Nuclear Duck?: What to Read on Iran

Dina Esfandiary is a Research Analyst and Project Coordinator in the non-Proliferation and Disarmament programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.

 Apparently a photo of Iran's Natanz nuclear facility. Photo by flickr user Hamed Saber

There has been a lot of noise about Iran and its nuclear program in the news of late. Some of the commentary has been useful, some not, and some just plain wrong. So I have picked out a few recent articles to provide a bit of purchase on the issue.


Matthew Kroenig, Time to Attack Iran, Foreign Affairs (Jan/Feb 2012)

The now infamous article that sparked the most recent debate on whether Iran should be bombed because of its alleged nuclear weapons programme. Kroenig, a Stanton Nuclear Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrongly claims that a nuclear Iran would have devastating consequences for the Middle East, and more importantly for US interests in the region. He also outlines how deterring Iran would ‘come at a heavy price’, because the ‘the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come’.  For this reason, Kroenig advocates ‘carefully managed’ military strikes on Iran’s known nuclear facilities in order to destroy their programme. He also states that the US would not need to target the heavily fortified, underground Fordow enrichment plant, because it is ‘not yet operational and still contains little nuclear equipment’.

But for my money there are flaws in the article. For example, Fordow is already an important facility, currently with 700 centrifuges enriching to twenty percent. There is a broader point here as well. A military strike on Iran will achieve precious little but give the Islamic regime the impetus and excuse it needs to justify a decision to go nuclear. Limited airstrikes are unlikely to be able to destroy hardened facilities like Fordow, and Iran has enough experience and knowledge to rebuild any damage done to its programme within a few years. None the less, the article is important because of the effect it has had in re-igniting the debate. 


David Albright and Paul Brannan, The New National Intelligence Estimate on Iran: A Step in the Right Direction, ISIS (22 March 2012) 

In the latest report by ISIS, Albright and Brannan outline the important differences between the 2007 US NIE, which stated that Iran’s 2003 halt on some weaponisation activities was evidence that it had given up its nuclear weapons programme, and the newer, still classified NIE on Iran. Despite the slightly Proustian approach to prose, the report explains that the new NIE does not differentiate between Iran’s declared and undeclared facilities and activities, and therefore gives the intelligence community a more accurate picture of the regime’s intentions. It also outlines exactly how much time it would take for Iran to go from being nuclear weapons capable (ie: having enough low-enriched uranium, that once enriched would be enough for a bomb), which it is now, to having a nuclear weapon.


Carl Bildt and Erkki Tuomioja, The Only Option on Iran, The New York Times (20 March 2012)

In this op-ed, the Foreign Ministers of Sweden and Finland express their concerns over the  ‘loose talk’ of military strikes on Iran. They rightly outline that strikes would be counterproductive, compelling Iran to go nuclear instead. They call for renewed efforts at diplomacy, including accepting Iran’s right to enrich, provided it can prove the peacefulness of its programme.


Iran Talks: What should be on the table? Council on Foreign Relations (23 March 2012)

In this short post, CFR brings together the views of some of the hot shots in non-proliferation, to discuss what is needed for talks with Iran to resume. All the contributors agree that certain confidence-building measures are key, including Iran’s unnecessary enrichment to twenty percent. The ISIS proposes a five-stage framework agreement with Iran, which would begin by addressing immediate concerns. My colleague Mark Fitzpatrick from the IISS, suggests providing Iran with HEU fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor, making it more efficient for producing medical isotopes, in exchange for Iran abandoning twenty percent enrichment. There is also a necessity to establish and maintain long-term dialogue, to ensure that future issues are addressed wholly and rapidly.


Editor’s Note: last but not least, Dina also had a piece in The Atlantic the other day, in which she examines the possibility that a rift may be growing between Iranian people and the government in Tehran over the subject of the nuclear program. A particularly important point given that we tend to assume the Islamic regime has strong support from the people on this issue a least.


Indonesia and Australia: Towards Equilibrium?

Olivia Cable is a research fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta. 

Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr and Defence Minister Stephen Smith, together with their Indonesian counterparts Dr. Marty Natalegwa and Dr. Purnomo Yusgiantoro, in Canberra for the inaugural Australia-Indonesia 2+2 Dialogue, March 15, 2012.

