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Iran’s Nuclear Program and its Nuclear Option

November 10, 2011

Take a minute – and maybe a deep breath too – and imagine the markets at opening bell on a hypothetical morning when live video shows burning oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz (through which 40% of the world's seaborne oil passes). Couple that with the already shaky state of the current global economy and you get ... well, what does chaos in a mosh pit look like?

Iran is back in the headlines, and once again behaving in a less-than-cooperative fashion regarding its nuclear enrichment program. After they've failed to deliver on promise after promise, it does not appear that Iran will come clean anytime soon, and definitely not in time for the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspection report due out any day now.

So what are our options? This week I came across a report from my friends over at STRATFOR, a geopolitical intelligence company, that fully analyzes the situation. They were nice enough to let me share the full article with Outside the Box readers, so I don't want to give too much away here. All I'll say is that there are three factors deterring any form of action against Tehran, and one of them relates to the scenario I described above.

And if you'd like more than just the occasional report from STRATFOR via yours truly, I've finagled a nice discount on a STRATFOR subscription for my readers, plus a free copy of their book on Iran. >>Click here to find out more.<<

Your still grieving Rangers fan,

John Mauldin, Editor
Outside the Box

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Iran's Nuclear Program and its Nuclear Option


November 8, 2011

Details and specifics of the forthcoming International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report on the Iranian nuclear program continued to leak out over the weekend, with the formal report expected later this week. The growing rhetoric about Iran — including talk from certain Israeli and American corners about an air campaign against Iran — had already begun to intensify in anticipation of the report, which will say more explicitly than previous IAEA assessments that Iran is indeed actively pursuing a nuclear weaponization program.

There is a cyclical nature to this rhetoric, and the correlation with the most harsh IAEA report on Iran to date is hard to get past. But while the latest IAEA report is certainly set to contain new, specific information about Iran’s program, there has been little serious doubt in recent years that Iran has continued to actively pursue nuclear weapons. The impending IAEA report’s overarching tenor is not news to anyone — though it provides plenty of opportunity to talk about Iran’s program, point fingers at Tehran and once again raise the specter of war — something even those mostly looking to mount pressure for more aggressive sanctions may do.

Nuclear weaponization programs by their nature require large, fixed infrastructure that must be connected to significant sources of power. The development of such programs — particularly in countries operating without access to key, export-controlled materiel — demands considerable investment over many years. Any serious movement down this path is vulnerable to detection, which is likely to lead to an attack in short order as Iraq found out in 1981 and Syria found out in 2007. Essentially, if a country desires a nuclear deterrent because it lacks any deterrent at all, then it is unlikely to be allowed the uninterrupted space and time to develop one.

The counterexamples are countries — specifically, North Korea and Iran — that already have a compelling, non-nuclear deterrent. That existent, non-nuclear deterrent discourages pre-emptive attacks against the country while its nuclear development efforts are in their most vulnerable stages. In the case of North Korea, Pyongyang has demonstrated a very sophisticated ability to escalate and de-escalate crises year after year, keeping itself at the center of the international agenda but not inviting physical attack. One element of this is Pyongyang’s deliberate cultivation of a perception of unpredictability — the idea the North Korean dictator may not behave rationally — which convinces international actors to give the regime a wide berth. The other is continued ambiguity. North Korea has made a career out of crossing international “red lines” and has helped soften the blow of crossing those lines by doing so ambiguously, particularly with nuclear tests that are not overtly, demonstrably successful. Yet North Korea has a large but unknown number of conventional artillery and artillery rocket batteries within range of Seoul. North Korea’s real “nuclear” option is opening fire with those batteries before they can possibly all be destroyed. And that is what ultimately keeps the international response to North Korea’s nuclear program in check: the unwillingness to trade a difficult and uncertain military attempt to address a crude, nascent nuclear program in exchange for Seoul.

Tehran has three key deterrents. First, for years, the American troop presence in Iraq, particularly after post-surge quelling of violence, remained vulnerable to Iranian-instigated attack by Tehran’s proxies and with weapons provided by Tehran (something Iran demonstrated quite unambiguously that it had the capacity to do in the form of the explosively formed penetrator, a particularly deadly form of improvised explosive device). That dynamic will remain, after American troops depart, in the form of American diplomats and contractors, who will be protected by a small army of private security contractors. Second, Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal can target both American and Israeli targets across the region – and many missiles will likely be loosed before all their mobile launchers can be pinpointed and destroyed.

But the third deterrent is the critical factor. Iran has for decades cultivated the ability to essentially conduct guerrilla warfare in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. This is Iran’s real “nuclear” option. There are inherent vulnerabilities in such tight waters, in which Iran can bring to bear not just naval mines, but shore-based anti-ship missiles and small boat swarms. This threat might be manageable tactically (particularly if a massive U.S.-led air campaign surprised Iran), but even in the best-case scenario, no one can manage the markets’ reaction to even the hint of disruption to 40 percent of the world’s sea-borne crude.

