US ‘Iran attack plans’ revealed

February 27, 2007

Iran resumed its uranium enrichment programme in 2006. While Tehran claims that it is for civil use, the West suspects Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. The UN has called on Iran to suspend the programme by 21 February 2007, failing which Iran will face economic sanctions (Iran has already ignored the deadline). But BBC has learned that the US has in place contingency plans for air strikes on Iran, which will extend beyond nuclear sites and include most of the country’s military infrastructure.

The US insists that it is not planning to attack. But diplomatic sources told BBC that as a fallback plan, senior officials at Central Command in Florida have already selected their targets inside Iran, including Iran’s uranium enrichment plant at Natanz.

BBC says the trigger for such an attack will include any confirmation that Iran is developing a nuclear weapon, and a high-casualty attack on US forces in neighbouring Iraq, if it can be traced back to Tehran. In early February, US officers in Iraq already said they had evidence Iran was providing weapons to Iraqi Shia militias. Some fear that the US is softening up world opinion for an attack on Iran. At present, the US lacks a casus belli and by claiming that Iran is responsible for killing American troops, it could be laying the groundwork for a ‘self-defence’ justification.

Neorealist Kenneth Waltz assumes that states are self-interest egoists who determine their strategies by rationally choosing that which maximizes their welfare in an international system which is anarchical and self-help in nature. States desire to preserve themselves and continually adjust their stance in the world in accordance with their reading of the power of others and of their own power. Waltz admits that there is no guarantee of balance of power, but it is a tendency of the states to be aware of the distribution of power in the world and to respond to signals or cues sent to them by the international system.

With the growing aggressiveness and defiance of Iran under President Mahmoud Abmadinegjad and its development of nuclear technology, it seems that there is a change of power distribution. Concerned about self-preservation and maximization of national interest (some have accused the US of pursuing a hidden agenda, i.e. to secure control the oil fields in Iran), will the US take on Iran now?

The fact is that the US is “too busy” in Iraq. Starting a new war on a new front would be stretching its military forces too far. Moreover, support for the Iraq war has dwindled significantly back home and attacking Iran now would surely be met with strong opposition in the US and worldwide. The Time Magazine notes that the prospect of a military confrontation with Iran causes shudders among many US officials, given Iran’s capability to retaliate against American troops in Iraq and strike civilian targets around the world.i

Using Graham Allison’s three models of decision to predict whether the US would go to war against Iran, we would also probably reach a negative conclusion.

The Rational Actor Model (which assumes that a state would choose a rational response to a particular situation) would suggest that it would not be wise to fight two wars at the same time and therefore the US would not be starting a new one for the time being. The Organizational Process Model (which says decisions are made by multiple organizations) would point to the difficulties President George W. Bush will face in securing support back home to deploy troops to Iran, given that any such decision would have to go through the Senate and the House of Representatives which are now under the Democrats’ control. Even using the Bureaucratic Politics Model (which stresses the importance of political factors and bureaucracies), we will see that no one, including both the Democrats and Republicans, would want to commit political suicide by supporting going to war against Iran considering the blunder of and backlash caused by the Iraq war. Even within the Republican Party, there are forces that have turned against the Iraq War and are finding it safe to make criticism against Bush and Condoleezza Rice for their handling of Iraq case. ii

It is unlikely that the US would want to go to war against Iran now. The Time Magazine says the most immediate source of instability emanates from Iraq, where the country’s civil war risks igniting a region-wide conflict. iii The US may want to focus its energy to deal with the mess there. But who knows what will happen if President Bush believes that the US has finished its business in Iraq. Of course, we are equally uncertain about what President Abmadinegjad will do in due course that may provoke the US. After all, individuals may also play a role in influencing decisions in international relations, though realists do not see individuals as a significant actor.

By Edward Ng & Ernest Lau


i Michael Duffy, Jamil Hamad, Scott MacLeod and Catherine Mayer, “The Weight of the World”, Time, (Vol. 169, No. 6), 19 February 2006, pp.28-34.

ii ibid.

iii ibid.


8 Responses to “US ‘Iran attack plans’ revealed”

  1. wooi yee Says:

    It’s interesting to compare the US foreign policy on the Korean nuclear crisis to the Iran nuclear crisis. On one hand, the Six-Parties Talks have agreed on the intial implementation on the joint-agreement. On the other hand, the Iran nuclear crisis is still a deadlock. Why there is such a difference? May be the “interest” involved in these two crisis will tell.

