"God may smile on us, but I don't think so." - anonymous Pentagon adviser quoted by Seymour Hersh April 2006 on Bush administration plans to pressure Iran militarily
I quoted in a previous post from "Iran Gets the Bomb - Then What?" by George Perkovich with Silvia Manzanero, the eighth chapter of the collection Getting Ready for a Nuclear-Ready Iran (Nov. 2005) Henry Sokolski and Patrick Clawson, eds. Perkovich's essay seems to be more open to non-military approaches to Iran's suspected nuclear program than some others in this compiliation.
He focuses on the option of blocking Iran from getting a bomb. But he observes that Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon would not in itself be a catastrophe requiring war by the United States:
If Iran effectively resisted roll back, the United States and others would shift to a strategy of deterring Iran from “using” its nuclear capability as an instrument of coercive diplomacy (nuclear blackmail) or military aggression (using a nuclear umbrella to shield low-intensity conflict in other states). A shift from roll back to a strategy of deterrence and containment would come early if Iran indicated it is deterrable and desired nuclear weapons only to protect its own autonomy, not to alter the status quo in the Gulf and Middle East. Iran’s more pragmatic international policy since 1997 suggests that it is moving toward a more status quo orientation and would not wield nuclear weapons provocatively. If this were to prove true, the United States would find it extremely difficult to sustain international cooperation in seeking to coerce Iranian roll back. (p. 179; my emphasis)
Thus, in the wake of Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons,the United States and other nonproliferation stalwarts would not yet give up on nonproliferation. They would seek to create new norms and rules to prevent states from acquiring dual-use fuel cycle capabilities, strengthen inspections and other processes to detect and deter proliferation, and establish more automatic measures to enforce compliance and punish non-compliance with NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] norms and rules. Key non-nuclear-weapons states would see the merits of such measures but also would argue that the blame for proliferation lies with the United States and other nuclear-weapons states that have failed to comply with their disarmament obligations. To the extent that knock-on proliferation pressures would center on the Middle East, NPT debates would elicit enormous pressure on Israel, and the United States as Israel’s patron. Intense bargaining would ensue, the outcome of which cannot be predicted. Not only would major U.S. security interests be at stake; the legitimacy of U.S. leadership in nonproliferation also would hang in the balance. (p. 198; my emphasis)
The best solution for Iran's nuclear program in the long run would involve a real agreement among the Middle Eastern nations to get rid of nuclear weapons, which would would have to include Israel, the only nuclear-armed state in the region at present.
Perkovich describes what should be the aims of US disarmament policy toward Iran this way:
It can be assumed that the United States (with others if possible) would use various forms of coercion to achieve roll back.1 Coercion or punishment would have three aims. First, to impose enough pain to compel Iranian leaders to change their minds and abandon nuclear weapon capabilities. Second, to reduce the perceived benefits Iran would gain from nuclear weapons and to otherwise weaken Iran. Third, drawing on the former two desired effects to punish Iran, thus deterring future proliferators. (p. 178)
He also emphasizes the vulnerability of Iran to various kinds of non-military pressures. Political isolation is a real issue for the rulers of Iran and the people, he writes:
They resent pariahdom in ways, for example, that North Koreans or even Pakistanis do not seem to. The intensity of the Iranian elite’s desire for international respect is easily underestimated by U.S. commentators and officials who have little or no contact with Iran. To be sure, the desire to be integrated into the broader international community, to partake in a dialogue of civilizations, is felt most keenly by Western-educated reformers, urban youth, and some business interests. The most conservative elements in Iran, particularly those associated with the Revolutionary Guard, the Guardian Council, and autarkic economic interests, do not consider political isolation a major threat. However, these elements must take care not to stimulate active resistance against themselves by causing Iran’s further isolation. (p. 180; my emphasis)
He discusses economic sanctions at some length, especially oil sanctions. He provides quite a bit of information about Iran's trade relations. I'm skeptical, though, about how feasible sanctions of buying oil could really be. Oil may not be quite as "fungible" as money. But if Iran can get their oil to market, it becomes part of the world oil supply. Exactly which countries are puchasing their oil is considerably less important now that it was during the Arab Oil Embargo of 1973.
But Iran certainly does need materials and foreign investment to develop their oil and natural gas resources. And they need stable external political relationships to support those. Perkovich writes:
Stopping ongoing projects and deterring key potential investors from Iran’s energy industry will be difficult, however. Through 2004, the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA) sanctions had not yet been imposed on any foreign company investing in Iran’s energy industry. This sanction-forbearance is due largely to questions over the legality of the Act outside U.S. national territory and its jurisdiction over non-U.S. entities. Furthermore, if secondary sanctions were actually to be imposed, the effects on trade relations would be harmful to both parties. It is also not certain that other governments would sanction companies under their own jurisdiction. Iran could threaten to annul any agreements with current partners and offer “sweet” deals to less prominent investors. For instance, China Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (SNP) has already stated that it will not yield to Washington’s pressure. (p. 182; my emphasis)
Ah, a mystery. Why would the Bush administration, an administration that as James Galbraith has described it represents the energy industry invested with state power, why would they not impose sanctions on oil firms under that law? Why? Why? Why? It's a bigger puzzle than the DaVinci Code!
Yet, the task is not impossible. Steps have already been taken toward building a coalition to block new investments in Iran’s oil sector, where Iran might have tremendous natural resources but is certainly not the only place to invest. Russia and the nearby Caspian oil fields of Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan are potential destinations for foreign investors.
