When he becomes president on Jan. 20, Barack Obama will face some difficult choices regarding Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
Mr. Obama is simultaneously opposed to Iran’s obtaining a nuclear weapon and opposed to military action that would prevent it. So, what happens if Americans wake up one morning to the news that Iran has tested a nuclear weapon? Once that happens, there would be few alternatives for countering a nuclear Iran other than a Cold War-style policy of containment and deterrence.
During the Cold War, the reality of an American nuclear arsenal kept the Soviet Union at bay until the collapse of communism in the late 1980s. The stationing of U.S. military forces and equipment in Western Europe, Asia and elsewhere helped counter the Soviet Union’s hegemonic ambitions. But American policymakers face tremendous uphill challenges to implementing such policies today.
The United States lacks the force structure and bases necessary to implement a containment policy in the Middle East. Containing Iran requires the United States to either station sufficient forces in the region to stop Iran unilaterally, or to invest resources in helping Iran’s neighbors build their own deterrence. “Put more crudely, this requires calculating under what conditions and with what equipment regional states could successfully wage war against Iran until U.S. forces could provide relief,” notes American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Rubin. “If the Pentagon has pre-positioned enough equipment and munitions in the region, this might take three or four days; if not, it could take longer.”
The United States has air bases in countries including Turkey, Kuwait, Bahrain, Afghanistan and Oman. But nearly all of these facilities have had severe constraints placed upon their use, and it is unclear what access the U.S. military would have to them in wartime.
Turkish negotiators, for example, have demanded veto power over every U.S. mission flown from Incirlik Air Base. In Iraq, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki demands that the United States evacuate according to a set timetable, raising questions about Washington’s ability to use the Kirkuk and Ali air bases as part of containment operations. Because of domestic opposition to the U.S. military presence, Saudi Arabia only permits the United States to maintain a small combined air operations center for U.S. aircraft in the Persian Gulf. In the days after September 11, Oman initially refused to grant the U.S. Air Force permission to fly missions to Afghanistan using its territory. And any action against Iran would be far more controversial than the Afghan operation was.
Upgrading U.S. facilities in the region to support containment would be essential to maintaining a successful containment policy. The Bush administration has proposed a series of arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other regional allies in an effort to pre-position military equipment in the region.
But some of these sales face considerable opposition from Capitol Hill, and it is unclear whether any of the small Gulf Cooperation Council states could contain Iranian aggression for very long. “No GCC state with the exception of Saudi Arabia has strategic depth,” Mr. Rubin notes. “If Iraq could overwhelm Kuwait in a matter of hours, so, too, could Iran overwhelm Bahrain - the central node in U.S. naval strategy - or Qatar, where the U.S. army pre-positions much of its heavy equipment.”
And it is an open question whether Iran would be deterred by the existence of U.S. nuclear weapons. While Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said that Iran doesn’t want to possess such weapons, there are other statements from Iranian clerics and government officials indicating the opposite.
One of the most chilling of these (especially to Israeli officials) is one by a noted Iranian “moderate” - former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who said at a Dec. 14, 2001, prayer service amid chants of “Death to Israel”: “The use of even one nuclear bomb inside Israel will destroy everything … It is not irrational to contemplate such a reality.”
The Obama administration faces tremendous challenges in deterring and containing a nuclear Iran. It needs a stiff backbone.