Should the al Assad regime -- or the Syrian regime without al Assad -- survive, Iran would therefore enjoy tremendous influence with Syria, as well as with Hezbollah in Lebanon. The current course in Iraq coupled with the survival of an Alawite regime in Syria would create an Iranian sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. This would represent a fundamental shift in the regional balance of power and probably would redefine Iranian relations with the Arabian Peninsula. This is obviously in Iran's interest. It is not in the interests of the United States, however.
The United States has sought to head this off via a twofold response. Clandestinely, it has engaged in an active campaign of sabotage and assassination targeting Iran's nuclear efforts. Publicly, it has created a sanctions regime against Iran, most recently targeting Iran's oil exports. However, the latter effort faces many challenges.
Japan, the No. 2 buyer of Iranian crude, has pledged its support but has not outlined concrete plans to reduce its purchases. The Chinese and Indians -- Iran's No. 1 and 3 buyers of crude, respectively -- will continue to buy from Iran despite increased U.S. pressure. In spite of U.S. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's visit last week, the Chinese are not prepared to impose sanctions, and the Russians are not likely to enforce sanctions even if they agreed to them. Turkey is unwilling to create a confrontation with Iran and is trying to remain a vital trade conduit for the Iranians regardless of sanctions. At the same time, while the Europeans seem prepared to participate in harder-hitting sanctions on Iranian oil, they already have delayed action on these sanctions and certainly are in no position politically or otherwise to participate in military action. The European economic crisis is at root a political crisis, so even if the Europeans could add significant military weight, which they generally lack, concerted action of any sort is unlikely.
Neither, for that matter, does the United States have the ability to do much militarily. Invading Iran is out of the question. The mountainous geography of Iran, a nation of about 70 million people, makes direct occupation impossible given available American forces.
Air operations against Iran are an option, but they could not be confined to nuclear facilities. Iran still doesn't have nuclear weapons, and while nuclear weapons would compound the strategic problem, the problem would still exist without them. The center of gravity of Iran's power is the relative strength of its conventional forces in the region. Absent those, Iran would be less capable of wielding covert power, as the psychological matrix would shift.
An air campaign against Iran's conventional forces would play to American military strengths, but it has two problems. First, it would be an extended campaign, one lasting months. Iran's capabilities are large and dispersed, and as seen in Desert Storm and Kosovo against weaker opponents, such operations take a long time and are not guaranteed to be effective. Second, the Iranians have counters. One, of course, is the Strait of Hormuz. The second is the use of its special operations forces and allies in and out of the region to conduct terrorist attacks. An extended air campaign coupled with terrorist attacks could increase distrust of American power rather than increase it among U.S. allies, to say nothing of the question of whether Washington could sustain political support in a coalition or within the United States itself.
The Covert Option
The United States and Israel both have covert options as well. They have networks of influence in the region and highly capable covert forces, which they have said publicly that they would use to limit Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons without resorting to overt force. We assume, though we lack evidence, that the assassination of the Iranian chemist associated with the country's nuclear program last week was either a U.S. or Israeli operation or some combination of the two. Not only did it eliminate a scientist, it also bred insecurity and morale problems among those working on the program. It also signaled the region that the United States and Israel have options inside Iran.
The U.S. desire to support an Iranian anti-government movement generally has failed. Tehran showed in 2009 that it could suppress demonstrations, and it was obvious that the demonstrators did not have the widespread support needed to overcome such repression. Though the United States has sought to support internal dissidents in Iran since 1979, it has not succeeded in producing a meaningful threat to the clerical regime. Therefore, covert operations are being aimed directly at the nuclear program with the hope that successes there might ripple through other, more immediately significant sectors.
As we have long argued, the Iranians already have a "nuclear option," namely, the prospect of blockading the Strait of Hormuz, through which roughly 35 percent of seaborne crude and 20 percent of the world's traded oil passes daily. Doing so would hurt them, too, of course. But failing to deter an air or covert campaign, they might choose to close off the strait. Temporarily disrupting the flow of oil, even intermittently, could rapidly create a global economic crisis given the fragility of the world economy.