Journal Essay

Pre-emptive Strike against Iran: Prelude to an Avoidable Disaster?

René Rieger and Markus Schiller

Winter 2012, Volume XIX, Number 4

Mr. Rieger is a PhD candidate in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter (UK), as well as a lecturer in international relations at the University of Munich. Dr. Schiller is an aerospace engineer and senior analyst at Schmucker Technologie, Munich, and a former RAND Nuclear Security Fellow, with many years of experience in analyzing missile and space programs of various countries of interest.

Both the political and academic debate on the Iranian nuclear crisis has focused on the development stage of Iran's nuclear program, in particular the time frame in which Iran could successfully engineer an operational nuclear warhead. What is lacking in the discussion, however, is a detailed examination of Iran's delivery systems. This paper fills an analytical gap by providing a technical-political analysis of the current development stage of Iran's missile program and draws relevant conclusions from its findings. For one thing, an evaluation of the development stage of Iran's missile program leads to a re-examination of the minimum amount of time until Iran could dispose of even a single fully operational nuclear weapon. Moreover, the effort Iran has been putting into the development of its missile program casts considerable doubt on its intentions to develop offensive nuclear weapons in the first place.

This paper argues that, first, Iran lacks the capability to accurately and reliably deliver a weapon to targets beyond 1,000 kilometres. Second, a pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear installations would very likely miss its objective and entail significant risks and major negative consequences. Third, due to the fact that Iran is several years away from developing operational nuclear weapons, a pre-emptive attack would not only provoke the above-mentioned repercussions; it would also be completely unnecessary.

In conclusion, the paper suggests an alternative approach to the Western community's policy of political pressure, threats and sanctions in its dealings with Iran. History shows that, despite historically burdened relations, contradictory interests and ideological antagonism, conflict de-escalation is not only possible, but urgently necessary.


While the Iranian government claims that its nuclear program is solely intended for civil use, there are other claims that the program might involve the development of a nuclear weapon as an ultimate objective. The true status and intent of the nuclear program remain uncertain. However, some important aspects are often ignored.

Once a single nuclear device has been detonated, policies toward the country that has "gone nuclear" shift, no matter that a first test is only proof of a concept for the basic design and far from operational deployment.1 This alone makes demonstrating nuclear capability with a single detonation an attractive option. Further weaponization is a costly extra that entails several other requirements.

For an attack, a nuclear weapon has to be detonated at the intended target site. Since nuclear weapons are usually available in very limited numbers, this requires a reliable and accurate means of delivery. Transporting a nuclear weapon to the intended target by car, truck or ship is always possible. However, this is only a viable option for a first strike, comparable to a massive terror attack. Under this option, there is no credible second strike capability. Iran would not be able to fight a nuclear war. Furthermore, a governmentally sanctioned massive terrorist attack is also possible and much more easily managed than an operation using a nuclear weapon.2 Therefore, it seems highly unlikely that a state would develop a nuclear weapon only for terror attacks by means of cars, trucks, and ships.

Aircraft are better suited for nuclear-weapons delivery, but there is little doubt that any nuclear-armed Iranian bomber or fighter aircraft would be intercepted long before it ever got close to its intended target. The same is true for cruise missiles, which are, in principle, no different from low-flying aircraft. This leaves ballistic-missiles as the only credible delivery system for an Iranian nuclear weapon. An operational ballistic missile system is therefore a prerequisite for a credible Iranian nuclear threat.


Threat can be seen as a product of intention and capability. If there is a capability to deal damage but no intention, there is no threat.3 If there is a clear intention to deal damage but no capability, the threat is also zero.

It is always hard to judge intentions. Public statements of intent are rarely in line with a country's true intentions, which are very difficult to define; the process of decision-making almost never depends on a single person. Even if it did, it is not easy to predict an individual's intentions or actions.

It is much simpler to judge the capability of a country, since this parameter depends on existing hardware. For a nuclear attack, the capability consists of the nuclear weapon and the delivery system together. There cannot be a real nuclear threat without an operational, accurate and reliable delivery system.4 Therefore, understanding the status and direction of Iran's ballistic-missile program is essential to understanding the potential threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.


