To give context to the differences, laying out how a widened scope of potential conflict could play out may be helpful. If attacked—again, if attacked—Iran would have the casus belli to retaliate, and although Iran’s military is woefully substandard, it does possess certain asymmetric advantages that deserve consideration. A great deal has already been written about the Strait of Hormuz—the shipping gateway for one-fifth of the world’s oil. But Tehran could also use Shehab-1, -2, and -3 missiles to target U.S. personnel, camps and regional bases in Afghanistan (Herat, Kandahar and Shindand), Kuwait (Ali Al Salem, Ahmed Al Jaber, Buehring, Spearhead, Patriot and Arifjan), Qatar (Al Udeid), the United Arab Emirates (Al Dhafra), Bahrain (Naval Support Activity, Al Manamah) and Oman (Thumrait). In addition, Iran exerts influence in the Levant through proxies like Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, all of which can attack—and have attacked—Israel.
Another incalculable risk of provoking and potentially attacking Iran is that even proponents of attacks readily concede that it would only retard Iran’s nuclear program and thus may encourage Tehran to pursue a nuclear deterrent in the future. In December, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta—who has cautioned against, but has not effectively ruled out, a unilateral strike—has said an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “at best” delay the nuclear program by one or two years. Robert Gates also said, “a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert.”
Hopefully, this author is wrong and none of these events will unfold. After all, previous American-Iranian naval stand-offs have led nowhere, and as my colleague Ben Friedman notes, “the risk of escalation is mostly Iran’s. By attacking U.S. ships, they would risk annihilation or a disarming first strike.” But it is absolutely wrong for anyone to suggest that opponents of attacking Iran neither recognize nor appreciate the threat its nuclear program would pose. And to readily dismiss the potential ramifications of provocative, “get-tough” approaches exemplifies the senselessness that lead to America’s eight-year, multi-trillion-dollar debacle in Iraq. Do the risks of provoking or attacking Iran today outweigh the costs of dealing with a nuclear Iran tomorrow? Readers can draw their own conclusions. Certainly, Iran could develop a nuclear deterrent some day in the future, but rattling the saber in order to stop it may prove a horrible idea.