Over the past several months, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa have outlined an important conceptual shift in Indonesian foreign policy. With future China-US relations as the single biggest strategic question facing the region, Indonesia has argued for a policy of ''dynamic equilibrium''. Although still lacking in finer-grained details, at the heart of this approach is a new regional strategy that seeks to keep America engaged and China's rise peaceful.

For Indonesia, building a region of equilibrium involves strengthening the existing multilateral institutions such as the Association of South-East Asian Nations, while encouraging major powers to invest more heavily in joint confidence-building measures. Yudhoyono has stated that Indonesia wants a regional architecture where no single power dominates.

Indonesia recognises that a new balancing strategy for the region is overdue. Until recently, the foreign policy establishment viewed Indonesian interests as a series of concentric circles centred on Jakarta, stretching out across south-east Asia and into the wider region. Policymakers argue that this old approach is no longer sufficient for the realities of the new geopolitical shifts in Asia.

Indonesia's effort to ensure that both America and Russia were invited to the 2011 East Asia Summit demonstrates this new approach. So too does Indonesia's work in building a stronger code of conduct for claimant states in the South China Sea.

This shift in Indonesia's approach has gone largely unnoticed in Australia. As the new Foreign Minister Bob Carr takes over his responsibilities and identifies Indonesia as one of his key priorities, Jakarta's diplomatic shift will have far-reaching implications for the Australia-Indonesia relationship and for the dynamic forces at play in the new Asian century.

Beyond former foreign minister Kevin Rudd's vague description of Australia as a ''middle power with global interests'' there have been few attempts to define Australia's own conceptual approach to the region, or to articulate a new vision for Australia's place in it. Carr's first order of business should be for Australia to partner with Indonesia in shaping the regional order to ensure ongoing peace and prosperity. Australia's next White Paper on the Asian Century is the perfect place to embed the bilateral relationship at the heart of Canberra's diplomacy. But for Australia to take advantage of this new approach, it will need to be far less impulsive on the third-order issues that continue to dominate the bilateral relationship. Irritants such as the live cattle trade, disputes over logging licences and drug convictions should not be allowed to overshadow the more important strategic questions.

Some in Jakarta viewed the decision by the Australian and American governments to rotate up to 2500 marines in Darwin as counterproductive to their broader goal of achieving a closer strategic partnership between Washington and Beijing. The announcement caught Jakarta by surprise and possibly undercut the Lombok Treaty, which calls for ''regular consultation on defence and security issues of common concern; and on their respective defence policies''. Domestic politics will still be an important factor in moving the Australia-Indonesia relationship forward. Australia has endured two leadership challenges and three foreign ministers in just 18 months. In Indonesia, corruption continues to undermine effective government and the list of possible candidates for the 2014 presidential elections consists of Suharto-era elites.

In the context of the Asian century, several analysts have argued that Indonesia's growing convergence with China is good news. For Jakarta, it brings a renewed international focus on the region. Likewise, Australia's strong alliance relationship with the United States is an asset that can be leveraged in the region. Together, as Asia-Pacific middle powers, Australia and Indonesia can play an important role in easing tensions between Beijing and Washington. Indonesia is now looking for concrete outcomes. Strengthening the Lombok Treaty, and extending it to include a stronger commitment to joint diplomatic activities, might ease some of the recent tensions in the relationship.

A greater focus on practical and achievable outcomes would be welcomed by Jakarta. So far, the web of regional institutions in south-east Asia has proved effective in maintaining a region free of conflict since the 1960s. To sustain regional peace and security, a new approach is required in which middle powers like Indonesia and Australia will play a fundamental role.

Indonesia has taken the first step towards this goal. Australia should get on board.

This piece is based on an op-ed published in the Canberra Times on March 16, 2012. The views expressed here are soley those of the author. Photo courtesy of Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.


Australia's UNthinking Security Council Quest

Raoul Heinrichs is Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and Deputy Editor of Pnyx.

Over the past four years, under the direction of Kevin Rudd - first as Prime Minister, then Foreign Minister - the quest for a non-permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council has become the holy grail of Australian foreign policy. While the official cost of the bid has been kept relatively low on paper, this belies the true extent to which Australia’s diplomatic machinery has been harnessed and directed towards the effort.

At a time when the Department of Foreign Affairs is, according to its Secretary, underrepresented in key areas such as China, new embassies and consulates have been opened to curry favour in places as marginal to Australian interests as Ethiopia, Jamaica and Peru - with another, in Senegal, potentially on the way. A long and expensive string of international visits and conferences has served as quiet cover for the bid, while massive flows of aid have been diverted, again unofficially, on the basis of their potential to enhance Australia’s UN prospects.

