Reacting to War Drums in the Gulf: A Conversation with James Russell

Published: March 28, 2012

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Editor’s Note:

The rhetoric and intrigue surrounding the question of what to do about Iran’s nuclear program have reached new levels of attention and concern in recent weeks. Several months of heightened tensions have included Iranian naval demonstrations and threats to close the Strait of Hormuz met with American statements about “redlines” that should not be crossed; the murders of scientists on the streets of Iran with apparent retaliation bombings against Israelis in Thailand, Georgia and India; and the thumping of “war drums” on the American presidential campaign trail and in Washington.  “Everything is on the table,” while a common response from key decision makers in response to critical threats to American interests, no longer includes containment of Iran as a policy option by the Obama Administration. Deterring Iran, were it to succeed in becoming a nuclear weapon state, has been dismissed as an option but was thoughtfully explored by former National Intelligence Officer for the region Paul Pillar in the recent Washington Monthly:

“What difference would it make to Iran’s behavior and influence if the country had a bomb? Even among those who believe that war with the Islamic Republic would be a bad idea, this question has been subjected to precious little careful analysis. The notion that a nuclear weapon would turn Iran into a significantly more dangerous actor that would imperil U.S. interests has become conventional wisdom, and it gets repeated so often by so many diverse commentators that it seldom, if ever, is questioned. Hardly anyone debating policy on Iran asks exactly why a nuclear-armed Iran would be so dangerous. What passes for an answer to that question takes two forms: one simple, and another that sounds more sophisticated.”

A crescendo of voices on the issue attended the speech making and sidelines of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference in Washington earlier this month as President Obama argued that he had “Israel’s back” and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu pressed the envelope for military action sooner rather than later. Not to be outdone or unheard from, the leading Republican presidential candidates fenced over who could be most hawkish on military action against Iran. Some of the rhetorical bombs being thrown about included former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calling for regime change in Tehran. That drew a response from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates who cautioned:

“This is one of the toughest foreign policy problems I have ever seen since entering the government 45 years ago, and I think to talk about it loosely or as though these are easy choices in some way, or sort of self-proclaim obvious alternatives, I just think is irresponsible.”

The volume has been turned down somewhat in the weeks since the AIPAC meet, but tensions remain. So what comes next? The next few months will see the screws tightened on Iran by the U.S., the EU and others who seek a non-military resolution. Israel presses the argument that Iran is close to entering a zone of immunity, a phase of their nuclear program short of weapon production which sees, however, a reduction in the effectiveness of military counters.

Meanwhile Saudi Arabia is stepping up in its traditional role of seeking energy market stability through its unique capability to bring enough spare oil capacity to market to quiet worries accompanying sanctions on Iran and market-speculating on crisis wrought jangled nerves. What else does all this mean to Saudi Arabia and US-Saudi relations? We would commend to your attention the ample collection of articles, interviews and special reports in SUSRIS over the years providing perspectives and insights on Saudi Arabia vis a vis Iran. One of those items was a SUSRIS report about Prince Turki al-Faisal delivering “A Saudi National Security Doctrine for the Next Decade” last year in which he offered:

“Saudi Arabia really only has two concerns about Iran. First, it is in our interest that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, for their doing so would compel Saudi Arabia, whose foreign relations are now so fully measured and well assessed, to pursue policies that could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.”

Scores of relevant archived materials here, along with many new links are contained in the SUSRIS Special Section “Challenge of Iran – 2012″, some of which are provided below.

To update your perspective on the challenges facing the US and Saudi Arabia in the Gulf, SUSRIS talked with three experts on Middle East affairs, political-military affairs, and developments in the Gulf and will present exclusive interview with them this week. They are:

  • Dr. Anthony H. Cordesman who holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. An exhaustive collection of analyses on the U.S.-Iran competition was recently published by CSIS under his direction. [Links below]
  • Dr. James A. Russell an associate professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Montery, CA, where he teaches courses on US foreign policy, defense planning and national security strategy.
  • Dr. Jean-Francois Seznec an Associate Professor at Georgetown University’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies who has extensive business experience in the Gulf. His research centers on the influence of the Arab-Persian Gulf political and social variables on the financial and oil markets in the region.

Today we open with our exclusive interview with Dr. Russell who was interviewed by phone from his office. He is presenting his personal views in this exclusive SUSRIS interview.  Dr. Russell’s extensive credentials are included below with his biography.  Among his current projects are a book on adaptation and learning by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and an examination of extended deterrence in the Middle East and Persian Gulf which will be published in the coming months.



