Another shoe has dropped on the path toward war against Iran. A potentially deadly game is brewing between the International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors and Iran over access to military facilities at Parchin. Deadly – because similar stand-offs with UN inspectors led to U.S. missile attacks in 1998 against suspected Iraqi WMD facilities and provided the rationale for the subsequent full-scale military invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In the current atmosphere of increasingly heated rhetoric threatening military strikes against Iran, these disputes at Parchin or other similar sites could quickly (if unintentionally) spiral into direct military confrontation. US, Israeli, and Iranian officials alike should take this moment to carefully consider the potentially catastrophic consequences of their next steps.
In announcing the US missile strikes against suspect Iraqi nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons facilities in December 1998, President Clinton cited Saddam’s failure to “cooperate with the United Nations weapons inspectors called UNSCOM.” In particular, he observed that “Iraq repeatedly blocked UNSCOM from inspecting suspect sites [and]… restricted UNSCOMs ability to obtain necessary evidence.” In his speech to the United Nations Security Council in February 2003, Secretary of State Powell similarly based the American case for war on a pattern of incomplete Iraqi cooperation with UN inspectors suggesting that “Saddam Hussein and his regime are concealing their efforts to produce more weapons of mass destruction.”
Saddam predictably responded to these charges by launching a counteroffensive of his own alleging that the UN inspection teams included spies from the CIA and other Western intelligence agencies and citing Iraqi sovereignty as an explanation for delays and obstructions at sensitive sites such as presidential palaces.
The situation at Parchin is eerily reminiscent of this pattern of charges and countercharges – with the international community demanding full, immediate, and unconditional cooperation with inspectors and Iran insisting that these inspections be subject to an agreed upon process of notifications and clearances. Both sides may be waltzing their way to war with UN inspections becoming a ‘trigger’ for military action.
So what lessons should US and Iranian policymakers take from the lessons of UN inspections in Iraq?
First, U.S. and Israeli policymakers should have realistic expectations for continued inspections. No system of inspections, no matter how thorough, can guarantee detection of an illicit weapons program. There will always be the possibility that a covert program exists somewhere in a country as large as Iran (roughly the size of Alaska). Furthermore, the widespread dispersal of Iranian nuclear facilities will undoubtedly complicate the task of inspectors.
Moreover, cooperation with international inspectors will often fall short of the idealized goal of ‘unfettered access’ – particularly at sensitive military sites. Parchin is only the most recent example of this reality.
Nation-states are notoriously sensitive to issues of sovereignty. Pledges of full cooperation (even if honestly made) will inevitably push up against bureaucratic insistence on formal notification procedures to coordinate various clearances and make facilities and personnel available for inspection by foreign officials. Additionally, countries may well have genuine concerns for the potential disclosure of non-prohibited, but nonetheless sensitive information, personnel, or activities. The recent campaign of assassinations of Iranian scientists and threats of future U.S. or Israeli military strikes can only increase Tehran’s concerns on this score.
Consequently, US and Israeli policymakers will have to recognize that inspections will inevitably be constrained in some way, shape, or fashion; and will not provide them with absolute certainty that Iran does not have some form of clandestine weapons program. These are the inherent risks associated with an approach centered on inspections.
Second, though imperfect, robust inspections can nonetheless be an effective means of deterring a country from developing an illicit WMD program. This is particularly true when coupled with multilateral sanctions restricting the ability of a country to acquire dual use materials or technologies (useable in both civilian and military weapons programs). Here too the case of Iraq is instructive. In the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is clear that the combination of inspections and sanctions applied over the course of a decade did effectively prevent Saddam Hussein from reconstituting his weapons of mass destruction programs despite the consternation over Iraq’s repeated ‘cat and mouse’ games with inspectors.
These same conditions exist now in Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency is actively monitoring Iranian facilities. These activities include cameras operating constantly to detect any diversion of enriched uranium to military purposes. Meanwhile, US diplomacy has successfully forged an international consensus for a strengthened sanctions regime targeting Iran’s financial, economic, and military sectors that is now gaining traction. The current US intelligence community assessment that leaders in Tehran suspended the active pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability in 2003 in response to international pressure indicates that this combination of inspections, sanctions, and diplomacy has indeed been successful.
This success should encourage U.S. and Israeli policymakers to press forward with the current approach emphasizing continued international inspections and multilateral sanctions as a proven means of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. Moreover, in the longer term, even limited success here with improved Iranian cooperation with inspectors being rewarded with a measured relaxation in sanctions could provide the foundation for a diplomatic strategy that ultimately results in a more permanent resolution of this issue that military action will almost certainly not achieve.
Meanwhile, Iranian leaders should also heed the lessons of Iraq and appreciate the risks associated with even the appearance of non-cooperation with IAEA inspectors. Saddam badly miscalculated the West’s willingness to act aggressively when confronted with a pattern of delays and restrictions on inspections that fostered perceptions of an orchestrated effort to hide WMD programs.
The risks of war are real. Recent reports that Secretary of State Clinton has urged her Russian counterparts to tell Iran that upcoming talks are the ‘last chance’ before military attacks and President Obama’s warning yesterday that “the window for solving this issue diplomatically is shrinking” only demonstrate just how perilously close to war we are.
To avoid conflict, all parties will need to tread carefully and avoid leading their opposing dance partner into a dangerous and catastrophic misstep.
The author is a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Army War College and served as a Middle East policy advisor to Vice Presidents Gore and Cheney. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
Christopher Bolan, Ph.D.
Professor of National Security Studies
US Army War College
Carlisle, PA 17013