Integrated Iran Strategy Needed, Panelists Tell JINSA Board Members

Breaking news that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey will travel to Israel next month for talks on halting Iran’s nuclear program, coupled with last week’s report that the Islamic Republic threatened to close the Persian Gulf if new, tougher sanctions are imposed on it have only added to the Iran issue’s urgency. While this news has policymakers scrambling to make sense of the ever more precarious situation, JINSA leaders had been well-briefed on the subject just a month earlier.

Breaking news that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey will travel to Israel next month for talks on halting Iran’s nuclear program, coupled with last week’s report that the Islamic Republic threatened to close the Persian Gulf if new, tougher sanctions are imposed on it have only added to the Iran issue’s urgency. While this news has policymakers scrambling to make sense of the ever more precarious situation, JINSA leaders had been well-briefed on the subject just a month earlier.

On November 7, a panel of four experts addressed the Board of Directors on Iran. They included Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military & Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy; Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; Ali Alfoneh, Resident Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and; cyber security expert Henry Bar-Levav. The panelists discussed the current changes in Iran, the options available to the United States to respond to Iran’s sponsorship of terror, Iran’s nuclear weapons development program and engaged in a lengthy Q&A session with board members.

Michael Eisenstadt noted in his opening statement the growing pressure for a military solution to the Iranian threat. He cautioned, however, that there was no military action the United States could undertake with a high degree of confidence. He agreed with the previous speakers that America’s Iran policy needed to be more comprehensive and strategic. He likened it to an unstable “two-legged chair” where the two legs were diplomatic and economic policies. Military and information operations – the missing third leg – have not as yet been pursued.

Eisenstadt examined three cases where Iran was successfully pressured. The first was the 1988 cease-fire with Iraq. The second case was the Mykonos verdict in 1992 – a court case where Iran was held responsible for killing an Iranian Kurdish leader on the island of Mykonos. As a result of the verdict, the EU broke off its relationship with Iran for six months. Since then, Iran has not engaged in another major act of terrorism in Europe. The third instance was when Iran suspended elements of its nuclear program for a period after 9/11. In each case, there was the threat of major military action or international isolation. These conditions may not be easy to replicate for a number of reasons, he said.

Iran is not likely to feel pressured at present because it feels that things are “going their way.” The regime has talked itself into a corner on its right to nuclear technology. Eisenstadt felt that this was an intentional play in order to make a stand. Iran believes in its long-term ascendance while also believing that the United States is in long-term decline.

The United States has a credibility problem when it comes to using military pressure against Iran. It has never retaliated militarily against any of Iran’s previous terrorist actions, including the attack on the Beirut Barracks in 1983, the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, or Iran’s operations in Iraq in the 21st century. Lead U.S. decision makers have declared that America doesn’t want a “Third War,” and though the Administration has tried to convince Tehran that everything is on the table, the effort has not been entirely successful. Iran felt secure enough, for example, that it recently launched a plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington, DC without worrying about retaliation.

Eisenstadt acknowledges that in the past there was some wisdom to showing restraint when it came to dealing with the rogue in Tehran, however, the current Iranian regime is likely to see it as weakness or cowardice. The challenge for the United States is going to be taking a balanced approach to military action. Much of this comes down to strategic communication, Eisenstadt contended. The United States must show that Iran cannot hide its terrorist activities or nuclear facilities. Iran must know that if it tries to do something inimical to American interests, “we will detect it.” The United States also needs to communicate that it has the right to respond militarily to any threat and that the Iranian government cannot count on our response being “proportionate or symmetrical.” Iran’s leadership should feel a little uncertain and queasy when they contemplate crossing the United States.

If all this fails, Eisenstadt advised, is important to consider the challenges of preventative military action. In the past, this sort of action has been successful to prevent clandestine nuclear programs, such as Iraq in 1981 or Syria in 2007. Iran’s infrastructure, however, is much more dispersed and hardened. Such an action would almost certainly cause a global oil price spike. Such an action would require very strong international and domestic support. Such support is unlikely to come about absent an Iranian provocation.

Many of the factors that make striking Iran now unpalatable are only likely to get worse in the future. Iran will continue to hide and disperse its nuclear program; and it will eventually be able to detonate a nuclear device. This is not a problem that can be “kicked down the road” indefinitely. Though the cost of striking now is great, the cost of striking later may be much greater, Eisenstadt concluded.

Mark Dubowitz took the microphone to primarily address economic issues and economic means of addressing Iran’s threat to the United States. He argued that sanctions are a “sort of shrapnel” and not a “silver bullet.” Sanctions are something that can wound the regime, but alone are unlikely to kill it.

Dubowitz acknowledged a few of the successes of the sanctions regime. They have undoubtedly hurt Iran’s economy, caused massive inflation and unemployment. The sanctions have especially harmed the country’s natural gas sector. Iran has the second largest natural gas reserves in the world (after Russia), but it cannot import the technology it needs to bring it to market. Iran’s inability to liquefy, pipe, or sell its natural gas has robbed the regime of a major windfall.