Reacting to War Drums in the Gulf: A Conversation with James Russell

[SUSRIS] Thank you for taking time to talk about the prospects and consequences of conflict in the Gulf between the United States and its allies, and Iran, and the effects on US-Saudi relations. The threat of a military strike to thwart the Iranian nuclear program advances has been a recurring concern in recent years. Lately, however, the rhetoric has reached new levels especially during the recent U.S. visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu who is pressing Washington to act and American presidential candidates sounding very hawkish about Iran at venues like the AIPAC convention. What are your reactions to the war drums?

Dr. James A. Russell

[Dr. James A. Russell] An attack by the United States or Israel, or both, on Iran would be an absolute disaster for the region. It would be an immensely destabilizing event and it would raise the prospect of a wider, regional war. I don’t think anyone has a clear idea of how such a war would end.

I don’t support the United States participating in some kind of unilateral, pre-emptive military strike against Iran. I believe a more sound approach is to utilize a combination of military, political, and economic tools to execute a comprehensive containment strategy like that which served American foreign policy interests so well in the post World War II era. We have to remember taking a long-term, measured approach to solving this problem plays to American strengths and highlights Iran’s weaknesses. We and our regional allies are strong – Iran is weak. Iran today constitutes no political threat to the region due to the failure of the Islamic revolution and the loss of legitimacy with its own people. Moreover, it is slowly but surely going bankrupt. We just have to be patient and wait it out, just like we did with the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

If you are going to speculate on reactions from Saudi Arabia to this kind of scenario, I think it’s important to note that relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel have not changed much, at least superficially, in recent years. There’s no diplomatic recognition and they don’t have an open and public relationship. The Saudis are perennially frustrated at Israel’s continuing disinterest in the peace process as are the other regional states.

However, it’s also the case over the last several years that both states share a number of strategic interests and objectives. Both are concerned about Iran’s nuclear program and both are opposed to Iran becoming a nuclear weapons state. Both states are concerned about Iran’s political influence in the region, which has increased in recent years especially in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Both Israel and Saudi Arabia find themselves united in opposing Iran’s attempt to change the regional balance of power in a way that’s favorable to Iran’s interests.

Both are concerned about the Arab Spring, and they’re concerned about the emergence of a pro-Iranian regime in Iraq. They’re also concerned about the decline of the United States power following its withdrawal from Iraq. So, despite the absence of a formal political relationship these two countries that ostensibly don’t recognize each other share certain fears, interests, and objectives. However, those common factors have not led to a formal bilateral relationship. One hears periodic rumors of Prince Bandar making secret visits to Tel Aviv for consultation but the Saudis roundly deny them.

That’s the preamble shaping a discussion of how the Saudis would react to a military strike on Iranian nuclear program targets.

There are two categories of reaction that would be at play – public and private. In terms of the public reaction to such a scenario, you must remember the Saudis have consistently called for all the countries in the region to endorse the concept of a weapons of mass destruction, or WMD, free zone. This has been a way for Riyadh to signal opposition to any nuclear weapon states in the region. Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT, and it takes the treaty regime and its provisions very seriously.

It’s also the case that Saudi Arabia is today the most powerful Arab state. It’s taken a more assertive leadership role than in the past to address a wide variety of regional political issues, and there would be pressure on the regime to assume a leadership role to resolve a crisis such as the one we’re discussing. I would expect King Abdullah to fill the void as he has done on many other regional issues. He is a widely respected leader throughout the Arab world.

You must also consider in terms of foreign policy that it’s a new era in Saudi Arabia. Gone are the days when the ruling family could conduct foreign policy without regard for domestic politics. The regime would obviously be forced to publicly condemn an Israeli attack on Iran – an attack by a non-Islamic state on an Islamic state. I think we could expect Arab publics throughout the region to take to the streets in support of the Iranians, not so much because they were pro-Iran, but because they are very openly anti-Israel and, sadly, anti-US. So the public response of the al-Saud will be shaped by the domestic response to the situation.

We could expect that the regime would call for an immediate cessation of hostilities and diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation, but I think the domestic political environment would really put Saudi Arabia on the horns of a dilemma. It would need to keep public outrage from spinning out of control — acknowledging the incendiary nature of the environment that could be created in the aftermath of an attack.