This refusal to acknowledge ulterior motives serves two purposes. The first is an attempt to convey sincerity and commitment to the UN, which is cynical and disingenuous but necessary if you want to be elected. The second is to downplay the true costs of the bid at home, so as to avoid having to explain exaclty what a non-permanent UN seat is expected to achieve and how it serves Australia’s national interests. This is an important consideration for the architects of the bid because, as it happens, no compelling explanation exists.

Pop quiz: there are ten non-permanent member countries on the United Nations Security Council – name three of them. If you’re inclined to reach for Google at this point, rest assured. Beyond a handful of policy-wonks and diplomats, no one much pays attention to the Security Council’s non-permanent membership, which is indicative of how little prestige such a seat actually bestows. Although non-permanent members vote on resolutions and partake in negotiations to some degree, they exercise no veto and so lack any pretence to a powerful say on the Council, much less a decisive role of the kind enjoyed by their permanent, veto-wielding counterparts.

Indeed, the powerlessness of the Council’s non permanent membership betrays its real purpose. Elected in regional blocs (by a process that makes selecting a World Cup host look clean and transparent by comparison), non permanent members exist to provide the UN Security Council with a democratic veneer, however thin, to legitimise the essentially non-democratic exercise of power that passes for decision-making among the all-important ‘Permanent Five’(China, Russia, the US, the UK and France).

So which countries make up the numbers? As a rough guide, most non-permanent members sit somewhere within three informal categories. The first are the ‘great-power wannabes’, countries like India and Germany, whose non-permanent seats are about substantiating longstanding desires for a permanent place on the Council. The second category includes the ‘minnows’ - Togo and Azerbaijan, for example - so small and lacking in diplomatic weight that a seat at the UN is one of the only means by which they manifest international presence. Their vote usually goes to the biggest neighbour or the country most likely to dispatch the next aid cheque or arms shipment. The third category, the 'do-gooders' comprises countries like Portugal and South Africa, whose geopolitical situations are so benign that the traditional imperatives of power politics have given way, at least partly, to symbolic diplomatic gestures.

Australia has no natural place in any of these categories:  It is not a great power or a minnow and its interests are too deeply enmeshed in Asia, a region emerging as the centre of strategic gravity, to assume the comfortable role of international social-worker.

By far the worst aspect of Australia’s UN bid, however, is that it rests on a fundamental miscalculation of Australian interests. 

For years now, the central organising principle of Australian foreign policy has been to maximise relations with China and the US, but to decouple those relationships from each other, keeping them firewalled as a way of mitigating the risks to Australia of a major deterioration in US-China relations. So far, this hasn’t been too difficult because Washington and Beijing have been getting along reasonably well. But the situation is changing. As China becomes more powerful and prickly, and as the US reasserts its primacy in Asia, the competitive aspects of US-China relations are becoming steadily more pronounced.

This begs the question: if the sum of Australian fears involves having to choose between the US and China, our ally on the one hand and our most important economic partner on the other, why would we want to sit at a table with both of them, forced to make public and explicit choices between them on the most contentious global issues, from North Korea and Iran, to Syria, Sudan and Zimbabwe? The Australian government has always rejected the idea of having to make a choice between China and the US. With the UN bid, Canberra now finds itself in the bizarrely self-defeating position of expending large sums of money for the opportunity to make that choice time and again – and on issues it has no capacity to affect anyway.

Given the intimacy of relations, it’s difficult to imagine us playing hard-ball with the US. On the other hand, the last few years are nothing if not a reminder of the importance of China to Australia, and of the deference and solicitude that Beijing is beginning to expect as a great power. So which partner do we disappoint, and when?

Unfortunately for Australia, the bid for a UN seat has never been properly thought through or debated. Conceived and prosecuted by Kevin Rudd for Kevin Rudd, it has always represented the triumph of personal over national interests. While there’s a strong tendency to believe that diplomacy is all about getting a seat on as many tables as possible, the reality is more complex. With high costs and few returns, Australia would be best served by excusing itself from the table. Now that Rudd’s stranglehold on Australia’s foreign policy is over, that opportunity has arrived.

This article is based on an opinion piece in The Age, published on February 29, 2012. 


The Case for an Australian Nuclear Submarine Fleet

John Hardy is a Sir Arthur Tange Scholar at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU, and a Lecturer at the University of Canberra.

