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POLITICS-US: Air Force Think Tank Advises Against Iran Attack

Jim Lobe*

WASHINGTON, Jul 30 2008 (IPS) - Amid rising speculation about the possibility of an Israeli or U.S. bombing attack on Iranian nuclear facilities earlier this month, a major study produced for the U.S. Air Force by a top defence think tank concluded that U.S. military action against Iran was “likely to have negative effects for the United States”.

The study, by the RAND Project AIR FORCE, a division of the California-based RAND Corporation, was released Jul. 9, the same day that Tehran test-fired medium- and long-range missiles in an apparent response to reports the previous week that Israel had carried out secret exercises designed to simulate a raid on Iran’s nuclear facilities the previous month.

Amid all the fireworks, however, the report, which also called for a multi-faceted strategy designed to encourage democratic development in Iran, was ignored by the mainstream media.

Entitled “Iran’s Political, Demographic, and Economic Vulnerabilities,” the 156-page report also called for Washington to “tone down” its policy statements supporting “regime change” and to “discourage Iranian ethnic groups from revolting against the regime”. Both policies, it said, are likely to be counter-productive.

Instead, according to the three main authors of the study, Washington should adopt a more patient approach, “designed to create conditions for effective relations (with Tehran) over the long haul.”

As with the Soviet Union, “(w)ith Iran, the U.S. government will again need to keep an eye on the long term, communicating with the current government but also encouraging more discussion among Iranians and more contacts and interactions between Iranians and Americans.”

“Societies and governments change. The U.S. government has some ability to foster favourable trends in Iran, but these policies will take time to come to fruition,” said the report, which also noted that Iran “appears to be on its way to becoming a nuclear power”.

Speculation about a possible attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities has, in fact, subsided somewhat over the past three weeks, although the issue has flared again as a result of successive visits by Israel’s chief of staff and defence minister, Ehud Barak, over the past week. Indeed, the Los Angeles times reported Wednesday that top U.S. officials had reassured Barak that the military option was still “on the table”.

Still, most analysts believe that while such an attack – either by Israel or the U.S. – remains possible, it is not probable, if for no other reason than the military brass in the Pentagon, especially the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Michael Mullen, has made its opposition to the idea increasingly clear over the past month.

In addition, the decision to send a high-ranking State Department official to participate for the first time in talks 10 days ago with Iran as part of the Five Plus One process that also involves France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China has been taken as a signal that Washington is increasingly committed to diplomacy as the means to address its concern over Tehran’s nuclear programme.

If, in addition, the State Department receives White House approval for opening an Interests Section in Tehran – a move that is currently the subject of discussions at the highest level of the administration – the likelihood of an attack before President George W. Bush leaves office will recede even further.

In that respect, the RAND study bolsters those who favour engagement with Iran, even as it also supports the maintenance of certain kinds of sanctions, notably the embargo on certain high-tech gas liquefaction technologies, as a bargaining chip for future negotiations with Tehran. To increase pressure on the regime, the report also recommends expanding contingency plans to seize Iranian foreign bank and commercial accounts and encouraging U.S. allies to bar certain Iranian officials associated with the nuclear programme from obtaining visas for foreign travel.

As for the possibility of an attack, however, the report is clear that such an option will almost certainly be counter-productive, particularly with respect to Washington’s hopes that it could result in diminished support for the regime or even its overthrow.

“A large majority of Iranians strongly believe that Iran has the same right as other nations to develop nuclear energy, including the construction and operation of nuclear enrichment facilities,” it said. “If Iran’s facilities were to be bombed, public support for any retaliation its government took would likely be widespread.”

The most likely response, indeed, would be a “strong push to retaliate (as) [c]ritics of such a policy would likely choose to keep silent” in the nationalist backlash that would ensue.

Moreover, such an attack “would be unlikely to stop the Iranian nuclear programme,” according to the authors. While it might set back the economy in certain ways, the resulting increase in oil prices would enable the government “to finance the reconstruction of the facility and continue the current programme without major budgetary consequences.”

Another option, a blockade of Kharg Island, Iran’s main loading terminal, or the Straits of Hormuz to prevent Iranian oil from being exported, would indeed have a “devastating effect” on Iran’s economy, but it would also “probably do more to solidify public support for the regime than weaken it,” according to the report, which also noted the likelihood that such a step would ensure a sharp rise in global oil prices and probably result in Iranian attacks on tanker traffic in the Gulf.

The report also warned against covert action programmes designed to aid minority opposition groups, as “Iranian security forces have convincingly shown that they can handle restive ethnic groups, and violent opposition to Iranian rule is more likely to entrench the current security and political forces than to elicit a positive change in regime policies.”

Instead, Washington should concentrate its efforts on fostering conditions for a more pluralistic Iran in favour of a more patient approach toward a regime that the report said “most Iranians perceive …as legitimate.” It called for greater funding for programmes that facilitate contacts between Iranians and U.S. citizens and to encourage U.S. officials and citizens to provide interviews and commentary for Iranian media…” At the same time, it should “mute U.S. policy statements advocating regime change” as the government often uses these as “an excuse for detaining individuals seeking more freedom.”

The report also calls for support of International Monetary Fund and World Bank efforts to encourage better economic management and cease U.S. opposition to Iran’s accession to the World Trade Organisation.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy, and particularly the neo-conservative influence in the Bush administration, can be read at

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