There is no doubt that Iran has an active missile program as well as an active space-launcher program. However, the exact number, range, reliability and accuracy of deployed Iranian missiles, as well as the program's status and its dependence on foreign help and proliferation, are controversial.5

Iran obviously has access to Scud B missiles (Iranian designation, Shahab 1), which were fired at targets in Iraq in the 1980s. It also seems that a longer-range version of this missile, the Scud C (Shahab 2), is available in Iran.6 But with a maximum range of 500 km, these missiles are insufficient for an attack on Israel. The distance between Iran and Israel is twice that. Due to the earth's rotation, missiles that are launched westward suffer a slight range penalty, and for various operational reasons, missiles are usually not launched from positions right at the border. The more "attractive" targets are also located in central Israel. Therefore, the nominal range requirement increases to more than 1,100 km.

With little more than 900 km, the range of the basic Shahab 3 missile is therefore insufficient for this task.7 This might have been a reason for Iran's decision to start work in the early 2000s on a modified Shahab 3, with an extended range of more than 1,300 km. A handful of flight tests were conducted with this modified version, now commonly named Shahab 3D, Shahab 3M or Ghadr-1. These tests are more in line with a technology program than a serious weapons program. According to open sources, it seems that this missile has not been launched for some years now. It is plausible to assume that the program was stopped and the gained insights incorporated into the Iranian Safir satellite launcher.

In the mid-2000s, Iran apparently started a program for a two-stage, solid-fuel missile with a nominal range of about 2,000 km. This missile, known at first as Ashura and later Sejil, was launched fewer than half a dozen times in the last five years, apparently with mixed success. There are indications that the missile failed in an early test in 2007 and that problems with the missile's upper stage occurred in recent launches. Once operational, this missile would be a good tool for an attack on Israel. However, judging from the slow pace of roughly one launch per year, it seems that the program either has encountered enormous difficulties or is not being given the highest priority.

A Sejil missile, like the Safir satellite launcher, could be used for a first strike on Israel. But an attack with a space launcher or a missile that is still in development would be a unique event; the capacity for a second strike is non-existent. It would be comparable to a terrorist attack, and the risk of failure is high. Launch preparations would be lengthy, especially for the space launcher, and clearly visible. If Iran intended to launch a surprise attack of this irrational character, it would be better served to use a commercial airplane as a delivery system, for example, and not a rocket.

Projecting a time frame for the operational readiness of the Sejil missile is not easy. It is often overlooked that development depends not on months and years, but on the amount of work that is put into the project. If Iran continues with the Sejil at the same pace as it did for the last five years, it could take a decade for the missile to be ready for serial production and deployment. If no further launches are conducted, the missile will never be operational. If the program were accelerated, the time frame might be reduced to perhaps three years. Any Iranian statements suggesting the missiles are being deployed in large numbers are meaningless; the regime will always claim that every missile has been fully developed, has entered serial production, and is being deployed in large numbers.

Currently, regarding ballistic missiles that can threaten Israel, Iran has little to offer except for rhetorical threats. However, this might change if efforts were increased and programs accelerated. This might also indicate an Iranian ambition to gain an operational nuclear-weapons capability. Therefore, the situation should be closely monitored.


The Obama administration has repeatedly emphasized that it has not ruled out the military option in the Iranian nuclear crisis. At the same time, the U.S. government has left no doubt, not least in its bilateral dealings with Israel, that it clearly sees a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear infrastructure as a last resort. Hence, it seems safe to assume that, barring a massive change in circumstances such as an immediate Iranian crossing of the nuclear-weapons threshold, the United States will not initiate or voluntarily participate in a pre-emptive strike against Iran. However, despite considerable pressure from the U.S. government as well as from both former and current high-ranking officials of the Israeli military and intelligence services, the Netanyahu government might attack Iran in the months to come.

The potential consequences of such a pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear installations are manifold. The following list indicates that such a move would entail great risks for Israel, the United States, the Arab Gulf monarchies, subregional and regional stability, and the world economy.