Privately it’s more complicated. Frankly, the Saudi regime is in favor of any measures that would deny or convince the Iranians not to become a nuclear weapon state. Despite their private reaction – probably being pleased to see a setback in Iran’s nuclear ambitions – the leadership’s public posture would be shaped by the difficult political environment created in the aftermath of an attack which involved Israel. It would also be very difficult for the Saudis to remain on the sidelines, particularly if the scenario involved a wider regional dimension. This scenario places the Saudi leadership in a very difficult situation.

[SUSRIS] I’m reminded of the initial Saudi reaction to the 2006 crisis in Lebanon, hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah. It was to condemn Hezbollah as being reckless, inviting a conflict, a position that might be analogous to an Israeli-Iranian confrontation.

[Russell] Right.

[SUSRIS] In the case of a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities many analysts are warning of escalation, whether military force on force, or through asymmetrical means. Given your Middle East national security focus, especially your expertise in Gulf naval issues, how do you see such a conflict unfolding?

[Russell] It’s my view that when the lead starts flying – whether the United States or Israel, or both, attack Iranian targets – the United States is going to be at war with Iran.

There are arguments being made that the Iranians will just simply sit on their hands and ride out the strikes. I wouldn’t put much stock in that.

Should an attack occur, we should be under no illusions: the United States will be at war with Iran, and there are any number of bad things that can happen, including all of the scenarios that are well known to observers of Gulf affairs. These include Iranian missile strikes on American military facilities either directly or indirectly involved in the attacks as well as the prospects of missile strikes on Israel. There is the potential for escalation involving Hezbollah and the thousands of rockets it is believed to have amassed in southern Lebanon. There’s a broad range of options for Iran and a large number of escalation scenarios that are easy to envision.

[SUSRIS readers can read more about escalation scenarios in Dr. Russell’s paper “Strategic Stability Reconsidered: Prospects for Escalation and Nuclear War in the Middle East,” Proliferation Papers 26, IFRI, Spring 2009, posted online.]

Once hostilities commence Iran is going to feel compelled to respond. This could certainly involve attacks, either through asymmetric means or missile strikes on American military facilities that are hosted by countries such as Qatar, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, for example. We can expect attacks on American installations that remain in Iraq, although there are many fewer US military personnel in Iraq than several years ago.

There is also the threat by Iran to close the Strait of Hormuz. I don’t believe Iran could keep the Strait closed over an extended period. I think an attempt to close the Strait would mobilize an international coalition against Iran to keep the strait open. It’s obviously critical to the world’s economy given that about a fifth of the world’s oil moves through the narrow passage, and the international community would act to maintain free passage through the Strait. The United States and its coalition partners escorted tanker traffic during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when ships were being attacked. It’s not hard to imagine another international coalition taking shape to escort shipping in such a scenario — basically the coalition that is currently executing combined task force maritime security operations.

It would take the United States and its partners a week, maybe ten days, to eliminate the threat of the Iranian Navy. That’s not to say that Iran doesn’t have other means to threaten shipping in the strait such as deploying sea mines from numerous platforms, military and otherwise. There are also land-based anti-ship missiles that could be employed in the vicinity of the Strait and from the Iranian-occupied islands of Abu Musa and the Tunbs. Despite the ability of Iran to inflict some level of damage on coalition forces I think closure of the Strait is not a long-term vulnerability for the United States and the international community.

However, once the war starts we enter a very uncertain and unpredictable environment. I don’t think we can say with certainty that deterrence is going to stop the Iranians from escalating. As with any country that is attacked and engaged in a war, Tehran will feel compelled to defend itself. That’s going to involve shooting back at the countries perpetrating the attack. I don’t think we should be under any illusions about this whatsoever.

[SUSRIS] So the threat to close Hormuz is largely manageable but the consequences of other potential responses by Iran, say against Gulf allies, are less predictable and potentially more painful.

[Russell] Yes. In the case of Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States there are a number of inviting targets along the southern coast of the Gulf. We’re talking about the epicenter of international energy markets. Potential targets like oil production, refining and shipping facilities as well as the important desalination plants and other important industrial sites are obviously things the Iranians could target in such a scenario.

In my view, these Iranian military responses are reasonably manageable. It needs to be emphasized that Iran does not have much of a conventional military capability especially compared to what the United States and its coalition partners could bring to bear. While it has a large military, that force has no real ability to project power over any distances. Iran could shoot some missiles and mount asymmetric attacks. Both the United States and its Gulf partners have invested lots of money in missile defenses. We are also well positioned to deal with terrorist attacks from Tehran. Iran has a chemical weapon capability and it could consider using such weapons, but I’d expect this to only happen in extremis – if the survival of the regime was somehow threatened. Still, one can’t dismiss the various escalation options open to Tehran that could make life very uncomfortable for the United States and its allies.

