Le posizioni di Luttwak su Commentary Magazine
I know of no reputable expert in the United States or in Europe who trusts the constantly repeated promise of Iran’s rulers that their nuclear program will be entirely peaceful and is meant only to produce electricity. The question is what to do about this. Faced with the alarming prospect of an Iran armed with nuclear weapons, some policy experts favor immediate preventive action, while others, of equal standing, invite us to accept what they consider to be inevitable in any case. The former call for the bombing of Iran’s nuclear installations before they can produce actual weapons. The latter, to the contrary, urge a diplomatic understanding with Iran’s rulers in order to attain a stable relationship of mutual deterrence.
Neither position seems adequately to recognize essential Iranian realities or American strategic priorities. To treat Iran as nothing more than a set of possible bombing targets cannot possibly be the right approach. Still more questionable is the illogical belief that a regime that feels free to attack American interests in spite of its present military inferiority would somehow become more restrained if it could rely on the protective shield of nuclear weapons.
In contemplating preventive action, the technical issue may be quickly disposed of. Some observers, noting that Iran’s nuclear installations consist of hundreds of buildings at several different sites, including a number that are recessed in the ground with fortified roofs, have contended that even a prolonged air campaign might not succeed in destroying all of them. Others, drawing a simplistic analogy with Israel’s aerial destruction of Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor in June 1981, speak as if it would be enough to drop sixteen unguided bombs on a single building to do the job. The fact is that the targets would not be buildings as such but rather processes, and, given the aiming information now available, they could indeed be interrupted in lasting ways by a single night of bombing. An air attack is not a demolition contract, and in this case it could succeed while inflicting relatively little physical damage and no offsite casualties, barring gross mechanical errors that occur only rarely in these days of routine precision.
The greater question, however, is neither military nor diplomatic but rather political and strategic: what, in the end, do we wish to see emerge in Iran? It is in light of that long-term consideration that we need to weigh both our actions and their timing, lest we hinder rather than accelerate the emergence of the future we hope for. We must start by considering the special character of American relations with the country and people of Iran.
The last time the United States seriously considered the use of force in Iran, much larger operations were envisaged than the bombing of a few uranium-enrichment installations. The year was 1978, and the mission was so demanding that a complete light-infantry division would have been needed just as an advance guard to screen the build-up of the main forces. The projected total number of troops in action—most of them from Iran’s U.S.-equipped and U.S.-trained army—would easily have exceeded the maximum total fielded by the United States and its allies in Iraq since 2003. Their mission: to defend the country from a Soviet thrust to the Persian Gulf, in which motor-rifle divisions would descend from the Armenian and Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republics to link up with airborne divisions sent ahead to seize the oil ports.
That long-ago bit of contingency planning reflected sound intelligence on the contemporary transformation of the Soviet army from a ponderous battering ram to a fast-paced maneuver force. In the end, to be sure, it turned out that not Iran but neighboring Afghanistan was the Soviet target. But there is no question that, in facing the adventurism of an exceedingly well-armed Soviet Union in its final stage of militarist decline, the government of Iran could rely on the protection of its American alliance, an alliance in place ever since the Truman administration blocked Stalin’s attempt to partition the country in 1946. From then on, and even in the perilous circumstances envisaged in 1978, the United States stood ready to risk the lives of American troops to defend Iran—it was that important in American strategy.
At stake in those decades was not just Iran’s oil, although that counted for much more in 1946 than it does now: there was as yet no oil production to speak of in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, or the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq was the only other oil exporter in the region. More significant than Iran’s geology was, and is, its geography. During the cold war, its northern border on either side and across the waters of the Caspian Sea formed an essential segment of the Western perimeter of containment. Today, it is Iran’s very long southern coastline that is of equal strategic importance, dominating as it does the entire Persian Gulf from its narrow southern entrance at the straits of Hormuz to the thin wedge of Iraqi territory at its head. All of the offshore oil- and gas-production platforms in the gulf, all the traffic of oil and gas tankers originating from the jetties of the Arabian peninsula and Iraq, are within easy reach of the Iranian coast.
Unchanging geographic realities thus favor a strategic alliance between the United States and Iran, with large benefits for each side. Only the strategic reach of the distant United States can secure Iran from the power of the Russians nearby—a power not in abeyance even now, as the recent nuclear diplomacy shows, and much more likely to revive in the future than to decline. Likewise, a friendly Iran can best keep troublemakers away from the oil installations on the Arab side of the gulf, where there are only weak and corrupt desert dynasties to protect them.