“War is merely the continuation of policy by other means.” – Clause von Clausewitz

Considering Diplomacy and War

The situation with Iran has spawned two general ‘schools’ of argument: one focused on diplomacy as an alternative to war and the other focused on a military “solution.” Both approaches are myopic and to one degree or another reflect the “Pollyanna policies” of wishful thinking. The position of the U.S. government falls somewhere in the middle but leans toward the diplomatic, negotiated solution. The Israeli position, and for that matter the position of most U.S. allies in the region, is that sooner or later – better sooner – military action will be required to end Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. The technical argument that the Iranians have not “decided” to weaponize is politically useful but simply defies any reasonable assessment of Iranian policy or perceived interests.

While war is not a certainty, the arguments for those that oppose war seem detached from the current levels of tensions and the peculiarities of the fundamental Iranian conflict with virtually every U.S. ally in the region. The attitude that war is unthinkable is simply not credible. On the flipside, advocates for a military campaign generally display a naiveté reminiscent of the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. A military campaign against Iran is not the end game; it is not a solution to the persistent problem posed by Iran. More importantly, it is a risky endeavor with long-term consequences. Even after a tactically successful military campaign, Iran will continue to be a security and a diplomatic challenge to the interests of the U.S. and its allies in the region. Therefore, it is more productive to think of war and diplomacy as different tools to apply to problem. War increasingly appears necessary to enable successful diplomacy and diplomacy is required to mitigate the destabilizing effects of war. They are not mutually exclusive. 

For lack of better labels, the “peace party” and the “war party” would be better served by enunciating policy visions that included both options within the context of broader policy continuum.  Visions of successful sanctions, negotiated settlements, and containment appear increasingly unrealistic almost detached from current reality. Iran is simply too close to what they view as the “holy grail” of self-preservation. The false panacea of “regime change,” as a solution coming from advocates of military action, is the product of a flawed understanding of Iran. In the unlikely event that military conflict brings the fall of the current rulers, which it most likely will not, it will not result in a new, pliant Iranian government. Iran will not suddenly decide to kowtow to Israeli or Western whims on any issue, much less one so central to issues of national sovereignty and interests. In short, war is far more likely than those opposed to it wish to admit and far more complicated and risky than those the advocate it imagine.

The Options and Interests

While pursuing sanctions and the diplomatic option, the Obama administration has clearly stated that “all options are on the table,” but many, particularly allies in the region, suspect that the threat of force is less than sincere. They see current U.S. policy as the “stall” of a nation exhausted by two frustrating wars in the last decade. It is increasingly apparent that diplomacy and sanctions will likely fail and that the administration’s last fallback position short of war will be the assertion that Iran has not decided to weaponize. Could the U.S. live with a policy of containing an Iranian nuclear weapons capability? The short answer is yes, but it would undermine Washington’s short-term interests – its credibility in the region – and long-term interests – creating a region nuclear arms race. The Obama administration has rejected containment and committed to preventing Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Thus, the criterion for military action has been reduced to an argument about the definition of weaponization – the fine line between capability and possession.

At the very least, Iran is committed to a nuclear weapons capability – possession of all the pieces required for a bomb. In other cases, as in India, Pakistan, North Korea, and Israel, this has led to a full-blown weapons program.  In Iran, the nuclear program has become the “crown jewel” of Iranian sovereignty and is viewed as the guarantor of regime if not national survival. Ironically, the Iranian policy is motivated by the identical calculation behind Israeli Prime Minister David Ben Gurion’s decision in 1955 to create a nuclear weapons program. Even the Ayatollah Khamenei’s political opposition believes that Iran as a sovereign state has the right to possess and control its own nuclear program without foreign diktats. An attack will reinforce the idea that nuclear weapons are the only means to assure the survival of the Iranian state. To borrow a phrase from former Pakistani Prime Minister Bhutto, if the Iranian people have to “eat grass” then so be it. The argument about Iranian intentions is semantics.