This is the heart of the problem. Whether there are six key nuclear sites in Iran or 60 (and Iran presents a significant intelligence challenge in this regard), any attacker has to neutralize not just the nuclear targets and associated air defenses, but Iran’s dispersed and camouflaged military capabilities all along the Persian Gulf and Strait of Hormuz. U.S. participation was decisive in a far less sophisticated air campaign against Libya. In an Iran scenario where so much must be hit so quickly, the United States is the only country capable of even attempting to bring the necessary military strike capacity against Iran.

But even the optimistic scenario must anticipate the potential for an outcome reminiscent of the 1980s Tanker Wars. While the United States and Europe are focused on the global economic crisis (and particularly the euro crisis in Europe), they will want to avoid at all costs video of burning oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz, which could panic already skittish markets. As long as that is the case, the prospect of a military strike on Iran is dim. And in any event, surprise is a key element for a successful strike on Iran. The moment Iran should feel the most secure is when Israeli rhetoric about war is at its peak.

Discuss This


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Walter Bruno

Nov. 14, 2011, 5:25 p.m.

To stabilize the Middle East region either both sides- Israel and Iran- have access to nuclear weapons or preferably, none of them.
Israel possessing a huge and increasingly growing arsenal, albeit not officially admitted, should take the lead (Americans) to negotiate with Iran with the objective of abolishing nuclear arsenals in the area, altogether. Israel`s legitimate security concerns could be safeguarded by American nucs like Germany is. A safe bet for Israel, given her strong support and influence in USA.
Naiv? Has it ever been tried? The stakes are too high not to try all peaceful venues.

carol pearce

Nov. 12, 2011, 8:25 a.m.

When British exploitation of Iranian oil resources was suspended by nationalization and an elected Parliament closing the British Embassy, we stepped into the soggy colonial shoes of a dying power, toppled an elected government, shored up the son of the Shah the British deposed and proceeded to divide up the oil spoils. We were in the driver’s seat for 26 years, getting cheap oil and supplying the shah with whatever weaponry he wanted, often to the dismay of our CIA.
When the only civil space left for opposition - the clergy - managed another coup, our feelings must have been very hurt.  Because we spent no end of money and good will supporting Saddam Hussein, encouraging him in his war against Iran and helping him in that miserable 8-year Persian Gulf War that was as much a stalemate as the Korean War.
Now we have embargoed, sanctioned and surrounded that country and we’re still not satisfied.  They opened their borders to us after 9/11 as we were invading Afghanistan and they found themselves called an axis of evil, soon to be surrounded by American troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and a proposed Bush build-up of new NATO defense (defense ?) program. Whoever was it to defend? To defend Europe from Russia? Iran?  Then of course there is Israel with no one knows how many nuclear warheads, a country that has invaded Lebanon twice, bombed Iraq and Syrian targets.
I have long failed to understand what exactly a sane country thousands of miles away has to fear from a country that has caused us nothing like the harm we have wrecked upon them.  All I can think of is our boundless fear of the Soviet Union after World War 2 - a country that had been absolutely devastated by the Nazi invasion, between 20 and 30 million dead, it’s industrial base moved to the east of the Urals and in no condition to invade anybody.
Who are we to decide to bomb a waterway thousands of miles away that we have no territorial claims on and no legal right to destroy unless we ourselves are under threat of attack?  We have gone from war to war since the day I was born, leaving misery and broken countries in our wake.  What insane insecurity drives us to do this, since we have in no way succeeded in making the world a more secure place.
As Truman said, trouble with us Americans is we’re always sticking our nose into someone else’s business!

S.D. Maley

Nov. 12, 2011, 1:57 a.m.

WSJ online item today”  “U.S. Plans Bomb Sales in Guld to Counter Iran”, which speaks of selling bunker-buster bombs to the UAE.

John Mack

Nov. 11, 2011, 5:23 p.m.

Excellent analysis. As you point out Iran already is quite successful in waging stealth war against what it sees as its enemies. The nuclear option would not make much of a difference. The Ayatollahs do not want nuclear war, despite rhetoric from subordinate politicians.

Nuclear war, among other consequences, would disrupt the organized crime rings and corrupt control of industry operated by the Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards want to cause trouble for Iran’s adversaries, but not in a way that would disrupt their shared rule with the clerics.

Get used to it. Iran will develop nuclear technology (with the help of the ultra-right wing Koch brothers). From there it will probably make some nuclear weapons. Since this is inevitable we need to open diplomatic channels and keep them active.

Jack Hiller

Nov. 11, 2011, 4:14 p.m.

Ordinarily, STRATFOR’S style of coldly reasoned analysis, based on factual information, and a presumtion that nations are led by leaderships who are likewise rational in estimating cost-benefits for their actions, works well. Here it presents a failure of reasoned analysis, precisely by removing human emotion as a source of action. The Israeli nation is populated by survirors of the Holicost and emigrees from persecution worldwide. The difficulty of oil transport thru the Stait of Hormuz is not their top priority, despite its importance to Western economics. Expect Israel to act when it sees the time as right. Furthermore, its is naive to expect that action would be limited to a US style fighter bomber attack.

John Brandt 32018

Nov. 11, 2011, 2:17 p.m.

A secretive coupled attack of nuke sites and Iranian defenses along the straight of Hormuz is just around the corner by both US and Israeli forces and perhaps Great Britain and/or France participating.
I suspect this attack to come in early 2012.
John Brandt