appears to be stalled. Tehran insists that its program is directed only at peaceful energy-generation needs, but others suspect it is aimed at developing a nuclear-weapon capability.


Amano said in February that Tehran was making steady progress in enriching uranium, "somehow producing uranium enriched to 3.5 percent and 20 percent." Nuclear-weapon material requires an enrichment level of roughly 90 percent.

Representatives from the six powers met in January with Tehran's envoys in Istanbul, Turkey, to discuss a nuclear-fuel exchange proposal in which 2,800 kilograms of low-enriched uranium and 40 kilograms of 20 percent-enriched material would have been transferred out of Iranian territory, according to reports. Iran signaled at the talks, however, that it was  not ready to discuss the offer (see GSN, Jan. 24).

Fallon said that Obama's engagement initiative with Iran "apparently has gone nowhere" and has little hope of bearing fruit in the near future, but he insisted that the best strategy appears to avoid the use of force against Tehran.

Washington and Tehran "clearly" have "common interests in the region and the world," Fallon said in a keynote address to a conference on bilateral relations sponsored by the American Iranian Council. These interests include allowing the movement of commercial goods; preserving access to waterways and to regional markets; maintaining stable borders and international relations; and blocking the flow of drugs, he told Global Security Newswire after the event.

"Improvement in relations, in my opinion, will likely occur with the realization that the interests of both people are better addressed with engagement and cooperation, rather than antagonism and hostility," Fallon told the audience. However, "there is no clear path to this preferred alternative anytime soon," the retired four-star officer said.

Jeffrey White, a former analyst at the Defense Intelligence Agency, laid out at the ACA event some possible objectives for a future U.S. or Israeli air assault on Iran. He said an attack by Jerusalem would likely be limited to the Persian Gulf nation's key nuclear production and related facilities, while any U.S. bombing campaign could draw off of the Pentagon's greater resources and could be larger in scope and duration.

There are gaps in intelligence about where Iran might be hiding additional uranium enrichment or military efforts related to its nuclear program, however, so even an attack by Washington could not hope to fully destroy all of Tehran's future capacity to build nuclear arms, he said.

"In terms of levels of destruction, I think it's unfair to ask the military--any military--to achieve complete destruction of the Iranian military program or to permanently set it back," said White, who is now a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's just not possible. You can't destroy knowledge, and you can't destroy the basic technology."

The best outcome that Washington or Jerusalem could hope for in any such attack would be a delay of several years in Tehran's bomb-production capability, he said.

"The setback to the program would be measured in years, hopefully--maybe two years, maybe three years, [or] maybe one year in the case of an Israeli attack," White said.

Military planners would anticipate roughly 1 to 2 percent attrition for U.S. combat aircraft in such a bombing attack, he said. The figure could be higher if Israeli warplanes were to undertake the mission, because their more limited strike could be easier for Iran to impede with air defenses, White said.

Speaking at the other event less than two miles away, Fallon warned that extended public discussion of U.S. or Israeli military options against Iran could harm prospects for alternative resolutions to the nuclear problem.

"This issue [of military options] has been bandied about for a number of years now, and I think it's the wrong question to be asking and the wrong topic to be focused on," the 40-year Navy veteran said. "This kind of talk--about if we attack, should they attack, should we stay--it just gets people hyped up and spun up, and most of them don't know what they're talking about."

Fallon resigned from the top post at Central Command under pressure in 2008 after the publication of a magazine article describing him as "brazenly challenging his commander in chief" by resisting the idea of war against Iran.

Although he rejected media reports of friction with the Bush White House, the retired admiral has repeatedly challenged assumptions about using U.S. military force around the globe, in several instances advocating the exploration of diplomatic, economic, and other alternative power levers.

Meanwhile, a new assessment by a prominent think tank has found that Iran now has what it needs to produce a nuclear weapon, if a decision is made to do so.

The Rand report--titled "Iran's Nuclear Future: Critical U.S. Policy Choices"--advises that Washington focus on slowing Iran's technical progress and finding ways to dissuade its leaders from building or testing a bomb.

"Given the state of Iran's nuclear program, it is clear that Iran today has largely acquired the materials, equipment, and technology needed to develop a nuclear weapon," states the report, which was released on Tuesday. "International efforts to control exports and interdict trade can now only hope to slow Iran's progress and possibly deny it the specific technologies needed, for example, for nuclear warhead miniaturization and for mating a warhead on a missile."

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