Defeat of Its Own Purpose

Even if Israel were successful in destroying all relevant Iranian nuclear sites, Iran's program would merely be thrown back a few years. While nuclear facilities and technology would be destroyed, nuclear know-how would survive. Iran would retain the basic prerequisites for a renewal of its nuclear program. It has to be expected that Tehran would not only opt to restore it, but would implement it with even greater ambition and increased popular support. Even current critics of the nuclear program within Iran would be hard-pressed not to endorse its renewal after its destruction. While it is not definitive that the Iranian regime is pursuing a nuclear-weapons program, it would very likely do so following an Israeli attack.8 In this context, Colin Kahl correctly points out,

the [Iranian] nuclear program remains an enormous source of national pride for the majority of Iranians. To the extent that there is internal dissent over the program, it is a discussion about whether the country should acquire nuclear weapons or simply pursue civilian nuclear technology. By demonstrating the vulnerability of a non-nuclear-armed Iran, a [pre-emptive] attack would provide ammunition to hard-liners who argue for acquiring a nuclear deterrent.9

Hence, a few years down the road, the world would be faced with an Iran having regained its current level of nuclear development and almost certainly being driven by a much more proactive and dangerous political agenda. Addressing this development by attacking Iran's nuclear infrastructure every three to five years, as some suggest, seems to be a less than desirable strategy. As we will describe in more detail below, even a single pre-emptive strike would entail unpredictable and uncontrollable consequences. The repercussions of a series of consecutive strikes would be even more incalculable. By repeatedly destroying the Iranian nuclear program, one would only be fighting symptoms rather than the underlying causes of the problem.

Strengthening the Iranian Regime

In the past three years, the Iranian regime has succeeded in quelling the so-called Green Revolution that arose in protest of the presumably manipulated presidential elections of 2009. Unlike the case of several Arab regimes that fell in the course of the Arab Spring, the Iranian regime's massive use of police brutality, torture, forced disappearances, house arrests and other intimidation techniques effectively decimated the active Iranian opposition. Nonetheless, the regime in Tehran is continuously faced with significant (silent) opposition from, among others, Iran's youth and the intelligentsia in the cities. However, an attack against Iran would likely bolster the regime and punish its already weakened opponents. Historical evidence shows that foreign military aggression usually provokes a response of "rally-around-the-flag," a closing of ranks between the regime and its political and societal opposition. Even regimes with low popular support and legitimacy have been able to stabilize their rule in the light of aggression. The Iranian regime itself has profited from this phenomenon before. Following the Iraqi invasion of September 20, 1980, the Khomeini regime managed to consolidate its previously challenged rule. While the majority of the Iranian people supported the revolution against the Shah's regime, the Khomeini movement that had hijacked the revolution was faced with significant opposition. That opposition rapidly subsided following the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War.10

Potential Iranian Propaganda Victory

Israel has been successful twice in destroying nuclear facilities it considered a threat to its national security. On June 7, 1981, in the course of the so-called Operation Opera, 14 Israeli air-force jets entered Iraqi air space and destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor 17 kilometers south of Baghdad. Two-and-a-half decades later, on September 6, 2007, the Israeli air force conducted Operation Orchard, during which its 69 Squadron jets destroyed the alleged al-Kibar nuclear reactor under construction in eastern Syria. At first glance, these two successful episodes might suggest that Israel has the ability to destroy the Iranian nuclear program as well. However, the Iranian nuclear infrastructure is spread over a geographically large area, and parts of it are underground and heavily fortified, making an air strike much more challenging.

There are differing opinions among analysts as to the number of targets that would have to be destroyed in an effective strike against the Iranian nuclear program. It is undisputed that the uranium-enrichment facilities at Natanz11 and Fordow,12 as well as the heavy-water reactor in Arak13 and the uranium conversion plant at Isfahan,14 are high-priority targets. However, the nuclear power plant at Bushehr15 (the destruction of which would cause massive nuclear fallout), a warhead production facility in Parchin,16 and strategically important missile bases in Tabriz17 and near Khorramabad18 could also be deemed high-value targets.