    For North Korea, Kim Jong Il’s interest is to preserve his regime by getting Washington promise of not invading and to secure enough international aid for his people; while for Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s interest is to defense Iran from the US (in Iraq).

    For Washington, their interest is to maintain peace in Northeast Asia, so they are willing to fulfill Kim’s interest. However, Iran’s interest is contradicted to that of Washington. Washington most probably won’t make a concession and retreat its troops from Iraq.

  2. Mark Says:

    Wooi yee – i disagree with you on your points. Invading North Korea is totally “do-able”. It would take about 5 minutes to get into NK, however, the deterrent is that we don’t know exactly what the NKs are capapble of militarily, and also, they cleary have a suicide defence policy and would happily allow million of civilians to die in the process. – plus there is the issue of refugees and financial support which SK and China don’t really fancy….

    The Six-Party talks have been here before several times…1994, 2003, etc etc. nothing new….but nothing advances either.

    Iran….the fuitcake was legitimately elected, but didn’t mention nuclear power once. Now, people are on the streets declaring (orchestrated some might say) declaring it to be their right.

    Iran is posturing to poke the US in the eye, knowing that it has no more appetite for destruction and also to position itself as the Middle east’s regional power, now that Sadaam has gone and the Saudis won’t stand up….and see how influential they already are in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq.

    Trying to engage Iran in dealing with Iraq is a very risky strategy, and everyone knows it – but the US needs to find other people to get involved as it tries to extrapolate itself….

  3. wooi yee Says:

    Mark, as you suggest, invading North Korea is “do-able” by the US, China, South Korea, Russia etc. But, why they didn’t do it? The answer is simple – it’s just not their interest to so.

    What do you think North Korea want to develop its nuclear weapons in the first place? Do you think Kim will claim a war against the US? I don’t think so. For me, it’s just tactics of brinkmanship continuously played by Kim to preserive its own survival.

  4. hoiking Says:

    The latest edition of New Yorker published an article by Seymour Hersh, which detailed the latest change of Bush Administration’s Mid-East policy. In the middle of the article, which was much quoted by newspapers and news agencies earlier this week, is that the US force is asked not only to draw plans to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities, but also “targets in Iran that may be involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq.”

    This show the problems in the Mid-East are not isolated events but inter-related: the alleged Iranian support of Shia militias in Iraq, the Iran-Syria-(possibly) Hezbollah VS Israel-US-(possibly) Saudi Arabia rivalry, and the love-hate relationship between the Gulf States (which are Sunnis) and Iran (which is Shiites).

    Though such “bombing plans” are revealed and Cheney said in Australia that “all options are on the table”, we should realize that these are only rhetoric. As Edward and Ernest pointed out, US is much restrained by different factors, but we should not forget the attitudes of the Gulf State. A statement from Cooperation Council for the Arab States of the Gulf recently stressed that the Gulf States see Iran as a “brotherly neighbor” and would not participate in any military action against her (sorry the link here is in Simplified Chinese, as it is from Xinhua). With Ahmadinejad visiting Saudi Arabia this week, it is interesting to see if there is any concrete dealing/statement between the two states regarding the situation in Persian Gulf. I raised this point because both countries, which are based heavily on religious ideology, have been mistrusting each other since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

    So the three models mentioned by Edward and Ernest may need to look into the constraints raised by the international arena (in the case, Mid-East) and with all these counted, we can interpret the current situation as US playing “carrot and stick” strategy. Ruling out the military option too early may be seen by others as showing its weakness. As for Iran, Ahmadinejad’s boasting of Iran’s nuclear capabilities can be seen as a tactic to shore up nationalism in Iran (and to gain support also). After all, Iran’s nuclear program is not merely a scientific development but with political goal. Iranians see the program as kind of “national glory” and it has passed the point of no return. For Ahmadinejad, such program can be used to distract people and critics from his failure in domestic affairs too.

    With two sides bluffing at each other, perhaps what they are looking for is a reason for both countries to “recede gracefully”. Would the upcoming Iraq security conference achieve that? Let’s wait and see!

    (Oh sorry if you find my reply is too long.)