Virginia Class Submarine USS Hawaii during a routine port-visit to South Korea, November 2010

Amidst recent discussion of Australia’s future submarine, few commentators have come out in support of the nuclear option. Despite a compelling strategic logic for at least considering nuclear powered submarines for the ADFs future force structure, many have preferred to sideline the issue and accept the foregone conclusion that anti-nuclear sentiment is too deeply entrenched in Australia’s public mindset to bother entertaining the notion.

Determining the best capability is a separate process from determining the most political attractive acquisition decision. There is a strong element of political advocacy for a particular submarine option across much of the debate, which in itself is fine, but there is a line that needs to be drawn between lobbying for a policy and making an objective determination on capability.

The purpose of comparing various options is to establish the comprehensive costs and benefits of each. Public opinion is certainly a major detractor from the possibility of a nuclear powered submarine fleet, but it is not good cause to simply omit the benefits from the equation entirely.

There are four main lines of argument deployed against the nuclear propulsion option. The first is advocacy for a Collins 2.0 project, which holds that the best match for Australia’s capability requirements is another indigenous orphan platform. The second argument is that Australia lacks the scientific expertise to maintain nuclear powered submarines. The third argument is that buying or leasing foreign submarines would detract from the ADFs ability to operate its major weapons systems independently and thus impinge on Australia’s longstanding policy of self-reliance. The final argument is that partisan politics in Australia renders nuclear propulsion a “non-option.”

I will address each of these arguments and then offer an alternate view of the capability challenge faced by Defence in procuring Australia’s future submarine.

Collins 2.0

The Kokoda foundation recently released a report that rejected the idea of nuclear propulsion, based essentially on the claim that designing a new version of the existing Collins class submarine would be more cost effective.

Obviously, one has to question the legitimacy of a report funded almost exclusively by the same companies that are lobbying government for the multi-billion dollar submarine contract. That aside, the argument that Australia made so many mistakes with Collins that it is worth repeating the process with a Collins 2.0 project is spurious at best.

Hoping upon hope that history does not repeat is hardly best practice for managing the most expensive defence acquisition project ever proposed in Australia. In fact, it is probably a much more ominous gamble than most observers appreciate. A Collins 2.0 project could see Australia purchase a submarine of significantly inferior capability than incoming American and British designs which utilise nuclear propulsion.

Buying or leasing nuclear subs could easily be cheaper than building a domestic diesel electric – even the most conservative cost estimates with minimal budget blowouts along the way would results in a unit cost that is comparable to or, more likely, that exceeds the cost of the US Virginia class submarines that are currently in production. In addition, Australia would need fewer numbers of the generously sized and highly capable Virginia class boat, further reducing ling term costs.

A critical argument against pursuing US submarines has been a perception that America would not be interested in supplying their latest generations of submarine technology to Australia. This perception has turned out to be unfounded as US Ambassador to Australia, Jeffrey Bleich, announced this week that America would be prepared to support any future submarine option that Australia decided to pursue.

Nuclear powered submarines are now an even more attractive option, with a potential for buying ten Virginia Class boats for a total costs of roughly 25 billion at today’s cost (which will likely fall as the platform matures) against 12 much less capable conventional submarines at an estimated cost of at least 36 billion. This equates to almost 50% in additional investment - a staggering 11 billion dollars as a low estimate – in return for a substantially reduced capability return. This is an expensive and dangerous way to appease defence contractors and nuclear naysayers simply on principle.

Civilian Nuclear Industry

The first objection is that Australia lacks a mature civilian nuclear industry and could not maintain a fleet of nuclear submarines should it acquire them. The speculative correlation drawn between a civilian nuclear sector and the maintenance of nuclear propulsion in military platforms is unconvincing. Australia does possess some nuclear expertise and generates science graduates who travel overseas to pursue careers working in the nuclear field due to lack of domestic demand. The argument that supply is the issue belies the significant brain drain Australia experiences in nuclear scientists.

In fairness, I am not aware of any comprehensive cost analysis for raising an indigenous capacity to maintain nuclear-powered submarines and it is possible that it may to be unsustainable in cost-benefit terms. Yet, the Australian Department of Defence has publicly announced that it would be feasible to either utilise US submarine bases in the region or use American expertise and equipment in an Australian base. In any event, new facilities will be required for any future submarine and, although a Collins 2.0 might necessitate significantly less investment in facilities upgrades, will incur some cost.