According to a recent study, the coordinated destruction of installations at Natanz, Fordow, Arak, Isfahan and some smaller targets, including the Imam Ali Missile Base near Khorramabad, would require approximately 95 Israeli F-15 and F-16 jets. This would amount to more than one-fourth of Israel's high-technology combat aircraft.19 Additional jets would be needed for the destruction of the targets in Bushehr, Parchin and Tabriz. The Israeli jets would have to be fueled in the air due to the long distances, their fuel-consuming heavy bomb loads and low-altitude flights (to avoid radar detection), the need for loitering time to evade resistance in Iranian air space and their limited fuel-tank capacities. The above-mentioned study estimates that an attack mission would have to be supported by 13 tanker planes.20 It is uncertain whether Israel has a sufficient number at its disposal. However, it can be assumed that Israel has recently increased its air-refueling capacity by procuring additional tanker planes from the United States and refitting transport planes. Buddy-refueling maneuvers are an alternative; however, this method would increase the number of jets required to conduct the mission. In any case, mid-mission refueling is dangerous: the jets would be more exposed to enemy attack, particularly if the procedure were to occur in the airspace of an unfriendly nation.

A particular challenge would be the heavy fortification of the facilities at Natanz and Fordow. Publicly available reports on the protective architecture of the Natanz facility are inconsistent. Emily Chorley and Scott Johnson from IHS Jane's claim the underground installation to have "two-metre-thick concrete walls and [to] be buried beneath an estimated 10 metres of soil."21 A former senior staff member of the German Defense Department reports that the installation's roof is hardened with several meters of reinforced concrete and covered by approximately 25 meters of soil.22 In both cases, it can be expected that a series of 5,000-pound GBU-28/B bunker-buster bombs would effectively destroy the installation and all the highly sensitive centrifuges. However, in the case of the Fordow facilities, the destructive force of Israel's bombs is far less certain. The uranium-enrichment installation is constructed in a mountain and protected by roughly 70 meters of rock. It is highly doubtful that an Israeli air bombardment would cause more than a temporary denial of access.

Due to the clear military superiority of the Israeli armed forces over their Iranian counterpart, anything but a completely successful air raid would be a great embarrassment and yet again call into question the myth of Israeli military invincibility. There is no doubt that the Iranian regime would propagandize even a partial Israeli failure and spare no effort at public ridicule. In this context, one must recall the consequences of the Israeli military's inability to destroy Hezbollah during the 2006 Lebanon War. Not only has Hezbollah portrayed itself as the first to defeat Israel militarily; the episode has also struck a painful blow to the Israeli national psyche and created a feeling of insecurity. Hence, the complexity of the task and the unacceptable repercussions of failure make a pre-emptive attack a high-risk operation for Israel.

Vulnerability of Israeli Prisoners of War

Despite the Israeli air force's superiority in technology and training, it is not impossible that the Iranian air defense could shoot down an Israeli jet. Moreover, human error on the part of the Israeli jet crews and technical malfunctions could also lead to the crash of an Israeli military plane over Iranian territory. While the loss of Israeli airmen would be acceptable to both the Israeli government and society, the capture of Israeli prisoners of war would not. The case of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier held prisoner for five years by Hamas, has shown how deeply the Israeli national psyche is affected when one of its soldiers is captured and how high a price the Israeli government is willing to pay to recover Israeli citizens held in enemy hands. Hence, the capture of an airman would make the Israeli government very susceptible to Iranian blackmail. Moreover, Iran's exploitation of the propaganda would injure the Israeli national psyche.

Increase in Asymmetric Attacks on Israel

For many years, Iran has been supporting anti-Israeli actors such as Hezbollah and Hamas and their asymmetric attacks on Israel. There can be no doubt that, following a pre-emptive Israeli attack, this support would be expanded. Due to the current civil war in Syria, it can be expected that the logistical link between the Iranian regime and Hezbollah in Lebanon has been weakened.

Nonetheless, Iran is still in a position to support the group logistically, financially and with weapons. While it is correct that neither Hezbollah nor Hamas takes orders from Iran, there is little doubt that increased operational support of militant anti-Israeli actors would lead directly to an increase in asymmetric attacks on Israel. Even the strongest supporters of an Israeli pre-emptive strike seem to agree with this prognosis.

