The Iranian people will regret their country's nuclear program.
Instead of bringing them security or status, Iran's nuclear program will only bring Iran economic ruin, internal chaos, and possibly death on a massive scale.
Iran's nuclear program is stimulating a response from actors that have the ability to inflict great harm on Iran. Some of these actors will not be nation-states, but rather will be self-organizing non-state terror groups, operating on their own. There will be several paths of misery for Iran. The only question is from which path this misery will arrive.
Iran's Nuclear Program: Once Secret, Always Popular
The origins of Iran's nuclear program extend back more than 30 years, to the days of the Shah before the 1979 Islamic revolution. Iran's nuclear program is very popular inside Iran and would likely exist regardless of who was governing the country.
Iran's leaders repeatedly assert that the program is designed solely for the peaceful generation of electrical power. Regrettably for Iran's citizens, Iran's actions have damaged the confidence of this claim to most outside observers.
In August 2002, an Iranian resistance group revealed the existence of critical and clandestine nuclear facilities inside Iran, claims later verified by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency. In its latest report, the IAEA still finds Iran's cooperation on inspections unsatisfactory. And of course the United Nations Security Council has applied mild sanctions on Iran for its defiance of the IAEA and the Security Council. (For more background on Iran's nuclear program, see summaries from the IAEA here and here, and numerous articles at the Globalsecurity.org website.)
Thus, even if Iran's claim to have a peaceful program is entirely true, there are powerful skeptics who will be impossible to reassure. A reaction to the Iranian nuclear program is inevitable. The Iranian government believes that it will be able to remorselessly advance its nuclear program until it, like India and Pakistan, blossoms as a full nuclear state, its nuclear status a fait accompli that the region and the world would then have to accept. Unfortunately for the Iranian people, this is the least likely outcome.
Three Paths to Iran's Ruin
The Iranian nuclear program will spark a reaction against it. All of these reactions will be very painful to the people of Iran, but not equally so.
Of all of the likely reactions to the Iranian nuclear program, a U.S. military air campaign focused on Iran's nuclear-industrial complex would be the most humane for the Iranian people. U.S. air power has the technical capability to discretely target the sites specific to Iran's nuclear industry while leaving untouched the rest of Iran's infrastructure and civilian population.
There is a long list of arguments against bombing Iran's nuclear industry. I personally oppose this option because the political and diplomatic damage the U.S. would suffer from this action would not be worth the benefits to the U.S. of the air campaign, especially when there are other options available that are not so politically damaging.
Another argument advanced against air strikes is that air operations planners won't know where all of the targets are and that the effects of bombing would only be temporary. In any case, some argue, bombing would unify the Iranian population and afterward Iran would renew its efforts to get a nuclear arsenal.
In his book Fiasco, Mr. Thomas Ricks describes the post-war evaluation of the 1998 Operation Desert Fox air and missile campaign against Saddam Hussein's suspected weapons programs. American air operations planners faced the same uncertainties they currently face with respect to Iran. And after the Desert Fox campaign ended, intelligence officers were unsure what they had accomplished.
But according to Mr. Ricks, analysis on the ground in 2003 showed that the Desert Fox campaign achieved far more than expected. Perhaps most important, the air campaign demoralized Iraq's scientific and engineering community. Iraq's special weapons programs withered away after the Desert Fox campaign and never restarted.
Although its terms are very far from being fulfilled, the recent agreement with North Korea to gradually dismantle its nuclear program gives new hope to the effectiveness of sanctions. It seems as if financial, banking, and luxury goods sanctions, targeted at leaders of a regime are especially useful at changing behavior.
Based on the possible success of the North Korean sanctions, the international community may be encouraged to employ this model against Iran. The Iranians themselves apparently recognize how vulnerable they are to sanctions. The Paris newspaper Le Monde obtained a secret Iranian government report that discussed Iran's vulnerability to sanctions (here is the Le Monde story in French, here in English, translated by Google). Unfortunately, an internationally-supervised sanctions program is not likely to be successful because too many countries will not cooperate with the program and will instead continue to trade with Iran.
But if national governments fail to impose economic and financial sanctions on Iran, Iran remains highly vulnerable to sanctions imposed by self-organized non-state actors. These sanctions could create more misery for the Iranian people that those imposed by legal and legitimate international policy.
