The World Can Live With a Nuclear Iran


By Martin van Creveld

Published September 24, 2007, issue of September 28, 2007.
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Mahmoud Ahmadinejad looks and sounds as if he is in a panic — and the Iranian president, on tour in New York this week, has very good reason to be.

Israel, which Ahmadinejad regards as his country’s great enemy, has just carried out what seems to be a very successful strike against an important Syrian installation. And behind Prime Minister Ehud Olmert stands President Bush — the same President Bush who four years ago needed no reason at all to take on Iran’s neighbor to the west and demolish it to the point where it may never rise again.

Both Olmert and Bush have repeatedly signaled their determination to prevent Iran from going nuclear, using force if necessary, and they may very well carry out their threats. Should they do so, then Iran — so often presented as some kind of regional juggernaut — will have little to put in their way.

Though rich in oil, Iran is a third-world country with a population of 80 million and a per capita income of $2,440. By the best available figures, those of the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, its annual defense budget stands at about $6.3 billion — a little more than half of Israel’s and a little less than 2% of America’s.

Iran, in fact, spends a smaller percentage of its resources on defense than any of its neighbors except the United Arab Emirates. And while Iran might very well operate covert programs whose cost would bump up its total defense expenditures, the same can be said of many other countries.

Should the United States strike at Iran — and let’s be clear here, we are talking about a strike by cruise missiles and manned aircraft, not about an invasion for which Washington does not have the troops — then Tehran will have almost no way to hit back. As Saddam Hussein did in 1991, Iran’s primary response may well be to attack Israel, which probably explains why Ahmadinejad and his generals keep making threats in that direction.

Even so, the Islamic Republic has few options. Iran’s ground and naval forces are irrelevant to the problem at hand.

Iran may indeed have some Shihab III missiles with the range to hit Israel, but their number is limited and their reliability uncertain. Should the missiles carry conventional warheads, then militarily speaking the effect will probably be close to zero. Should they carry unconventional ones, then Iran — to quote former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, speaking not long before the first Gulf war — will open itself to “awesome and terrible retaliation.”

Iran’s air force is in an even sorrier state. Already in 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran’s fleet of old American-built aircraft was barely operational. Since then, and apart from the Iraqi aircraft that fled to it during the 1991 Gulf War — which are probably no longer operational — the only imports may have been some Russian-built fighters. Few people have actually seen these aircraft. And even if Iran has Russian-built jets, they cannot reach Israel without air-to-air refueling and incurring all the vulnerabilities that refueling implies.

Iran’s domestically manufactured aircraft, known as the Saeqeh, or Thunderbolt, is a development of the American F-5 Tiger. Designed in the 1950s and upgraded in the 1960s, the F-5 — which Iran recently showed off at a parade — was not considered good enough for the American air force. Instead it was sold to countries, such as Iran, Jordan and several Latin American nations, which did not have what it took to maintain and operate more sophisticated craft.

Iran appears to have copied some of these aircraft and upgraded them somewhat. Yet the Saeqehs do not stand a chance against modern jets. In any case they are available only in very small numbers, and like the Russian fighters Tehran may have acquired, they can reach Israel, if at all, only with air-to-air refueling.

Iran’s other options are either to stir up trouble in the Gulf or to launch terrorist attacks in the West. Trouble in the Gulf will cause the price of oil to skyrocket, but it will not save Iran from being heavily bombed.

This threat, moreover, is something the American navy and its allies in the Gulf should be able to handle. Why else would Washington keep two or three carrier task forces with more than 25,000 personnel in the region?

Terrorist attacks are certainly possible. However, their strategic impact will be close to zero. After all, the September 11 attacks — the largest such attack of all time — did not diminish the capability of the American armed forces by one iota.

A coordinated worldwide terrorist campaign, as distinct from individual pinpricks, is easier to talk about than to organize; too many things can go wrong. Back in 1991, there were fears that Saddam was about to launch such a campaign. In the end, not a single attack materialized.

In case Bush does decide to attack Iran, it is questionable whether Iran’s large, well-dispersed and well-camouflaged nuclear program can really be knocked out. This is all the more doubtful because, in contrast to the Israeli attacks on Iraq back in 1981 and on Syria three weeks ago, the element of surprise will be lacking. And even if it can be done, whether doing so will serve a useful purpose is also questionable.

Since 1945 hardly one year has gone by in which some voices — mainly American ones concerned about preserving Washington’s monopoly over nuclear weapons to the greatest extent possible — did not decry the terrible consequences that would follow if additional countries went nuclear. So far, not one of those warnings has come true. To the contrary: in every place where nuclear weapons were introduced, large-scale wars between their owners have disappeared.

General John Abizaid, the former commander of United States Central Command, is only the latest in a long list of experts to argue that the world can live with a nuclear Iran. Their views deserve to be carefully considered, lest Ahmadinejad’s fear-driven posturing cause anybody to do something stupid.

Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of “The Changing Face of War: Lessons of Combat, From the Marne to Iraq” (Presidio Press).

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