Iranian Retaliation against Israel, Targets in the Gulf and Beyond

It is highly likely that Iran's reaction to an Israeli pre-emptive strike will go beyond an increase in support for anti-Israeli proxies. Possible Iranian alternatives include the following:

(1) Singular Iranian missile attacks against Israel could not be ruled out. However, as mentioned above, the operationality and accuracy of Iranian mid-range missiles is highly doubtful.
(2) Iran would likely engage in intensified attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets worldwide. Depending on the (perceived) involvement of the United States in the attack against Iran, U.S. individuals and installations could also be targeted.
(3) Again, depending on U.S. involvement in an Israeli pre-emptive strike, Iran could launch attacks against U.S. Navy ships in the Gulf. The fact that Iran has several submarines and that the shallow waters of the Gulf are not ideal for large U.S. carrier groups to maneuver might increase the damage Iran could cause. Nonetheless, the United States is militarily far superior to its Iranian counterpart. In any case, the attacks on U.S. Navy vessels would draw the United States into a direct military confrontation with Iran.
(4) Iran has repeatedly threatened to attack its neighbor states in the Gulf if they were deemed to be complicit in an attack against its nuclear installations. Likely targets would be the oil and gas installations on the Arabian Gulf coast as well as pipeline systems, ports and desalination plants. These attacks could either be conducted conventionally or through acts of sabotage and terrorism and could have massive economic consequences.
(5) Iran could attempt to disrupt the oil and gas export routes in the Gulf by mining or otherwise blocking (e.g., by sinking or setting on fire tanker ships) the Strait of Hormuz, or by initiating a new tanker war by attacking tanker ships in the Gulf with short-range missiles or navy vessels or by sabotage. The economic consequences of such actions could be very grave.

Most proponents of a pre-emptive attack against Iran argue that the regime in Tehran is very unlikely to resort to the more drastic potential reactions described above, particularly those introduced in points 4 and 5. Their argument is that Iran is fully aware of the severe repercussions these actions would spawn. By making this argument, however, advocates of an attack contradict themselves. They argue that the Iranian regime is at the same time rational and irrational. According to their logic, the Iranian regime has to be stopped from getting nuclear weapons because it would be suicidal to use these weapons against Israel, while it would react rationally to a pre-emptive attack on its territory. One either has to be prepared for an irrational Iranian reaction to a pre-emptive attack or stop worrying about an Iranian nuclear weapon.

Destabilization of Pro-Western Arab Regimes

A pre-emptive Israeli strike against Iran has the potential to destabilize pro-Western Arab regimes in the Gulf, despite the fact that several Arab Gulf monarchies have pushed the United States to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons capability by all means necessary. A strike on Iran would constitute an attack on a Muslim state. It is likely to evoke at least some sympathy for the Iranian regime among some segments of Arab Gulf population, predominantly the Shia. Iran's longstanding anti-Israeli rhetoric and Tehran's shameless use of the plight of the Palestinian people for propaganda purposes bolstered its reputation and influence on the Arab Street even in the traditionally anti-Iran Arab Gulf states.

It can be expected that, following an Israeli attack on Iran, some in the Arab Gulf monarchies would sympathize with the regime in Tehran and confront their governments with calls for some sort of retaliation — at least of a diplomatic nature — against Israel and the United States, actions that would clearly contradict these regimes' interests. The dimension of popular calls for retaliation would increase with the number of Iranian victims. Those in the Arab Gulf monarchies most likely to sympathize with Tehran are the Shia in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, already in conflict with their governments over issues of discrimination.

Further escalation, possibly instigated by Iranian proxies, would potentially weaken the regime and incur economic instability, particularly in the case of Saudi Arabia, where the Shia minority resides predominantly in the oil-rich Eastern Province, representing roughly half of the local population.

Inflicting of Major Economic Pain

Most advocates of a pre-emptive strike play down the possible economic consequences of an attack on Iran. They argue that the regime in Tehran would not be able to effectively disrupt oil and gas exports through the Strait of Hormuz, and that the loss of supplies to the world market would only be temporary and limited. This hypothesis comprises several significant flaws.

