Eve of Destruction

Newsha Tavakolian/Magnum Photos
Iranians celebrating on the streets of Tehran following the announcement of the nuclear deal, July 2015

When President Trump withdrew the United States last May from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the nuclear deal concluded in 2015 between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany), and reimposed US economic sanctions in August, the potential consequences for the Middle East were immediately clear. Iran might eventually react by resuming the nuclear enrichment activities that had spurred the signatories to negotiate the deal. That, in turn, could provoke attacks on Iran by the United States, Israel, or both, possibly in coordination with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Asserting that it was merely implementing the will of the international community, the US–Israel–Sunni coalition would attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear-related infrastructure.

The neutralization of Iran’s air and shore defenses to clear a safe path for the assault would require highly destructive attacks far beyond the sustained air campaign needed to eliminate its dispersed, currently deactivated, nuclear installations: the heavy-water plant at Arak, the uranium hexafluoride storage facility at Natanz, and the deep underground centrifuge cascades within the mountain at Fordow. The targets would also likely include military bases where the United States suspects that nuclear work is being carried out as well as research, development, and testing facilities for ballistic missiles. These would not be pinprick attacks. They could continue for days or even weeks as damage assessments were conducted and further strikes ensured that there was nothing left of the installations but rubble.

Given the vast disparity between US combat power and that of its regional allies and Iran, it is certainly possible that Iran’s leaders would choose not to resist militarily and would instead seek to exploit the attacks as unprovoked aggression to gain European, Russian, and Chinese diplomatic support and perhaps even the reconstitution of its civil nuclear infrastructure. This would at least avoid a regional war. The United States could be isolated diplomatically, but for the Trump administration that would scarcely constitute punishment. And although Iran would probably move as quickly as possible toward a renewed nuclear capability, the success of the first round of strikes would give the attackers confidence in their ability to eliminate it again.

It is equally possible that Iran would resist militarily despite its inferior capabilities. Its options are ample. There are many American civilians in Iraq, in addition to the 5,200 US military personnel deployed there in support of Iraqi forces, and they would be vulnerable to Iranian retaliation. Indeed, Tehran must already be configuring its assets in Iraq to facilitate a rapid response to a US attack. With the formation of a new government in Baghdad now underway following the Iraqi national elections in May, it has the opportunity to press for the appointment…

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