What significance, if any, should we assign to the administration’s plan to sell thousands of “smart bombs” known as JDAMs (Joint Direct Attack Munitions) to the United Arab Emirates? The Wall Street Journal, which broke the story, says it is “part of a stepped-up U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran.” But what do these bombs actually do to counter the Iranian nuclear program?
Potentially a lot if you imagine the UAE in concert with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council states launching a preemptive strike on the Iranian program. The GCC states certainly have the military potential to penetrate Iran’s air defenses and carry out such a strike. But that’s about as likely as Arabian sand turning into nuggets of gold. The Emiratis and their neighbors all fear and loathe Iran, but they are keenly aware that they are micro-states located near a big, aggressive country with a propensity for terrorism and subversion—and they have no intention of alienating Iran if they can help it.
The UAE, for one, may secretly (or not so secretly) hope for a U.S. or even an Israeli strike on Iran, but it will never launch one of its own. And in the meantime, one of its principal cities, Dubai, does a brisk business with Iran. The Emiratis are willing to enforce UN sanctions on Iran, but they are not willing to go any further—and given that UN sanctions are notoriously weak that means they are not willing to do that much to counter Iran. Same with all their neighbors, some of which (notably Qatar) are especially chummy with Tehran.
The only scenario under which I could imagine Emirati F-16s dropping those bombs on Iran would be if the UAE had been attacked first by Iran—and even then I suspect the Emiratis would act only if they were part of a coalition led by the U.S. Of course, an Iranian attack on the UAE is not inconceivable, especially if either the U.S. or Israel launches air strikes on the Iranian nuclear program. So the Emirati JDAMs could come in handy in deterring and, if that fails, responding to an Iranian counterstrike. But they are of little use in stopping or even significantly delaying the Iranian nuclear program.
That can only be done by Israel or the U.S., and then only if they decide to accept the risk of launching airstrikes. But, as Leon Panetta made clear yesterday, the Obama administration has no intention of undertaking any military action in Iran. That means that, barring an Israeli intervention, Iran will have a clear path to nuclear power status—JDAMs or no JDAMs.