Stopping Iran

Diplomacy isn’t working. Covert paramilitary action may be the only way to curb Tehran’s nuclear program.

Last year on this Web site, I noted that the Obama administration was running out of options on Iran’s nuclear program:

The administration can continue with negotiations, and try to find new ways to entice Tehran to the bargaining table. It can quietly acknowledge the impending reality of an Iranian nuclear capability—a stance which is tantamount to political suicide. Or it will have to look at new ways to exert pressure on the regime. Economic pressure can be tightening, but only up to a point. . . . That leaves covert, paramilitary action. This requires good intelligence to pinpoint the location of sites critical to Iran’s nuclear program, and the teams and equipment necessary to infiltrate Iran and cause damage to the program, to either delay it or cause it to shut down altogether.

This week, the New York Times revealed that the Pentagon was already on the job. General David Petraeus apparently signed a Joint Unconventional Warfare Task Force Execute Order on September 30, 2009:

The seven-page directive appears to authorize specific operations in Iran, most likely to gather intelligence about the country’s nuclear program or identify dissident groups that might be useful for a future military offensive. The Obama administration insists that for the moment, it is committed to penalizing Iran for its nuclear activities only with diplomatic and economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the Pentagon has to draw up detailed war plans to be prepared in advance, in the event that President Obama ever authorizes a strike. “The Defense Department can’t be caught flat-footed,” said one Pentagon official with knowledge of General Petraeus’s order.

The sanctions draft currently under discussion in the UN Security Council would put pressure on Tehran, to be sure, but falls well short of the crippling measures advocated by the United States that might levy a real toll on the regime. Hopes for an internal regime change, spearheaded by the Green Movement, have dimmed. The Islamic Republic has both utilized effective repressive measures to shut down or cripple opposition movements and reinforced its support among traditional bases of support—the Revolutionary Guards, the rural population and the working class. As Stephen Kinzer recently reported:

“It's over.” With that short answer, a young woman I met while strolling through a park in ancient Shiraz summed up what has happened to the protest movement that shook Iran and electrified the world after last year's disputed presidential election. . . . Some Iranians clearly believe that in the wake of last year's dubious election and the upheaval that followed, their regime has lost its "obohat," an elusive attribute of just leadership that is variously translated as righteousness, virtue, nobility or right to rule. But it is far from clear that these dissidents comprise the majority, or that most Iranians wish for a new kind of government.
Several people told me that the material conditions of life here have palpably improved in recent years. President Ahmadinejad travels the country tirelessly, meeting with local people and asking what they need. On most visits he promises to provide it — a school, a dam, a new road. Then, a year or two later, he returns to assure himself that the work has been completed. This form of politicking is as effective here as it is in other countries. “Thirty-five percent of Iranians like this government and Ahmadinejad,” a college student told me outside a Sufi shrine in the southeastern town of Mahan. “Twenty-five percent are against. The rest don't care.”

Six months after the expiration of the administration’s self-imposed deadline for diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff with Iran, the Obama team will not be able to point to either sanctions modeled after the set of 1990 punitive sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait, or to an Iran undergoing its own color revolution, as signs of success. Congress, which has a history of sending sanctions bills on unpopular regimes—with large bipartisan majorities—to a president’s desk prior to elections (think of the Cuba, Iran and Libya sanctions bills delivered to President Clinton in 1996), will want to demonstrate that “something” is being done. If the executive branch is going to retain its freedom of action, the president will either need to deliver a diplomatic coup, or show that “other steps” are being taken.

So we come back to the logic of covert action. If the New York Times report is accurate, then the first steps are being taken that would permit the development of actual options.

“God assists the patient,” former-President Hashemi Rafsanjani recently declared. But the patience of the administration is running out.

Nikolas K. Gvosdev, a senior editor at The National Interest, is a professor of national-security studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are entirely his own.