Given the looming collision, it makes more sense to view war, diplomacy, negotiations, and sanctions all as a part of an ongoing process in dealing with Iran. The goal is to use these tools to produce a more stable regional equilibrium and advance U.S. interests. It is a process not without a solution. It is not question of war or peace, diplomacy or conflict, or sanctions or negotiations, but rather it is an issue of integrating these tools into a longer-term process that enhances the tenuous stability of the region. The centuries of frictions with Persia and Iran are a regional fixture that is not going to disappear – Iran’s self image and self-appointed role in the region is in fundamental conflict with its neighbors and the West. It is increasingly likely that war may well have become an unavoidable part of the process in reestablishing the simmering equilibrium that Iran’s nuclear program now threatens. A potential conflict is just another, albeit more unpredictable, stage in the geopolitical struggles of the region.

The Process and War

Why is war likely? Quite simply, significant compromise by any of the parties involved would be viewed as capitulation. The conflict has already started with covert strikes, cyber-warfare, and a deepening economic embargo. From an Iranian perspective, the attempt to undermine the Republic extends to Syria and increasing pressure on the Maliki regime in Iraq. Tactically and strategically, the U.S. and its proxies and allies – the Israelis, the Gulf Arabs, Turkey, and Europeans – are squeezing Iranian interests. Tehran also is quite likely making a serious misjudgment about the level of peril that it faces. The Iranian leadership is now supposed to believe that after Washington’s destruction of its enemies, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq; after declaring Iran as a part of the axis of evil and then doing exactly little about it; after seeking to improve relations on numerous occasions in last 15 years; and after pressuring the Israelis not to strike that the United States is suddenly serious about stopping the nuclear program. Khamenei and company might be excused if they made the same mistake that Saddam Hussein made in 1991 about U.S. intentions. These issues make war more likely and conflict-related policies and goals increasingly important.

There are two paths to war: an accidental ignition point that escalates into a full-blown conflict or a deliberate attack on Iranian nuclear installations. Of the two, the accidental is possible but significantly less likely even given incentivized Revolutionary Guard aggressiveness and the potential for an accidental clash in the Gulf.  In the event of an incident, both the U.S. and Iran would likely work very hard to prevent it from mushrooming into the major conflict that neither side, at a fundamental level, wants. This likely reaction to an incident militates against an incident expanding into a full-blown conflict; nevertheless the potential is there.

By far the most likely cause of a general conflict would be an attack on the Iranian nuclear facilities. This could come in the form of a premeditated attack by the United States, by Israel and the United States, or in a unilateral attack by Israel. U.S. participation with Israel in a premeditated attack on Iranian nuclear facilities is a serious long-term political downside and militarily it provides no real value added. Politically, the impression of the U.S. aligned with Zionists in attacking a Muslim nation would be a priceless windfall for Tehran that would have broad consequences for the U.S. in the Islamic world. It would give substance to claims that Israel controls U.S. foreign policy. Militarily, the Israelis have not attacked Iran because their military and security service chiefs are concerned about their operational limitations in conducting the mission. The Israelis can launch a series of strikes, but only the U.S. has the resources to conduct a campaign that might destroy Iranian nuclear capability. For the U.S., participating with Israel has a political downside that is simply not justified by the military value added.

This situation means that a unilateral U.S. campaign perhaps backed by its regional Arab allies is by far the more preferable political course of action. It leaves all involved with less political fallout to deal with and has little or no effect on the potential military outcome. The problem with this approach is political. For the U.S. to act unilaterally, Washington is requiring a smoking gun, the Iranian decision to weaponize, or hard evidence that that process has begun. That is the U.S. red line. Spying and electronic snooping aside, that definitive information will be difficult if not impossible to come by until the very last minute. In fact, the official U.S. position is that Iran has not made the decision to weaponize; therefore, Tehran has not crossed the U.S. red line obligating the U.S. to act. Despite differences between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his military and security advisors, the official Israeli red line is the “capability” to produce nuclear weapons – arguably a demarcation that Iran has already crossed. It is in the gap that we find the most likely scenario for the conflict with Iran to begin.