Sanctions imposed by terror
Iran receives 80-90% of its export earnings from oil exports. Due to problems with Iran's oil refining sector, Iran must import 40% of the gasoline it consumes. Iran's existing oil fields suffer natural output declines of 8-10% per year. Iran requires foreign capital investment and foreign technical expertise to maintain its oil industry and the income it produces. (See this country report from the U.S. Energy Information Agency for background on Iran's energy sector. And see this recent academic study predicting the collapse of Iran's oil industry.)
Iran's undiversified economy is highly vulnerable to attack. Murder and intimidation, performed by a ruthless non-state group, may be all that is required to slowly but surely grind down the Iranian economy.
As previously mentioned, the Iranian oil industry requires the expertise of foreign engineers to maintain its output. An anti-Iranian terror group could target for assassination the engineers and executives (and their families) of any French, Russian, Japanese, or Chinese oil companies that may be considering work in Iran. The goals of such a terror group would be to create social and political chaos inside Iran, to weaken the government and its ability to function, and to dry up funding for Iran's nuclear industry.
Such an anti-Iranian terror group could mete out the same treatment to foreign bankers working with Iran, European oil trading firms, import-export companies, tanker shipping companies, tanker crews and their families, etc. A sharp wave of such murders might be enough to send out a chilling signal to those contemplating work for Iran.
Given the already precarious state of Iran's economy and its fragile political situation, relatively minor disruptions to Iran's commerce could induce chaotic effects inside the country. Grinding down Iran's oil industry through a private campaign of murder and intimidation could choke off Iran's main source of income. This would eventually inflict more suffering and more social disruption on Iranian society than either an American air campaign or internationally organized sanctions. And it will very likely occur if these other options don't.
In my last article at TCS Daily, I discussed how wealthy individuals could implement their own private foreign policies. We should not be surprised to see Iran used as a laboratory for such an experiment.
Passivity Will Lead to an Arms Race
Passively accepting the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons arsenal will, ironically, result in the greatest misery for Iranian society. Even if the Iranian government intends its nuclear weapons arsenal for defensive and deterrent purposes, a stable stand-off, as we witnessed in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, is highly unlikely. Much more likely is a highly unstable arms race, eventually leading to war.
The United States and the Soviet Union avoided nuclear war because both sides established large, redundant retaliatory reserve forces (especially onboard hidden submarines), forces that both sides knew would survive a first strike. Both sides also established robust command and control systems that would survive long enough to order retaliation. Deterrence was thus established.
We won't find these stabilizing conditions when a complicated, three-sided nuclear arms race breaks out among Israel, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. In the Middle East missile flight times are too short - a sneak attack would be very effective. Early warning systems are fragile or non-existent, and retaliatory forces and command and control structures will be vulnerable to destruction in a first strike. Relatively small nuclear arsenals will result in no survivable retaliatory redundancy. Nuclear forces will have to be kept on extremely high alert, a launch-on-warning status. The slightest hint of attack, even if false, will trigger a nuclear weapons launch. Under such conditions, there would be a tremendous incentive in a crisis for any of the countries to rapidly use its nuclear forces before they were destroyed. National survival will depend on disarming the enemies before being so disarmed.
Allowing Iran to establish a nuclear weapons arsenal will result in a highly unstable arms race in the region, very likely leading to war. Containment and deterrence is not a feasible solution because each side's nuclear forces and command and control structures will be highly vulnerable to destruction in a first strike. War will inevitably result.
From Which Direction Will Iran's Misery Arrive?
Iran's nuclear program will become increasingly destabilizing in the period ahead. Iran's government might have avoided this situation had it been completely transparent from the beginning with the IAEA inspectors. However, it is likely too late for openness; Iran's past behavior will leave skeptics unable to be reassured.
Passive acceptance of Iran's program would lead to a highly unstable three-sided arms race in the region. Unlike the Cold War, this arms race would lead to a real war. Internationally-supervised sanctions could in theory be effective (especially in light of the recent experience with North Korea) but won't happen due to cheating. Ironically, an American air strike on Iran's nuclear industry would be the most humane treatment for the problem.
If the situation is not resolved in another way, self-organized non-state terror groups will likely organize campaigns of murder, intimidation, and lawlessness on the Iranian economy and the foreigners who work for it. As their economy is ground down, the Iranian people will suffer the most. The Iranians will one day regret their nuclear program.
The author was a U.S. Marine Corps infantry company commander and staff officer. He was the global research director for a large private investment firm and is now a private investor. His blog is Westhawk. He is a TCS contributing writer.