First, while Tehran could at best effect a complete disruption of oil and gas exports through the Strait of Hormuz for a short period of time, it could curtail the oil trade in the Gulf significantly over an extended period. It would be impossible to compensate fully for the loss in oil shipments; and the longer the disruption lasted, the more difficult compensation attempts would become.

Second, the dimensions of global spare oil capacity are obscure; in any case, they are very limited and largely reliant on the Strait of Hormuz for export. The world's spare capacity is held almost entirely by Saudi Arabia, though it is highly likely that it is considerably below the officially claimed 2.5 million barrels per day (mbd).

Third, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-producing Gulf states have only limited capacity to redirect their oil exports away from the Strait of Hormuz. Only 1.5 mbd of Saudi oil (including spare production) could be redirected through the East-West pipeline to the Yanbu al-Bahr port on the Red Sea.23 The United Arab Emirates has recently completed the so-called Habshan-Fujairah oil pipeline, which also bypasses the Strait of Hormuz. However, the pipeline's current capacity does not exceed 1 mbd. Compared to the 17 million barrels that pass through the Strait of Hormuz on a daily basis (roughly 20 percent of the world's traded oil), the Gulf countries' compensation capacity is relatively limited.

Fourth, there is the possibility, however remote, that Venezuela, a close ally of the Iranian regime and the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States (roughly 900,000 bpd), would cut its exports. This would put even more pressure on the international oil market and directly affect the U.S. economy.24

Fifth, to compensate a significant supply shortage provoked by massive curtailment or interruption of trade routes in the Gulf, oil-importing nations could tap their strategic stocks. However, particularly in the early stage of a massive supply crisis, commercial, logistical and political considerations would inhibit countries releasing enough reserve stocks to compensate fully for the shortage.25

Sixth, Iran could commit acts of sabotage against oil installations in the Gulf, also interrupting supply.

Finally, an essential factor in oil pricing is market psychology. Irrespective of actual changes in oil supply, market expectations or fears of supply cuts can have drastic effects on prices. As a significant portion of the global oil supply originates in the Gulf, the oil market is particularly sensitive to developments there. Hence, the mere possibility of a serious disruption of the transit routes in the Gulf following an attack on Iran has the potential to provoke skyrocketing oil prices. The more the conflict then escalates and the longer the crisis lasts, the more enduring would be the effect on the oil prices. In the current global economy a prolonged increase in oil prices would have disastrous consequences.

Subregional or Regional Conflict Escalation

To attack the Iranian nuclear infrastructure, the Israeli air force would have no feasible alternative to flying through foreign air space. There would be three potential routes, all presenting operational and political risks. The first runs northeast over the Mediterranean Sea along the coastline of Lebanon and Syria, then eastward along the Syrian-Turkish border, and finally through northern Iraq or alongside the Turkish-Iraqi border (northern route). The second runs east through Jordanian airspace or along the Jordanian-Syrian border and then east through Iraqi airspace (central route). The third follows the flight route of the 1981 raid on Iraq's Osirak reactor, entering Saudi Arabia at the tip of the Gulf of Aqaba, then flying northeast through Saudi airspace and eventually east through Iraqi airspace (southern route).

The northern route carries relatively low operational risks as long as the Israeli jets would fly mainly on the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border. However, a violation of Turkish airspace could have significant political consequences. Turkish-Israeli relations have already cooled considerably, particularly since the Gaza Flotilla incident of 2010. Judging from the Erdogan government's recent attitude towards Israel, there is a clear possibility that the Turkish military would attempt to ward off an Israeli intrusion into their airspace. A violation of Turkish airspace would be particularly problematic, moreover as it would constitute aggression against a NATO member.

The central route, too, would involve taking significant risks. Since Jordan would likely not grant Israel overflight rights, an Israeli intrusion into Jordanian airspace would be an act of aggression entailing risks predominantly political in nature (jeopardizing the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty), but potentially also operational (Jordanian attempts to stop the intrusion and provide advance warning to neighboring countries).

Since the early 1980s, Saudi air surveillance has improved so significantly that an Israeli intrusion into Saudi airspace would not go undetected. The Saudi government would be politically bound (both domestically and regionally) to protest with more than rhetoric an Israeli violation of their territorial integrity. Earlier reports suggesting that Saudi Arabia would look the other way while Israel overflew its territory are not credible. Any Saudi military reaction against the Israeli air fleet would cause operational problems for the Israeli mission and provoke a political crisis inimical to both Israeli and Saudi interests.