While the Israelis would prefer American involvement, at some point if the current trajectory of events is not significantly altered there is a high probability that the Israelis will unilaterally strike Iran. The U.S. red line is weaponization whereas the Israelis see the capability to weaponize as unacceptable. Netanyahu has surrounded himself with like-minded politicians that view an Iranian capability to produce a nuclear weapon as an existential threat to Israel’s survival. Netanyahu and others in senior positions are seen as either obsessed by a “holocaust mentality” or by hard core “realists” that view the Iranian nuclear program as a development that will provide Iran with unacceptable political or military leverage. These two views, the so-called “messianic” and the pragmatists, ultimately arrive at the same conclusion: Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped and if necessary by force. Those that believe that Israel will not unilaterally strike are deluding themselves.

The idea that the U.S. can prevent Israel from unilaterally attacking Iran is no more convincing than the idea that Iran will buckle under economic sanctions; while either is possible, neither is likely. Iran will insist on retaining the enrichment capability fundamental to a weapons program, and at some point Israel will take military action against it. While not inevitable, the military campaign, barring a significant shift in the Iranian position, is probable.

Political Goals and Conflict

The current focus on sanctions, diplomacy, and military contingency planning is a necessary tactical requirement, but the more important question centers on the long-term, strategic implications of broader overt conflict. What are its goals? What kind of political pressure will it bring? How does it end? What does the West want a post-conflict Iran to look like? Do the regional ambitions of Tehran – the delusions of imperial greatness – consign the region to conflict? Perhaps an attempt to view the looming conflict in terms of another stage in Clausewitz’s more open-ended view of politics is more useful.  In this regard, the political implications of a unilateral Israeli attack are perhaps more significant than the conflict itself.

The Israelis know that their attacks on Iranian nuclear targets would not destroy and might only marginally delay the program. Ehud Barak, the defense minister, has admitted that it is a risky undertaking. Their real political objective is to draw the U.S. into the conflict. The Israeli military has made no secret of its preference for U.S. involvement. As noted, the gap between the U.S. position and Israel’s has closed somewhat, but there are still timeline differences. As a result, Israel is more likely to move militarily than the U.S. For this reason, the political implications of the Iranian reaction to an Israeli attack are more important than the attack itself. No doubt there will be those in Tehran that will want to strike the Gulf Arabs and the United States for ‘backing’ the Israeli adventure. If the Iranians strike back at the U.S., the Gulf Arabs, or attempt to close Hormuz, the reaction will be straightforward – an all out campaign against both the Iranian nuclear program and Iran’s broader offensive military capability. That said, there is another more sophisticated route that the Iranians may take that has both military and political advantages.

Most assume that the internal politics of the Iranian regime would require an immediate attempt to strike Israel and perhaps the U.S. and Gulf Arabs as well. That may indeed be correct; however, Israel, and most likely a forewarned U.S. would be on peak alert and expecting a response. Israel would rely on its “Iron Dome” anti-ballistic missile system to protect key installations including the Dimona nuclear weapons facility and urban areas. While a proxy strike by Hezbollah is possible, it is less than certain. The situation in Syria and the grim Israeli threats not to repeat the mistake of the past “half-hearted” campaign in Southern Lebanon against Hezbollah has resulted in statements from Hassan Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, implying that Hezbollah will pursue its own interests and might not follow Tehran over a political and military cliff.

A delayed reaction or limited counterstrike by Iran could make the political game for the West and its Arab allies significantly more complex. By playing the aggrieved party, the Iranians might well undermine the sanctions with Russia, China, and even the Europeans. An Israeli attack might well be more effective at destroying sanctions than nuclear capability. By pointedly not attacking U.S. and Gulf targets, Tehran would make any U.S. direct military action more difficult to justify internationally. Also Iran could play the Islamic card not only among Shi’a populations in the Gulf but also in a broader pan-Islamic community. The idea that a reviled Israeli regime backed by a deeply despised U.S. government launched an “unprovoked” attack on Iran would play well on the Islamic street.

