Iranian Unknown Unknowns

Is there a military option when dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions? A panel at the Nixon Center on Monday offered their assessment.

As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns-the ones we don't know we don't know.

It would seem that Donald Rumsfeld's words have outlasted his run in the Pentagon.

In 2005, the U.S. government said Iran was actively trying to build a nuclear bomb. But the headline on The New York Times website following a panel discussion at the Nixon Center on Monday December 3 about the use of force against Iran was "U.S. Says Iran Ended Atomic Arms Work." Apparently, the Times reports, the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) released on Monday says Iran put a stop to its nuclear-weapons program in 2003.

Does this headline offer the full story? Hardly, according to panelists Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair on Strategy at CSIS; Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program and senior fellow at the Washington Institute; and Shai Feldman, the Judy and Sidney Swartz Director's Chair of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis University.

All this underscores that intelligence about Iran is shrouded in uncertainty. It is difficult for commentators to fully grasp what the United States actually knows about Iran's capabilities-and how much of that information is actually correct. With such a deficiency in hard facts, any policy recommendations would be mere speculation. The panelists focused their analysis on the utility of military strikes, limiting personal commentary on their likelihood.

Cordesman offered his best view of the intelligence available so far, opening that he has "no doubt Iran is pursuing some form of nuclear-weapons program." He has no confidence in the contradictory nuclear and missile data Iran has released so far, but Iran's choice of enrichment methods casts doubt on the peaceful nature of its nuclear development. "The more you go into the detailed [IAEA] reporting, the more details you see that only make sense for nuclear-weapons programs", he said.

And much of the information the United States has remains classified, Cordesman noted. "If I knew anything, I wouldn't be here", Feldman quipped. Those with access keep quiet, and what they know probably isn't the whole story anyway.

Turning to action, Feldman noted there was no clear answer to the question of a military option. It depends wholly on the desired ends and current capabilities of the actors undertaking the strikes, the United States and Israel.

Feldman offered three potential goals of a military strike: 1) do enough damage to set the Iranian program back a few years, 2) destroy every site involved in nuclear development or 3) do all of the above while also destroying Iran's retaliatory capability-war with Iran, for all intents and purposes. Associated with each of these aims are various and specific intelligence requirements.

But all of this is hypothetical; intelligence is shoddy. And one "can't discuss this in the abstract", Feldman said.

Whatever the U.S. capabilities and designs, the panelists agreed that strikes would likely need to be sustainable, as the potential for escalation to Feldman's hypothetical number three-war-is foreseeable should Iran choose to strike back against even limited targeting of its nuclear sites.

But, as Cordesman noted, Iran's retaliatory options are limited by faults in its military and its fragile domestic economic base. Iran is in a poor position to strike back.

Also tempering a potential response is the fact that President Ahmadinejad isn't the only decision-maker in Iran, Eisenstadt pointed out. And his popularity is waning, Feldman said, due in part to the effects of economic sanctions.

If we don't have a firm grasp on what we're up against or what we're capable of, it's difficult to develop a course of military action. Offering a word of warning, Cordesman looked to the past, to Operation Desert Fox in Iraq, as a lesson in faulty planning.

But uncertainty is a given in any policy decision, according to Feldman. Risk analysis is about weighing probabilities. It's never "crystal clear" how the other side will react. But policy would be "totally crippled" without taking some kind of risk.

So, should the international community as a whole or specific countries within it take military action?

Eisenstadt stressed that decision-makers must ask if military strikes add or detract from the "robustness of the deterrent relationship" the United States has with Iran? Preventive action, in his view, isn't an alternative to deterrence.

The military option has both pros and cons, he said. It would likely not deter Iran from rebuilding its programs after the strikes. And many forces must coalesce to make U.S. military action a feasible and practical option: U.S. congressional consensus, strong intelligence in favor of strikes, decision on what to target and when to strike.

But both the president and the vice president have "set the bar high", Eisenstadt said, by claiming that the United States will not let Iran have nuclear weapons. And strikes now would set clear red lines to constrain future Iranian actions.

But Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center, warned all to keep the international response to military action in mind when discussing policy. Strikes on Iran would inevitably lead to a rise in oil prices, something with which the Chinese would doubtlessly take issue. And Russia may well step in to help Iran in the event of extended war with the United States.