Even if it were the case that Australia could neither raise the indigenous capacity nor attract sufficient expertise to maintain a nuclear submarine fleet, it would not be detrimental to the strategic rationale for nuclear powered subs. The argument that an Australian submarine fleet serviced by the US science and technology sector would render the ADF unable to operate independently is fraught with internal contradiction.


The third purported argument against nuclear propulsion is that any nuclear-powered submarine would require excessive dependence on an ally and circumscribe Australia’s operational independence.

If reliance on US technology and service were good cause to develop indigenous weapon platforms, then Australia ought to immediately cancel the JSF, Wedgetail, Global Hawk and Aegis system acquisition programs and begin to retire platforms currently in service that rely on external industries. This is clearly not feasible. Nor is it desirable – well, let’s reserve judgment on the JSF for another day.

It has been in Australia’s interests to accept that some degree of reliance on the US defence technology sector was a worthwhile tradeoff in order to garner access to the technology required to maintain the ‘capability edge’ sought in Australian strategic policy. Therefore, the argument infers that there is a qualitative difference between requiring external industry to support submarine maintenance and any other military platform. There is no compelling logic that suggests that this is the case.

There is another problem with arguments that raise the problems of over-dependence to reject the strategic rationale for nuclear powered submarines – the means of communication with which Australia operates its platforms and systems. Essentially, the future ADF will emphasise ‘Network Centric Warfare’ and a so-called ‘knowledge edge’ to offset numerical deficiency – but it will operate no satellites of its own. The ADF will rely substantially on allied communication networks and equipment to coordinate no matter which submarine it ends up with – and submarines aren’t the end of the story. Virtually all ADF major platforms will be interoperable with US and NATO allies’ equipment, meaning that we will be keeping pace with American technology by buying it from the US technology sector. This inescapably reproduces the original objection of dependence on an external technology sector.

Domestic Politics

A final objection to nuclear powered subs is that the current political climate in Australia, specifically the disproportionate influence of the Greens Party on the incumbent Labor government, ought to circumscribe capability decisions. This is preposterous. It is fine to note the Greens’ anti-nuclear stance as a banal observation of current domestic politics in Australia, but it is not useful in terms of policy analysis or capability recommendations.

Any debate regarding the largest defence acquisition program that Australia has ever undertaken should be firmly rooted in the capability in question, rather than the proclivities of politicians more than a decade before the project will begin. There will always be political realities to contend with, but these should not cloud good strategic judgment in the analytical process, even if they ultimately affect decisions made by leaders.

The remaining challenge

The one issue that has been left largely untouched by the above debates is actual combat capability – can nuclear powered submarines do a better job than their conventionally powered cousins? The answer is overwhelming: yes.

What does Australia want out of a submarine?

  • Large patrol areas
  • A greater proportion of patrol time spent on station (i.e. time on station relative to total patrol)
  • Less time spent in transit (i.e. a faster boat)
  • Better technology, NCW, EW, advanced combat systems, etc
  • Able to integrate into coalition operations
  • Able to support littoral operations in a contested maritime theater
  • Able to loiter and gather/distribute tactical data

A European Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) platform is simply not viable. Their poor range aside, small European designed submarine are designed for coastal waters and are not engineered to withstand the RANs operating environments. Furthermore, the slow transit speeds required to maximize their range are woefully inadequate for Australia’s expansive maritime patrol zones.

Bigger boats are more appropriate for Australia’s capability requirements. The aforementioned Kokoda Foundation report suggests that roughly 3,000 tons is an appropriate size for an Australian submarine able to operate throughout Southeast Asia from HMAS Stirling at Perth, Western Australia.


US Virginia class nuclear submarines are coming off the assembly line today at a cheaper cost than any feasible alternative. In a rarity for large-scale defence projects, the best capability is also the cheapest viable option. Could someone please remind me why we are having this debate at all?

Current arguments about nuclear-powered submarines are about external factors – industry, public opinion, domestic political parties – and not about capability. We need to separate these issues from one another when we want to determine the best capability, which should be the starting point for the longer conversation of procurement.

Once we’ve prioritised what is the best value for money, then we can start talking about what will or won’t fly in Canberra. In terms of capability, nuclear is not just an option , it is the best option.

Second image: Australia's Nuclear Research Reactor, located at Lucas Heights, Sydney. Photo courtesy of Google. Third image: Australia's Defence Minister Stephen Smith, currently presiding over key initial decisions regarding Australia;s future submarine. 