Such a measured Iranian response to an Israeli attack would likely increase the political pressure on the pro-western regimes of the Gulf. The Iranians might conclude that when confronted with the reality of a conflict, fissures might appear between those regimes in the Arab Gulf predisposed to opposing by force Iranian ambitions – Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Abu Dhabi and those that prefer a more flexible policy – Qatar, Dubai, Oman and even Kuwait. In addition, the possibility of limited damage to the nuclear program could embarrass the Israeli government and would provide Tehran with a powerful justification for redoubling its efforts to field a nuclear weapons capability. The Russian and Chinese would no doubt react very negatively to an Israeli attack.

A measured response could also have military benefits. In recent meetings with the Israelis, senior U.S. officials have sought assurances that in the event of an Israeli attack, Tel Aviv will warn the U.S. so that it could be prepared for possible repercussions in the Gulf and elsewhere. Peak readiness cannot be sustained indefinitely; a delayed Iranian response might provide Tehran with more military options at a later date when readiness levels in the Gulf and elsewhere had receded. The question is whether or not the Iranian regime would have the internal political flexibility to mount a nuanced response to an attack rather than blindly striking out.  To do nothing will invite the regime’s opposition to go on the political offensive and will create dissension within the ranks of the Iranian military and Revolutionary Guards. The Iranian leadership certainly has the political sophistication to mount a measured long-term flexible campaign, but it is unclear if domestic politics would allow such an approach. Regardless, the U.S. and its allies need to be prepared for a sophisticated, nuanced Iranian response.

The degree to which an Israeli attack would be successful can be debated, but in the final analysis, the program cannot be conventionally threatened without U.S. participation. The fundamental question is what comes next? What are the longer-term political implications? It appears unlikely that a campaign would end Iran’s nuclear ambitions and in fact it would serve to underscore the arguments of Iranian advocates for a nuclear weapons program. It might well shore up political support for the regime and in any event, the current regime would likely not collapse as a result of an attack on the nuclear program. Given that almost any conceivable Iranian government would view nuclear weapons capability as in its interest, it would only be a matter of time before they reconstituted it. For the Iranians, it is the ultimate guarantee of political survival and national sovereignty.

Even a successful bombing campaign would not end the Iranian efforts; it would only drive them further underground. Is there a post-conflict paradigm in which Iran might forego a nuclear weapons program or would a situation emerge that resembled Iraq from 1991 to 2003? Is regime change a solution, or is any nationalist Iranian government likely to insist on its nuclear prerogatives? Might the destruction of the Iranian state as opposed to “regime change” with all the instability and risks that that implies be the only long-term solution – an Iran fractured along ethnic and sectarian lines? Is it possible that an Israeli strike, despite limited damage inflicted, might awaken the Iranian regime to the peril that it faces? This is conceivable, and if sanctions remained in place, then it could give the Iranians a powerful incentive to participate in meaningful negotiations, but that is a long shot. More certain is the fact that the diplomatic maneuvering will continue during and after any conflict.


The chance that sanctions or diplomacy will provide a breakthrough is slight. The principals, Israel and the U.S., have rejected containment as an option; war may be necessary, but it is not going to end the conflict. Given that reality, the West and particularly the United States should be putting as much effort into thinking about a conflict that may be far more nuanced that than anyone currently anticipates and an aftermath that in the long term will be no less conflicted and complicated than today’s. The U.S. has a tendency to win battles and lose conflicts – we should try to make an exception in this case. The diplomatic aftermath of a conflict will likely be more important in ultimately achieving some form of regional stability than the diplomatic efforts to prevent it. Unfortunately, given the political volatility, the mantras of victimization, and emotional issues involved on all sides of the issue, the path to a diplomatic, negotiated solution to the conundrum of Iran may lay through war – “politics by other means.”