Flying through Iraqi airspace would not be a problem. While Iraq has the ability to monitor its airspace, it lacks the means to effectively impede an Israeli intrusion.


Over the past years the conflict over the Iranian nuclear program has steadily escalated. The West's policy of political pressure, threats — including that of a military strike — and escalating economic sanctions has proven ineffective in prompting a reversal of the Iranian policy. Quite the opposite; the greater the pressure on the Iranian regime, the less willing it is to compromise. Moreover, the foregoing analysis has shown that a pre-emptive attack against the Iranian infrastructure is not a viable option. On the contrary, it is imperative that both Israel and the United States refrain from such a risky and at this stage unnecessary endeavor. At the same time, it is in the vital interest of the Western community and its allies in the Gulf and the greater Middle East for Iran not to possess operational offensive nuclear weapons.

The West — the United States, in particular — should admit past failure and adjust its policies toward Iran accordingly. This policy has been based solely on negative incentives that can be summarized as follows: "If you, Iran, act in accordance with our interests and follow our instructions, we will refrain from punishing you further." Even if the Iranian regime were to end its nuclear-development program immediately and permanently, it would not achieve the prospect of improved treatment from the West. In contrast, the controversy around the nuclear program notwithstanding, the West treats Iran as a pariah state with an illegitimate government that needs to be toppled, ideally by the Iranian people, but if necessary through exogenous regime change. It is almost naïve to believe that, under these conditions, the Iranian regime will bow to Western pressure. The more threats are issued, the less cooperative Tehran will become, and the more it will work on its deterrent capabilities.

The Persian Gulf is of global strategic — particularly economic — importance. Any conflict escalation will negatively affect Western interests. Therefore, it is imperative that the Western state community reach a détente in its relations with Iran. The history of international relations is full of examples of nations with irreconcilable ideological differences and contradictory interests finding a modus vivendi and reducing the risk of a conflict escalation that would hurt them both. As a matter of fact, the West and the regime in Tehran share more interests than mere prevention of major conflict escalation. The stability of Afghanistan and the containment of piracy are only two examples. This partial congruence of interests is the ideal starting point for a détente in Western-Iranian relations; it is the key to solving the Iranian nuclear crisis.

However, a détente requires direct personal contact between the states and governments involved. Therefore, we suggest that, for the first time since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, the U.S. and Iranian heads of state meet for a summit on neutral ground. While such a summit would unlikely produce any significant concrete political results, its symbolic relevance and long-term effects should not be underestimated. The 1986 Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev or the 1970 Erfurt Summit between then heads of government of West and East Germany, Willy Brandt and Willi Stoph, are but two examples of the significant impact of high-level summits.

The obvious objection is that the Iranian regime would instrumentalize such a summit for propaganda purposes and thereby gain domestic legitimacy. This, though unlikely, might be true in the short run; however, much more important, the Iranian regime would lose one of its most significant domestic and foreign-policy propaganda tools. By meeting with the U.S. government, the Iranian regime, too, would relativize its rejection and demonization of the United States and could no longer maintain its propaganda myth as the only Muslim state that does not deal with the "Great Satan." Moreover, the mere fact that the United States resumed de facto relations with Iran would not stabilize the Iranian regime's domestic power position. On the contrary, Tehran would still face the same public criticism and opposition it does now. Nonetheless, it can be expected that the Iranian regime would welcome the offer to meet with the U.S. government. For one thing, the Iranian government is looking for public acceptance of its role as a regional power in the Gulf. Though Iran rejects the United States and its policies, it is aware of America's irrefutable superpower status; hence, meeting on an equal footing with the United States would improve Iran's (perceived) regional-power status. Moreover, Tehran could not afford to reject a U.S. offer to meet on a head-of-state level. So far, Iran has portrayed itself domestically and internationally as the innocent victim in this crisis. The rejection of an unconditional olive branch would hurt the government's skillfully constructed reputation among a significant number of its supporters.

