With Washington winding down one war in Iraq and ramping up another in Afghanistan, no one really expects U.S. forces to swing their sights on the country that sits in between these two crisis spots. Sure, there’s the obligatory talk of “all options being on the table,” but if the hawkish Bush administration couldn’t pull the trigger on Iran’s advancing nuclear program, it seems highly unlikely that the Obama administration, eager to pursue a less confrontational and more diplomatic approach in the region, will choose the military option. What’s most intruguing is the prospect that someone else could choose that option—or that something else could serve as a trigger.
Talk of a counter-proliferation strike gained traction earlier this month, when the UAE’s ambassador to the United States, Yousef al-Otaiba, endorsed the idea at a conference in Aspen, Colorado.
“We cannot live with a nuclear Iran,” he said, adding that in his “cost-benefit analysis” the UAE would be “willing to absorb what takes place at the expense of the security of the UAE.”
But would the UAE be willing or able to offer more than political support? Probably not. Even so, the UAE looks to be bracing for the worst. For the first time ever, pilots from the UAE’s air force joined the U.S. Air Force and allied air forces at the Red Flag exercises in Nevada in 2009. And with an eye on Tehran, the UAE has purchased $17 billion in F-16s, Patriot missile batteries, and area-wide missile defenses.
The $17-billion spending binge is part of a $25-billion modernization program by several oil-rich Gulf states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis, for their part, are beefing up their fleet of F-15 bombers by buying new jets and upgrading the ones they already have.
Interestingly, Saudi Arabia provides a perfect segue to the most likely source of a counter-proliferation strike on Iran’s nuclear program. Open-source materials—from the Los Angeles Times to the London Sunday Times to the _Jerusalem Post_—are filled with reports that the Saudis are so concerned about an Iranian bomb that they have privately agreed to open an air corridor for Israeli warplanes. One report indicates that the Saudis have even tested how they would “stand down” their air defenses to make way for an Israeli strike force.
The Saudis, of course, have denied these reports, but it pays to recall that Israeli warplanes flew through Turkish airspace en route to nuclear targets in Syria in 2007, with Turkey’s tacit approval.
For its part, Israel seems to be taking the necessary steps to prepare for a counter-proliferation operation:
For its part, France recently opened air force and naval installations in Abu Dhabi, just across from Iran. French president Nicolas Sarkozy says the base “is a sign to all that France is participating in the stability of this region of the world.” It pays to recall that Sarkozy is the most hawkish of all Western leaders when it comes to Iran, warning that if peace-loving countries don’t close ranks, the consequence will be “an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran.” His foreign minister adds, “It is necessary to prepare for the worst. And the worst is war.”
The U.S. may be preparing for the worst as well, albeit quietly:
Hezbollah is a crucial player in this multi-sided drama. In the event of a strike on its nuclear facilities, Iran would surely activate its Hezbollah partners for another proxy war against Israel.
Toward that end, the mullahs have deployed a new radar system to Syria. The system will not only provide Iran with advance warning of an Israeli or U.S. attack; it also will enhance the accuracy of Hezbollah’s rockets in lower Lebanon.
In addition, Iran is probing the U.S. Navy by buzzing aircraft carriers and using high-speed attack boats to harass other warships.
An over-reaction or misinterpretation on the part of an Iranian fast-attack boat or a U.S. warship is one of several ways that a direct military confrontation with Iran could be unintentionally triggered. Other possible triggers include inspections of Iranian vessels. A new UN resolution authorizes inspections if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe an Iranian vessel is transporting banned cargo. Of course, as the Washington Post observes, “A similar U.N. provision that was passed last year to encourage the boarding of North Korean vessels has not led to a single interdiction of banned cargo on the high seas.”
A border incident on the Iraq-Iran frontier also could lead to a military showdown. U.S. troops patrol the border area, and the New York Times reports that Iranians “engage in Cold War-style gamesmanship,” including flying helicopters into Iraqi airspace, encroaching on water boundaries, and even sending troops and tanks into the Iraqi province of Maysan.
Even so, Iran’s smug and reckless rulers don’t hold as many cards as they might think. Iran is surrounded by neighbors that either distrust or despise its government, each representing routes of attack. If the old saying about the “enemy of my enemy” holds, then Saudi airspace could come into play. A number of U.S.-friendly emirates sit just across the Persian Gulf from Iran. Afghanistan, with its remote U.S. airbases, sits to the east. The Persian Gulf is a U.S. lake. And the open waters of the Arabian Sea lap at Iran’s southern coast. In short, Israel, working in quiet partnership with Washington and others, has more options than what we see on the surface.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.