Obama and Iran: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Matthew Hill is a PhD candidate at Cornell University and Deputy Editor of Pnyx Blog

Image by flickr user Israel Defense Force

Seeking to resist perennial pressure from Washington to end its nuclear ambitions, Tehran is playing all the angles. Shortly after calling for renewed multilateral talks with Western representatives, Iran announced that it had banned oil exports to Britain and France, pre-emptive retaliation for a European Union oil embargo slated to enter effect on July 1st. Subsequently, it has threatened pre-emptive military strikes against its erstwhile coercers. This contingent bluster bears the hallmarks of the previous cycles of escalation and negotiation that have defined U.S.-led attempts by turns to throttle and redirect Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Yet the appearance of continuity is deceiving; while the diplomatic dance continues between the West and Iran, the strategic and political structures that condition it have shifted. Consequently, 2012 threatens to be a decidedly dangerous year in the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East as a whole.

Washington’s efforts to end Iran’s attempt to acquire nuclear weapons are rooted in the perceived strategic ramifications if Tehran were to succeed. Possession of nuclear weapons would immediately reduce U.S. leverage over the regime, and in turn increase Iran’s regional strategic latitude. The implications for the security of energy supplies through the Persian Gulf, the future of Iraq, and stability of the Levant would be severe. What is more, Tehran’s ascension to the atomic club would likely unleash a regional arms race. To avoid an erosion of their regional influence, Turkey and Saudi Arabia would feel compelled to acquire the same weapons. Israel, the only Middle Eastern country currently in possession of these weapons, would not brook a threat to its monopoly.

The United State’s has strong incentives to seek a non-violent termination of Iran’s nuclear machinations. Military suppression would not come cheap. Iran has learnt from the experiences of Iraq and Syria; it has dispersed, hardened, and concealed much of its nuclear program and there is little guarantee that airpower and special operations alone could neutralize it in its entirety, nor prevent its resurrection. Indeed, strikes might only embolden the regimes efforts. After all, the fundamental rationale for a state to gain such tools is to give other powers pause to consider the costs of intervening in its affairs, a point aptly demonstrated by North Korea. What is more, a standoff aerial campaign could bolster domestic solidarity for the regime, fuelling parallel nationalistic imperatives towards gaining such weapons. Regardless of the implications for the nuclear program itself, it is unclear how the U.S. would end such a conflict. Even a superpower cannot simply walk away from a war with an industrialised society with a population of over seventy-three million people.

Under these strategic circumstances, it is difficult to imagine the conditions under which Iran could be compelled to accept a conclusion to the conflict without some form of limited invasion. Absent that pressure, Tehran’s would have an incentive to escalate regional crises along its periphery – particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan - to encourage the U.S. to the bargaining table. To verifiably dismantle Tehran’s nuclear complex would further escalate the required degree of compelent pressure. As the U.S. has learnt over the past decade, invasion is an immensely costly and geopolitically disruptive proposition. Occupation of Iran would combine the worst of both the Iraq and Afghan wars: a large population in dense urban areas, which in turn are located in mountainous terrain that disrupts the U.S. military’s advantages in conventional mechanized warfare. The requirements of such a conflict would be vast; it would not look like anything the U.S. military has faced since the Korean War.

Facing these distinctly unappetising options, the Obama Administration has taken the path of least strategic resistance, attempting to economically coerce Tehran into giving up its program. The logic of this is that by imposing direct strategic costs on the Iranian state in terms of the degradation of its own national power, as well as indirect political burdens from of an increasingly squeezed domestic population, the ruling elite will be encouraged to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately for the U.S., this course of action has not met with substantial success, despite increasing multilateral involvement by Europe and Japan in the sanctions regime. Iran continues to hold manifest strategic influence throughout the region. At the same time, it has not faced substantial domestic opposition motivated by the nuclear issue; in fact, it is possible that external pressure is generating ‘rally round the flag’ effects. Furthermore, should opposition even arise, the regime has already demonstrated its ability to respond with unrestrained repression, following the 2009 Iranian election protests.

At a moment when Washington is feeling the cost of its global commitments push up against domestic fiscal and political constraints, another war in the Middle East hardly seems appealing. Yet for the White House, the lack of success met by current approaches, and the fundamental interests of regional actors, are colliding with the U.S. political calendar such that Washington’s strategic latitude is increasingly curtailed.