The current sanctions regime has some failings, however, Dubowitz said. The largest, of course, is oil. Iran sells over 2.3 million barrels per day, worth over $80 billion a year. A major concern is how to target Iran’s ability to sell oil without “spooking” the global energy market. Dubowitz discussed three potential options. The first was to go after the Revolutionary Guards role in the supply chain. The U.S. could sanction refineries that buy from entities controlled by the IRGC. This has the advantage of hurting the IRGC’s standing in the Iranian government. The second option is to designate the Central Bank of Iran. This, however, would almost certainly spike global oil prices and cause a supply disruption. Third, the United States could close the “ridiculous loophole” in its Iran sanctions regime that allows the purchase of Iranian oil refined in foreign refineries.

Dubowitz concluded by noting that sanctions won’t kill the Iranian regime, but will weaken it and make it more susceptible to pressure. It will also put the Iranian regime on the defensive. In effect, putting it in the international system’s “penalty box.”

Ali Alfoneh addressed the growing pre-eminence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) within the Iranian government. The IRGC was originally established to defend the 1979 Islamic Revolution, its values and actions, not Iranian territory. Alfoneh contended that the Revolutionary Guards no longer merely protect the regime; they are the regime. This represents a shift from the old domination of the religious clerical class.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is the first president of Iran to be a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, Alfoneh noted. Thirteen of 18 of his ministers are also veterans of the war but only one is a religious leader by training, the minister of intelligence, who is constitutionally required to be a cleric. Alfoneh also pointed out that more than half of the Consultative Assembly members are former Revolutionary Guards. While Alfoneh said he recognizes that one might expect veterans to rise to positions of distinction within any country, he noted that it was Iran’s regular army that did the lion’s share of the fighting during the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988. Veterans of this much larger force are not nearly so well represented in Iran’s ruling organs.

Alfoneh contended that the Revolutionary Guard Corps was functionally running the show in Iran, and the West needs to understand the IRGC better. This was especially true regarding decisions relating to Iran’s security and its nuclear program, Alfoneh said. “The Supreme Leader and civilian leadership are not the ones making those [nuclear] decisions.” He further made the case that U.S. policymakers need to understand the Iran-Iraq War better, as this was the formative experience, a “World War I” for the generation now running Iraq.

Henry Bar-Levav, founder and principal at pioneering cyber security firm Recursion Ventures, explained cyber warfare and then spoke on its role in confronting Iran.

Bar-Levav opened up by explaining that computer technology is pervasive and automatic; it controls transportation, electricity, manufacturing, and the countless other invisible systems modern civilization depends on. When those systems fail, people can die. To show how broad the issue is, Bar-Levav noted that a modern automobile is, in essence “a bunch of computers on wheels.” He explained that almost every piece of technology has some form of computing device embedded within it. Even automobile tires have radio frequency ID tags embedded inside them.

Bar-Levav then discussed how Iran would be able to harm the United States in the event of a conflict. Options available to the Tehran regime include closing the Straits of Hormuz, increasing their support of Hezbollah, or making use of their growing clout in Latin America. Given some of these difficulties, Bar-Levav spoke to the attractiveness of using cyber war offensively against Iran. With that, he referenced Stuxnet, a computer worm that targeted large industrial control systems that hit Iran’s nuclear weapons-grade fuel manufacturing center particularly hard.

What Bar-Levav found very interesting about Stuxnet, however, was that it could have been made by almost anyone. Although he acknowledged the Israelis and the Saudis had the motivation, computer technology is so widely available and so inexpensive that Stuxnet’s creator need not be a government. Cyber war is so accessible, and our dependence on technology is so widespread, it only takes a few people to do “astonishing amounts of damage.” In fact, Bar-Levav said that the United States is certainly under a prolonged cyber attack now, but is not aware of it.

Closing his remarks by addressing what the United States could do to adapt to the new security environment, Bar-Levav stressed the need for integrated effort by military, intelligence, and private sector assets. He likened the cyber defense community to a “well armed, unregulated militia” that the government had to do a better job of tapping into. He even drew an analogy with the old Congressional power to issue letters of marque and reprisal – commissions or warrants issued to an individual to commit what would otherwise be unlawful acts of piracy. Bar-Levav felt that the United States must be able to fight Iran using our greatest resource, America’s talented and inventive population.

It is important for the United States to understand the mindset of the people governing Iran today, the Revolutionary Guard Corps as an institution, and how both will drive Iranian policy decisions in the future. Taken individually, economic pressure, cyber warfare, and military force are not likely to be sufficient to end Iran’s nuclear weapons development program or Tehran’s support for terrorist organizations. The panelists made the case that taken together in an integrated, comprehensive strategy, these policies stand the best chance for success.

By JINSA Editorial Assistant Travis Rumans.