I think the more serious issue is, again, the political environment resulting from a war like this. You are going to have additional domestic political unrest in a region that is already awash in turmoil. Just look around the map. Egypt obviously is in a very unstable situation. There’s already a civil war going on in Syria. In Saudi Arabia, there have been press reports about unrest in the Eastern Province. Bahrain remains very unstable. There have been protests in Kuwait. Iraq would also be affected by the situation.

The environment that gets created in a war like this has the potential to really polarize domestic public opinion throughout the region. It puts serious pressure on the Sunni regimes, including the Saudi ruling family. They cannot ignore public opinion. They are going to have to acknowledge it, deal with it, and it’s going to affect their decision-making processes. I see the potential for political and strategic uncertainty, and the House of Saud would have to be at the top of the list of those who are really worried about how to deal with these issues.

[SUSRIS] What is the potential for Gulf Arab forces, Saudi military forces, becoming directly involved in a conflict with Iran?

[Russell] It’s not politically feasible for the Saudis. I think the calculations would change if Saudi Arabia was attacked by Iran as part of wider war. In other words if the Iranians were to directly attack Saudi installations, I’d expect the regime would do what any country would do, which is to defend itself. If Israel was involved,it places the Saudis on the horns of a dilemma about how to position themselves. But I would expect that, as I said, if the Kingdom came under attack, the Kingdom would defend itself as would any country.

As for the prospect of the Saudis operating with some sort of military coalition against the Iranians, I suppose that’s a possibility, but again the political dimensions of such a decision make that very, very complicated. It must be pointed out that the Kingdom’s partnership with the United States on strategic and security issues is not as strong as it used to be. But there’s no getting around the fact that the Saudis are still tied at the hip to the United States. The Royal Saudi Air Force, the Royal Saudi Navy, the Royal Saudi Land Forces are all trained and equipped by the United States. The founder of the Kingdom placed his bets a long time ago in terms of ensuring the Kingdom’s security through its relationship with the United States, and his descendants are still drawing upon that basic calculus.

I think of Saudi Arabia as conducting a very clear and cautious, realist-oriented foreign policy and national security strategy. In such a scenario, the leadership would calculate their courses of action very carefully and play it pretty close to the vest, but play it in ways that keep the interests and security of the Kingdom uppermost.

[SUSRIS] What other considerations should we be mindful of when evaluating all of the possibilities surrounding such a conflict?

[Russell] I think it’s a great mistake for countries to consider using force unilaterally. One of the great lessons of the U.S. invastion of Iraq is that going to war unilaterally without international backing and political legitimacy is a bad idea. In this case, if Iran is found to be in violation of its obligations as an NPT signatory, there are avenues open to the United States and the international community to work to bring it into compliance and to impose significant long-term costs upon Iran if it withdraws from the NPT.

To its credit the Obama Administration is pursuing these actions aggressively, which is to institute a more robust sanctions regime. I believe the correct overall response by the United States and the international community is to emphasize that these steps are being taken in the context of international law that flows from the NPT and the reporting on Iran’s treaty compliance provided by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Stated differently, if Iran is found not to be in compliance with its obligations as an NPT signatory, then it’s incumbent upon the international community to react forcefully and to make the costs of that behavior by the Iranian regime extremely high. I would expect that the United States would assume a leadership position in mobilizing the international community through the United Nations in this matter, but I’m not in favor of the Unted States taking unilateral steps that do not serve the country’s long-term strategic interests.

[SUSRIS] There’s a push by Israel to act sooner rather than later even though American leaders, including the President and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have suggested there’s still time for means short of military action. Israel appears motivated by what it calls an Iranian “zone of immunity” even before actually producing a weapon. What’s your reaction to the prospects that the United States may not have concluded military action against Iran is necessary in the short term, but its hand is forced by a third power?

[Russell] I am not in favor of the United States being somehow forced, or dragged into a war at Israel’s prompting. The United States clearly has a strategic interest in preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state, but I do not believe the threat to the country warrants a pre-emptive strike or preventative war, particularly in view of the uncertain intelligence on the status of Iran’s nuclear program. We thought about preemptive attacks during the 1950s against the Soviet Union and again with China in the 1960s and correctly decided against doing it, choosing instead to rely on strategic nuclear deterrence to protect our country. I frankly don’t see how or why Iran would constitute more of a threat to the United States than either of these two countries did during the Cold War.