Particularly problematic for Obama Administration is Israel’s attempt to assert its strategic preferences. A nuclear-armed Tehran would be unacceptable to Tel Aviv, given the degree of hostility between the two and the former’s denial of the latter’s legitimacy as a political actor. The implications of these preferences against Iran’s program are not merely abstract; indeed they are given credibility by Israel track record of bombing suspected Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities.  Yet Israel lacks the capability – short of utilizing its own nuclear arsenal – to decisively destroy Iran’s more advanced, dispersed and hardened program. In and of themselves, Israeli covert operations (which appear ongoing) and overt conventional strikes (for which it is preparing) would at best delay, not prevent, Tehran’s acquisition of weapons. Only the U.S. – Israel’s security guarantor – has the capability to engage in the full-spectrum conventional campaign required to remove Iran as a potential nuclear threat. Hence Israel has a strong, fundamental interest in Washington taking these actions before Iran’s nuclear capability matures.

It is clear that Tel Aviv has never had much faith in the current strategic of economic coercion; consequently, in the absence of verifiable Iranian denuclearization, escalation to overt conventional strikes on Iran is a matter of timing. Israel is well aware that Iranian retaliation would be swift and severe. However, any such attacks on Israel would cross a domestic political red line in Washington, requiring U.S. military intervention. What is more, Tehran’s anticipation that an Israeli strike would inevitably lead to a widening of the conflict is likely to encourage it to encourage pre-emptive attacks on U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, centred on the deployment of its high-profile Anti-Access / Area-Denial capabilities.

That this cycle of events hasn’t yet been sparked off partially reflects Israeli perceptions of almost a decade of U.S. regional strategic vulnerability. Through till 2011, the presence of substantial numbers of U.S. troops in Iraq rendered Washington beholden to a tacit modus vivendi with Tehran. In the event of conflict, Iran had the capability to enflame Iraqi sectarian divides, which would inevitably have bogged down the U.S. response in Iran’s periphery. However, with the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq complete, Washington’s strategic freedom is somewhat restored. While the costs of any large-scale action will still be vast, the latitude of the capabilities available is more substantial.

Israel’s caution also points to a further iteration in this strategic calculus. All things being equal, Tel Aviv would prefer to avoid the costs of Iranian retaliation; importantly, so would Washington. If Washington thought Israel was preparing to imminently attack Iran, it would have an incentive to pre-empt this attack – in effect providing a window to pre-empt Iran’s pre-emptive retaliation. For Israel, this represents the best-case scenario, the one in which it both avoids the costs of attacking Iran, and minimizes retaliation to itself. The key to achieving this outcome lies in the degree to Washington believes that Tel Aviv is genuinely prepared to unilaterally attack. However, the U.S. in turn is sensitive to Israeli incentives to bluff in this fashion; moreover, it realises that Israel will likely continue to stall on attacking so long as the possibility exists that Washington will buy its bluff. Israel consequently faces a credibility gap.

This points to the significance of the U.S. domestic political calendar. As 2012 builds towards the Presidential elections, already the strength of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security has emerged as a salient issue during the Republican primary campaigns. While this effect will be more moderate during the general election, its pull during a tight contest will still be significant. A failure by the Administration to pre-empt an Israeli strike, combined with Iranian retaliation, could undercut Obama’s re-election bid substantially. Such a crisis would fuel Republican accusations that the White House had abandoned Israel at its time of need, and failed to confront an aggressive anti-American regime. The Munich analogies would instantly be updated to those of Poland. With these possibilities in mind, the White House is likely to instinctively be more risk-averse with regards to its assessment of the probability of an Israeli attack; consequently its scepticism of possible signals of Israeli preparations are likely to be moderated, and the possibility of falling for an Israeli bluff would rise. Simultaneously, however, Tel Aviv’s incentive to contemplate an actual attack would also rise, given that the decisiveness of the U.S. response against Tehran would be heightened by the political risks of appearing irresolute. Indeed, from Israel’s perspective, the 2012 election season represents the best window for encouraging a comprehensive U.S. military effort against Iran’s nuclear program.

Consequently, much rides on the next few months. Bar a dramatic demonstration of the success of the current sanctions regime in encouraging credible Iranian moves towards disarmament, it is likely that Washington’s strategic latitude will be rapidly circumscribed by domestic politics and Israeli interests. Escalation, and with it the prospect of major conventional war with Iran, is more likely than at any point in the past quarter of a century.