Without a doubt, it is politically difficult for any U.S. president to meet with the Iranian head of state at eye level. However, taking this first step on a new path in Western-Iranian relations would pay off in the long run.


1 Examples in recent history are India, Pakistan and — to a certain degree — North Korea.

2 The 9/11 attacks clearly showed how easily enormous damage can be inflicted with conventional means.

3 The United States has the capability to attack Luxemburg, but lacks the intention. Therefore, the U.S. threat to Luxemburg is zero.

4 Else, the threat is comparable to a large terrorist attack. And this type of threat always exists, even today.

5 Compare, for example, various essays on and in Mark Fitzpatrick, ed., Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities — A Net Assessment (International Institute for Strategic Studies, May 10, 2010).

6 For more information on the Scud and Shahab missiles, on their origins and on links to North Korea, see Markus Schiller, Characterizing the North Korean Nuclear Missile Threat (RAND Corporation, September 27, 2012), Also available in print form.

7 In open source literature, the range of the Shahab 3 is often given as 1,300 km. This value comes from an early assumption of the missile's configuration that turned out to be wrong. By now, many details of the Shahab 3 are known, and physical and technical analysis yields a range of less than 1,000 km for the standard version of the Nodong/Ghauri/Shahab 3.

8 Among the advocates of this prediction is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), General (ret.) Michael Hayden, who at a public lecture at Johns Hopkins University on January 20, 2011, recalled a "senior leader in [the Bush Sr.] government" saying in a small group meeting: "If we were to do that [attack Iran], we will guarantee that which we are trying to prevent… which is an Iran that will not be stopped from secretly developing a [nuclear] weapon." An audiovisual record of the lecture is made available on the website of The Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory Rethinking Seminar Series: Rethinking National Security in an Era of Declining Budgets, (accessed August 8, 2012).

9 Colin H. Kahl, "Not Time to Attack Iran: Why War Should Be a Last Resort," Foreign Affairs, 91, no. 2 (2012): 171.

10 Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights attempt to challenge this comparison by stating: "In 1980, Iran was in the throes of a revolution that enjoyed widespread popular support, while today, the regime is extremely unpopular among large segments of the population and is liable to be held responsible for what many Iranians may believe is an avoidable conflict." Michael Eisenstadt and Michael Knights, "Beyond Worst-Case Analysis: Iran's Likely Responses to an Israeli Preventive Strike," Policy Notes, 11 (June 2012): 6. What Eisenstadt and Knights fail to acknowledge is that, in 1979, the Shah was toppled by a highly heterogeneous opposition of which large parts were very critical of Khomeini and his ideology. It is true that large parts of the opposition shared an interest in toppling the Shah's regime. However, they were far from sharing the same vision of post-Shah Iran.

11 Approx. 220 km south of Tehran.

12 Near the city of Qom, approx. 100 km southwest of Tehran.

13 Approx. 250 km southwest of Tehran.

14 Approx. 340 km south of Tehran.

15 At the Arabian/Persian Gulf, approx. 760 km southwest of Tehran, however, only roughly 250 km northeast of Saudi Arabia's largest oil refinery at Ra's Tanura, 290 kilometers southeast of Kuwait City, and roughly 300 km northeast respectively north of Manama and the Qatari border.

16 Approx. 35 km southeast of Tehran.

17 Approx. 530 km northwest of Tehran.

18 The Imam Ali Missile Base is approx. 390 km southwest of Tehran.

19 Abdullah Toukan, "Options for Dealing with Iran's Nuclear Program: A Risk Assessment Approach," Center for Strategic and International Studies. April 12, 2012, Risk_Assessment.pdf (accessed August 9, 2012).

20 Ibid.

21 Emily Chorley and Scott Johnson, "Nuclear Fallout — Israel's Campaign against Iran," Jane's Intelligence Review 24: 46-52, 46.

22 Hans Rühle, "Wie Israel Irans Atomprogramm zerstören könnte," Welt Online, February 16, 2012.

23 Comp. Robert McNally, "Managing Oil Market Disruption in a Confrontation with Iran," Council on Foreign Relations, Energy Brief, January 2012.

24 Ibid.

25 For a more detailed analysis, see ibid.