Furthermore, after 3 years of negotiations, Spanish companies have pulled back, alleging commercial issues. John Browne, chief executive of U.K’s British Petroleum (BP), has also expressed his concerns over investing in Iran, given the current international political environment. And although a Japanese consortium has recently agreed to develop the vast Azadegan oil field, negotiations took 4 years, in part because Japan shares U.S. interests in nonproliferation and also did not want to jeopardize U.S.-Japanese trade relations. (p. 183-4)
There would certainly be problems imposing sanctions on oil investments and oil-related, oil exports, non-oil imports and exports, and financial borrowing. But it is feasible. It would, however, require real international cooperation, meaning the Bush administration would have to work cooperatively with allies, not just rely on the threat of imposing a unilateral military solution.
Perkovich's observation on "use of force" alternatives are also worth paying attention to, not that Bush supporters will:
Experience with Iraq and, more speculatively, North Korea suggests that reliable intelligence will not exist on the exact location of Iran’s nuclear weapons and all relevant production infrastructure. The lack of high confidence that all desired targets could be identified and destroyed need not preclude attacks. Degradation of some but not all capabilities could still be deemed valuable enough to warrant attack, both to limit Iran’s capacities and to demonstrate resolve.
Yet, lack of high confidence in destroying all weapons and production capabilities would raise the major question of Iran’s potential use of surviving nuclear weapons [sic] against U.S. forces and allies. An attack on Iran would make Iranian counterattacks more likely. Many, especially in the Muslim world, would find such responses justified. This would affect the calculus of the long-term political and strategic effects of attacks onIran. Would such attacks weaken, rather than strengthen, international support for those who authorized and/or conducted the attacks? Depending on the perceived legitimacy of the attacks, and their consequences, the lesson could be that a few select states should seek nuclear weapons to deter illegitimate exercise of force by, say, the United States. Others, including in Europe, could express disaffection with “U.S. militarism” by defecting from cooperation with the United States in nonmilitary nonproliferation initiatives. Again, the conditions and agencies through which such attacks on Iran were authorized would affect their perceived legitimacy. (p. 190; my emphasis)
Obviously, the comment about "surviving nuclear weapons" would only apply in a post-acquisition scenario, which Perkovich means to include in his "use of force" scenarios.
He makes an important point here. The Bush Doctrine as applied in Iraq sends a strong message to all potential targets of US military attack: if you have nuclear weapons, you're much safer from American attack than if you don't. This is damaging, not supporting, nuclear disarmament efforts. There's a very serious question about how serious the Bush administration is about nuclear nonproliferation at all, except to use it as a slogan to justify war.
Perkovich also looks at the regime-change scenario briefly:
Regime removal in Iran would be more demanding than the invasion of Iraq. Without pretending a detailed analysis, one can say that current military and international political and economic conditions militate against such a risky enterprise. Among other things, it is practically impossible to estimate how events in Iran would evolve following a military action to remove the current government, even if such action were feasible. Those who would contemplate forcible regime change would be obligated to posit realistic scenarios and means to effect a future in Iran better than the current situation.
The United States also could contemplate supporting armed opponents of the current regime to take power in Iran. This would lower the direct risk to the United States, but would attract almost no international support. The United States likely would rely in part on the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq (MeK) to conduct such an insurgency. Given that the United States itself has deemed the MeK a terrorist organization, and given widespread international misgivings over the U.S.-U.K. 1953 coup in Iran, Washington could expect almost no international support for such a regime change effort. Indeed, the effort would seriously harm U.S. legitimacy. (p. 192; my emphasis)
He also cautions about how a US attack on Iran would be perceived in the Muslim world:
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the perceived double standard with which the United States treats Israel, rallies many Muslims’ hatred of the United States Similarly, displays of U.S. military prowess in attacks that defeat and kill apparently hapless Muslims generates widespread hatred of Washington. ...
Neighboring Arabs and Turkey would be alarmed by arrogant Persia’s acquisition. This alarm would be greater or weaker depending on the bellicosity and character of the Iranian government. But the United States would find it difficult to channel neighboring states’ concerns into support for coercion against Iran if the United States were not simultaneously pressing Israel to relinquish its nuclear weapons, and if Israel were not closer to a resolution with the Palestinians. Privately, Arab leaders might welcome coercion against Iran, but publicly they and their societies would denounce the United States for its favoritism of Israel. Iranian leaders know this and would be expected to frame their acquisition of nuclear weapons as a necessity to counter the nuclear-armed Zionist entity and the arrogant United States.
Antipathy toward the United States (and any coalition it would muster) would be greatest in the event of military attacks on Iran. Strikes pinpointed against Iran’s “illegal” nuclear infrastructure would be more understandable than a wider military campaign that could harm civilians, especially if Iran completed its nuclear facilities despite promises not to. Common people would see military action in a now-common narrative: the United States, with its overwhelming military machine and thousands of nuclear weapons, does Israel’s bidding by smashing poor Muslims who, after all, are only trying to acquire what Israel has. The narrative extends further to a U.S. determination to keep Muslims backward by denying them advanced technology. (p. 201; my emphasis)
Given the risks of militarily attacking Iran, I certainly hope the United States would rely on much more than reports from Iranian exile groups on the Pentagon's payroll and bad translations in making a decision about going to war.