When it comes to understanding the debate of whether a pre-emptive attack should be launched against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, the majority of us understand the most immediate impact of this when we fill up our automobiles at the gas pump.  Concerns of a pending conflict have pushed the price of gas up dramatically across the country and pushed the issue to the forefront politically.  The Strait of Hormuz, the maritime checkpoint through which nearly 20% of the worlds traded oil passes, is a major checkpoint of conflict that would cause a dramatic rise in oil prices should there be an outbreak of military action.  The alleged attacks on diplomats in India, Georgia, a bomb factory that exploded in Thailand, the alleged plot to kill a Saudi diplomat in Washington, and threats to shut down the Strait, in addition to Ahmadinejad’s nuclear braggadocio would appear to have some basis in fact in supporting a pre-emptive attack.

How do we access this threat? Is this a country run by a theocratic death cult? Will continued economic sanctions result in a more compliant, or dangerous Iran?

The economy is under great strain and in danger of collapsing. Iranian officials now publicly complain about the intense pain that sanctions are producing. Additional sanctions are pending against the Iranian Central Bank. Severe economic strain, isolation, and technical challenges are taking its toll.

Iran is nearly isolated in the world, the regime is extremely unpopular domestically and its revolutionary fervor has ebbed.  Far from being the theocratic martyrdom cult that some politically portray them as.  Iran is a fairly traditional military dictatorship with a patina of religiosity. The supreme leader Ayatulla Ali Khamenei has marginalized the clergy, and Ahmadinejad has been humiliated and stagnated by Khamenei. Most of Ahmadinejad’s allies were struck from the ballot for the coming parliamentary elections.

The real power in Tehran is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.  When you understand that 30% of Iran’s domestic industries are controlled by this organization, in addition to various members of the supreme council having vast and profitable segments of the economy under its control, the effects of sanctions may be the key to reducing future nuclear expansion.

Is the threat of a nuclear armed Iran both grave and imminent? Do we have little choice but to attack Iran before it is too late?

Please, for a moment imagine all the associated risks. The lesson of Iraq, the last preventive war launched by the U.S. is that Washington should choose war when there are still other options. And it should not base its decision on best case analyses on how it hopes the conflict will turn out.

Any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences.  Could you expect Iran not to respond with its worst forms of retaliation, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles at Southern Europe?

Can a strike be launched by the U.S. and have Iranian leaders believe that it had limited aims? Decades of hostility and perceived U.S. efforts to undermine the regime would reinforce along with a general ignorance about what drives U.S. decision making, the likelihood that Iranian leadership does not see an attack as having limited intent.

What would be in the impact and pressure on both sides to stop fighting due to impact on international oil markets?

The decentralized nature of the I.I.R.G.C., especially its navy, raises the prospect of unauthorized responses that could rapidly expand fighting on the crowded waters of the Persian Gulf.

Can you count on reliable communications between the U.S. and Iran once hostilities breakout?

What impacts would closing the Strait of Hormuz do to the Iranian economy?

What is the effect on other states in the region? How do you keep them out of the fight? Does it undermine key Arab support if Iran seeks to drag Israel into the conflict?

What is the effect on the Arab street, which would reject any attack on Iran?

Both Islamist extremists and embattled elites could use this opportunity to transform the Arab spring populist anti-regime narrative into a decidedly anti American one.

Where does the red line get drawn?

Until all other options have been exhausted and the Iranian threat is not just growing, but imminent, continue to give sanctions and continued diplomatic discussions a chance to succeed.


Robert Seidenschwarz

President—Montana World Affairs Council