  5. Ada Says:

    From a realist point of view, the US is surely more interested in invading Iran than NK. Not only because Iran has resources, but also because of the Shiite’s influence over Iraq.

    Given that the US already has substantial military presence in Iraq, invading Iran is probably do-able as well, from a military standpoint. However, based on the “The Organizational Process Model”, or “Bureaucratic Politics Model” mentioned in the original posting, it is quite unlikely that the US will attack Iran without a very strong reason, or public opinion support. Bear in mind that the 2008 elections are on the way, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats would want to mess with this issue, at least not until November next year. Of course, that is under the assumption that Iran doesn’t do something extremely offensive.

    As for reaching the NK six-party agreement, the US indeed gave in on many issues, including fuel aids and official talks. As the strongest power, the US did not have to do so, but it is in the Bush administration’s interest to show the world that at least the NK situation is moving forward through diplomatic efforts.

    Such diplomatic negotiation only works on NK because it needs the international aids, and intelligence show that it would still take years before NK could have the capability of delivering a nuclear bomb, so the US can afford to concede on matters such as fuel aids.

    Iran would be a totally different case. I believe that for the US, the most urgent concern regarding Iran is not really about its nuclear program, but about the Shiite’s influence over Iraq.

  6. Just want to quote the original post here. “The Rational Actor Model … would suggest that it would not be wise to fight two wars at the same time and therefore the US would not be starting a new one for the time being.”

    I am lazy this time. But apart from the U.S.’s military power and national interests of different parties, I think the point, as mentioned by Edward and Ernest (and also Hoiking), can’t be ignored when we explain why U.S. has not “invaded” or whether it will North Korea and Iran. [Frankie]

  7. Michael Says:


    I would beg to differ with respect to entering North Korea being a matter of “5 minutes”. North Koreans have an army over 1 million strong. In addition, they have nuclear weapons and not only that – you also have to remember that their soldiers are driven ideologically and as such defending “the motherland” and the “motherland’s” son Kim becomes a matter of national pride and sovereignty – all resulting in a more disciplined and effective means of self-preservation should the US try to enter into North Korea.

    The above is only the tip of the iceberg. You need to remember that China will not allow a potentially nuclear-scale confrontation in its own back-yard.

    Somehow…I believe it would take just a little bit more then 5 minutes to do the job…

    Regarding your comments on “the fruitcake”. Mr Ahmadinejad is not any more of a fruitcake then George Bush is. With the difference that – notwithstanding his absurd comments of removing Israel from the face of the planet – he has no beef with other countries. His threats about Israel are simply not credible. They are meant to intimidate so that he can pursue what every country has the right to purse. The issue here is that America is ruled by powerful Jewish lobbies (it is enough to see the last names of the people controlling CNN for example – if you control the media, you have a huge step towards controlling the people) and therefore Israel, being a very tiny country surrounded by potential-hostiles, instead of trying to pursue and resolve issues diplomatically, decides to hide under the wings of American military “might” and hence Bush’s open pledge that if anything happens to Israel, America will step in.

    That is not to say – like I mentioned previously – that Iran’s president’s comments regarding Israel are even remotely warranted, but I don’t believe going ahead with another bombing campain (specially after the fiasco in Iraq where the main reason for invading was the non-existing evidence of weapons of mass destruction) will make things any better – infact, they will make things worse.

  8. ralphchow Says:

    Recalling the 3 pillars of Security Architecture mentioned by Prof. James Cotton, they are: Multilateralism, Alliances and Global Regimes.

    In the case of N.Korea, the 6-Party Talks (Multilateralism) and alliance with China contribute significantly to the security structure. Obviously, Michael is right that China will not tolerate any warfare in its own backyard, as its top priority at present is to concentrate on economic development under a peaceful environment.

    As for Iran, none of the security forces of multilateralism or alliance is present, making it rather vulnerable to pre-emptive attacks by the U.S. (or Israel) if a good excuse is available.

    In fact, the behaviour of Iran can hardly be explained by the Rational Actor Model since a logical way to avoid US’ attack is to abide by the regulations of the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons.

    The show of power by the U.S. seems to be the only way to achieve the effect of “deterrence” under the international system of anarchy. Of course, none of us would like to see yet another warfare in the Middle East.

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