In Other Words

A Brief History of the Next War

Iran, Les Choix des Armes? (Iran: The Choice of Arms?) By François Heisbourg 174 pages, Paris: Stock, 2007 (in French) Forecasting the next war is always fraught with difficulties. Cassandra’s curse was to be ignored by her fellow Trojans, despite the strength of her gift. Her heirs, on the other hand, are too readily believed ...

Iran, Les Choix des Armes?

(Iran: The Choice of Arms?)

By François Heisbourg

174 pages, Paris: Stock, 2007 (in French)

Forecasting the next war is always fraught with difficulties. Cassandra’s curse was to be ignored by her fellow Trojans, despite the strength of her gift. Her heirs, on the other hand, are too readily believed by anxiety-ridden audiences but generally rendered fools by the unpredictability of history. François Heisbourg, chairman of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies and author of Iran, Le Choix des Armes? (Iran, The Choice of Arms?), a comprehensive new analysis of the Iranian nuclear program, hedges his bets by offering three scenarios of possible Western reactions to Iranian enrichment efforts. First, he imagines a grand bargain between Tehran and Washington (which he favors); second, a military strike against Iran’s nuclear installations (the second best); and third, neglect, possibly leading to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by the decade’s end, with tragic consequences.

This diversity is disingenuous: It gives the appearance of objectivity, but underneath it lie untested assumptions about the fallout from a nuclear Iran. Not only does the author expect proliferation across the Middle East, but he also envisions an Iranian bomb finding its way into Israel sooner rather than later. The wild assumption here is that the Islamic Republic will be collapsing on itself, giving rogue, nihilistic elements — most likely within its Revolutionary Guards — the opportunity to let Hezbollah operatives sneak in and detonate a weapon in Haifa. To the thousands of immediate casualties are added the victims of Israeli nuclear retaliation. That reads better as a spy novel than as a security analysis.

For reasons that are not always solid, a nuclear Iran has become the litmus test of collective security, the line in the sand that, if crossed, would threaten world peace. It is a dogma embraced by both U.S. presidential candidates along with many European leaders — starting with French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Heisbourg’s position is representative of the new mood: Opposed, like many European security analysts, to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, he would in this case support a U.S. strike if that were the only alternative to the Iranian bomb. The book builds its argument in three movements: a historical review of Iran’s nuclear program, an account of the so-far unsuccessful international efforts to stop the momentum, and, lastly, the three scenarios for the future.

The Choice of Arms opens by tracing Iran’s nuclear aspirations to the time of the shah, a ruler with an inflated notion of both Persia’s grandeur and his own. A large civilian nuclear program would provide electricity for a growing population and free up hydrocarbon resources for export revenues. Military applications would give Iran the regional supremacy it believed it deserved. But the program was shelved in the first decade of an Islamist revolution too absorbed in an existential war with Iraq to devote resources to long-term planning. The Iranians learned lessons from that ordeal, though, in particular from the international embargo that followed. For one, Heisbourg argues, Iran knows it will never be able to rebuild conventional capabilities because no one will sell it the tanks, aircraft, or ships it would require. Offensively, Iran can therefore only project power through irregular proxies — that is, terrorist outfits such as Hezbollah’s armed units. Defensively, it must protect itself through the ultimate deterrence — a nuclear shield.

Those unique circumstances justify a grand bargain with the United States. Iran would renounce military nuclearization in return for U.S. support for a civilian nuclear program, investments of much-needed capital in decaying oil and gas industries, and, more generally, normalized relations. Here, Heisbourg lays the blame for the current impasse at the door of the United States. Tangled up in its "Axis of Evil" paradigm, Washington rejected Iranian openings in May 2003. The window for accommodation closed when the world’s new provocateur in chief, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was elected two years later. Iranian domestic political circumstances and U.S. intransigence set both countries on a collision course. And though they have not yet passed a point of no return, with U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions accumulating on one side, and the number of operational centrifuges growing on the other, it is only a matter of time before arms do the talking.

Heisbourg acknowledges there would be no happy ending. Short of a ground invasion, a preemptive U.S. military strike would only postpone Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons by a few years and galvanize Iranian public opinion against the United States. Still, he would support the strike, as he sees in a nuclear Iran an apocalyptic scenario best delayed as long as possible. It is not clear why he argues that to be the case — unless he hopes Iranian leaders will read his book, become convinced of an imminent attack, and voluntarily suspend their enrichment program.

What makes the tragedy exquisitely Greek are all the complex, unforeseen consequences of a strike that Heisbourg chooses to downplay. For one, the United States is bogged down in both Iraq and Afghanistan, where Iran has played its cards methodically and economically, to great effect. Second, any attack against Iran would further disrupt a volatile global economy in which the dollar has lost so much ground against oil and in which Iran could choke the petroleum gateway of the Strait of Hormuz. That is why we hear saber-rattling one week and talks of a grand bargain the next. In truth, Washington can afford a strike even less than Tehran.

If the grand bargain is not in the cards, the odds are that nothing much will happen — whether there is a strike or not, and whether Iran develops a nuclear weapon or not. However unpleasant, the principle of deterrence that applied during the Cold War applies here as well. If anything, a nuclear Israel and a nuclear Iran must face each other and assume their new responsibilities, as India and Pakistan have come to realize.

As for the regional proliferation Heisbourg envisions, it is unlikely. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey have extensive ties to the West, and none has the autonomy to provoke its economic and military partners with weapons programs of its own. Iran has been a complete pariah since 1979, and few states have that kind of experience at self-reliance — not even North Korea, which has somehow managed to get by thanks to reluctant Chinese patronage. At most, Washington would be forced to deploy antimissile units to reaffirm its commitment to regional stability.

Heisbourg’s work is detailed, methodical, and dispassionate, which makes it all the more difficult to notice its transition from fact to speculation. The threat of a nuclear Iran that he lays out seems hyped up, yet most European reviewers have accepted his general premise. Ultimately, the real significance of the "crisis" might not be the imminent danger to global security, but the opportunity to repair frayed trans-Atlantic relations. For Europeans, it serves as the moment to indulge what they see as U.S. warmongering and cleanse themselves of the label of anti-Semitic appeasers, wimps who give in to radical Islam. For Americans, a united front against Iran artificially re-creates the World War II-era alliance and presents an opportunity to once again lead the West.

Heisbourg adds a typically cautious, European logic to the strident warnings of Washington officials, pundits, and journalists such as The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh that something big is in the works against Iran — a message punctuated by the Israeli bombing of a Syrian facility last fall and more recent military exercises in the Mediterranean. The only intended audience for such maneuvers is Tehran itself, which must be warned that it had better negotiate or else. But what about the "else"? A one-time strike against Iran without an ensuing ground invasion would probably have no effect either way. But the economic fallout ought to be considered carefully. A preemptive attack could tip the scales for already nervous investors, triggering a chain reaction that would lead to a run on the dollar and U.S. sovereign default, turning the global economy on its head. Right now, there are simply too many fumes in the air to strike a match.

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