So the worst thing that happens here is that Iran decides to build a bomb and becomes an international outcast as a result of its abandonment of the NPT. This would impose serious costs on Iran. Stepping back from this, however, it’s not clear to me that an Iran armed with a few rudimentary devices is a threat either to the United States or Israel. In our case, we have thousands of nuclear warheads in our arsenal and Israel is rumored to have several hundred. So if Iran became a nuclear weapons state, we’d enter into a new deterrent relationship, relying on the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal to protect the country just as it has in the past. As for Israel’s position, it appears intent on maintaining its nuclear monopoly. It may have to rethink this position and openly declare itself as a nuclear state and get used to the idea of nuclear deterrence. Moreover, the United States can commit to providing security guarantees – a nuclear “umbrella” – to Gulf allies to forestall regional proliferation if it has to. I’m not advocating that the United States do this, I’m just noting that this is one of the courses of action open to us if Iran crosses the nuclear threshold.

Importantly, we need to be clear that the United States Intelligence Community does not believe Iran has a program underway to build a nuclear weapon. It is unsure about Iran’s intentions in this matter. The Director of National Intelligence and other officials recently testified before Congress to this effect.

We also must be mindful of the lessons of the 2003 Iraq War where the United States got the intelligence assessments utterly wrong and went to war under false pretexts. You can argue that the Intelligence Community was pressured by high-level Bush Administration officials to produce these flawed assessments, but this time around I think the Intelligence Community is providing a straightforward assessment that we should all pay close attention to.

My view is that the objectives of American strategy and foreign policy are to protect American interests. That also means protecting and reassuring our close partners and allies. We have an extremely close relationship with Israel and they are our closest regional ally. So we have to take steps to protect Israel just as we would any of our partners. My view is that we’ve done this by funding Israel’s various missile defense programs and there is almost no conventional weapon in the U.S. arsenal that is not made available to the Israeli Defense Forces. Israel today is the unrivaled and strongest military power in the Middle East courtesy of the United States, and there is no regional state that can credibly threaten Israel through the use of force.

I think that the Obama Administration is absolutely right to counsel caution to the Israelis. Both we and the Isarelis need to take a look at recent history. The main result of the Israeli raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981 was that Saddam dramatically speeded up Iraq’s program after the strikes.

This points to a broader truth: there is no military solution to this problem. It’s a political problem and requires a political solution. We and/or the Israelis cannot bomb Iran into submission and we cannot prevent them militarily from building a bomb if they are determined to do so through standoff strikes. Pakistan and North Korea provide cautionary tales of countries with far less industrial and intellectual capacities than Iran that made the sacrifices needed to build their own nuclear devices.

Iran can clearly do this if it wants to, and we cannot stop it militarily unless we are prepared to invade and occupy the country. This is just not practical or desirable in any way. In fact, it’s out of the question, with our military exhausted from a decade of war.

I think it is a big mistake to believe that we can somehow delay Iran’s program significantly through military action. I can’t emphasize this enough: there’s no military solution to this problem, there’s only a political solution. I believe that the costs of taking military action far outweigh any benefits to the United States, Israel, and other regional states, and to the Non-Proliferation Treaty regime.

I think President Obama has it right. That is, that the NPT is a cornerstone of international peace and security. It’s an important instrument not just for the United States but for the entire international community. Any sort of response to the situation with the Iranians needs to be taken in the context of preserving and strengthening the NPT regime, and controlling the spread of these weapons. I don’t see force as an instrument that will get us to the goal we seek, which is to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear weapon state. It may in fact speed it up.


About Dr. James A. Russell

Dr. James A. Russell

James A. Russell serves as an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at NPS, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, terrorism, and national security strategy.

His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His commentaries have appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News and he has been interviewed as a subject matter expert on NPR’s All Things Considered and Newsweek’s “On Air” series.

His latest articles are, “Strategic Stability Reconsidered: Prospects for Escalation and Nuclear War in the Middle East,” IFRI Proliferation Papers, Spring 2009; “Illicit Procurement Networks and Nuclear Proliferation: Challenges for Intelligence, Detection, and Interdiction” (with Jack Boureston), St. Anthony’s International Review 4, No. 2, Spring 2009. His latest book (ed. with Daniel Moran) is Energy Security and Global Politics: The Militarization of Resource Management (New York: Routledge, 2009).

From 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on U.S. security policy. He holds a Master’s in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London.

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Curriculum Vitae [Link]


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