Preempting a Nuclear Armed Iran: An Imminent Reality?

By Sean Osborne, Associate Director, Military Affairs

23 January 2007: Last Sunday, 21 January 2007, in an evening address before the gathered attendees at the Herzliya Conference in Israel, the U.S. Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Nicholas Burns, made the following unequivocal statement: “the policy of the United States is that we cannot allow Iran to become a nuclear weapons state” The timing of this official pronouncement from the American government may foretell dire consequences to the unquestioned desire of the Islamic Republic of Iran in its relentless drive to become a nuclear armed state.

A review of OSINT reporting regarding the military signals being sent to Tehran reveals that these words from the under-secretary have a high probability of being much more than mere political rhetoric. In fact, they could well be the last words on the subject prior to a military preemptive move by the United States in executing the American policy.

Looking forward into the period of time immediately before us indicates a confluence of not only an American military surge into the Persian Gulf region, but a time of promises from the Islamic regime in Tehran regarding its status as a nuclear power.

Of particular note is that the USS Stennis (CVN-74) Carrier Strike Group will arrive in the Persian Gulf region concurrent with the advent of a celebration in the Islamic Republic known as the “Daheh-ye Fajr,” or “Ten Days of Dawn”. This annual celebration highlights the arrival in Tehran of Ayatollah Khomeini from exile in France to personally lead the Islamic revolution on February 1, 1979. The Islamist Shiâ’a revolution came to a head on February 9th as Iranian government troops loyal to the non-Islamist Bakhtiar regime fought pitched battles against the Revolutionary Guards and other Iranian troops who defected to the Khomenist forces. Two days later on February 11 it was all over, the Khomenist forces had defeated the non-Islamist forces. It is in this upcoming celebratory period that Iran will likely make significant announcements concerning its nuclear status. Those announcements could trigger a US response.

The arrival of the USS Stennis CSG augments the already on-station USS Eisenhower CSG and the USS Boxer (ESG-5) Expeditionary Strike Group. Both of these strike groups are scheduled to depart the region sometime in March 2007. The arrival of the Stennis affords around-the-clock capability for sustained preemptive air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities such as those located at Natanz.

Such a massed and sustainable combat capability is without question a very loud signal to the Iranian government. It is as stated above the potential manifestation of standing American policy regarding nuclear weapons in the possession of a state President Bush declared a belligerent nation in his speech of February 10, 2007.

Timing is everything. February through March 2007 appear to be the final “window of opportunity for any American action prior to what will become a potentially expedited political season in the United States, that is to say prior to the general election of 2008.

Such decisions are obviously not taken lightly, yet nothing is more paramount than the security of deployed US forces in the whole of southwest Asia and the stability of the region in which we and our allies have so heavily invested our blood and our treasury. The key judgments made in arriving at such a decision to preemptively act are known to have a direct impact upon the global economy, the primary consideration of those judgments being the free flow of oil commerce through a critical choke point at the Strait of Hormuz.

Make no mistake; any strike on Iranian nuclear infrastructure will be no small-scale operation. Such an operation will require, in my estimation, a minimum of the following: the destruction of all Iranian air defenses at the Iranian nuclear sites, all anti-aircraft missile batteries and the destruction of the Iranian Islamic Air Force itself which could conceivably interdict our forces; the destruction of all Iranian ballistic missile capability to retaliate against our forces and those of our regional allies, as well as any Iranian capability to close the Strait of Hormuz or interdict commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf with threats from Iranian sea, land or air-launched missiles, submarines and naval surface combatant ships.

About one week from today the window to such a possible preemptive will be fully open as the USS Stennis CSG sails in from over the horizon. It will remain open at least through the month of March. Closing that window will depend entirely upon the statements and actions coming from the Islamic Republic of Iran.