Why Not to Attack Iran

One key question remains unanswered about a potential war with Iran: How does this end?

Yet these questions need answers. If the United States strikes Iran and fails to follow up, Washington might delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but it will give Tehran every incentive to reboot the program with greater vigor. This is not mere theorizing. After Israel’s much-lauded 1981 strike on Iraq’s Osirak plutonium-reprocessing facility, Baghdad redoubled its efforts to obtain a weapon, only failing to achieve its goal because its pursuit was cut short by Desert Storm. And the dogs that didn’t bark are perhaps even more illuminating; Washington considered preventive attacks on the Soviet, Chinese and North Korean nuclear programs but decided not to follow through. Such strikes were believed to be costly as well as ultimately futile and counterproductive.

The basic question is: How do attack advocates propose to stop the Iranian nuclear program if Tehran refuses to roll over after one round of attacks? There are two logical responses to this question. One is regime change, presumably through invasion. But there are significant downsides to invasion, not least that such a war would likely prove protracted and costly. Attack advocates such as Kroenig effectively concede that the American people are unlikely to support this course.

The other is that the United States should be prepared to conduct repeated strikes over a long period of time to ensure the Iranian nuclear program is kept down. Unsurprisingly, Kroenig and others shy away from this answer, as it is a recipe for perpetual war. The cost in lives, resources and America’s international reputation would be formidable, especially if done without diplomatic cover and international support that probably wouldn’t be forthcoming. Yet, even under the most favorable conditions in which Iranian retaliation stayed limited and international support was forthcoming, a long-term, limited-strike campaign might not work at a level of effort and damage in line with U.S. aims. Regular U.S. strikes on North Vietnam over a period of seven years under highly favorable international conditions failed woefully either to convince Hanoi to change its fundamental strategy or substantially degrade the communist war effort. The North Vietnamese resolutely repaired bridges, depots and roads. More recently, limited allied air strikes against Iraq in the 1990s didn’t force Saddam Hussein’s compliance with UN Security Council Resolutions. Moreover, as happened in Vietnam, such strikes likely would become more difficult over time. The Russians, for example, have refrained, thanks to Western diplomacy, from selling Iran advanced long-range surface-to-air missiles that could make strikes more difficult. They probably wouldn’t be so forbearing if strikes were conducted without their prior and explicit approval, which Moscow isn’t likely to give.

But the primary challenges to U.S. striking power would be political and stem from the difficulties in sustaining a coalition supportive of such measures over time. Recall that the consensus behind Clinton-era strikes on Iraq fell apart as the policy continued with no end in sight. Ultimately, such a campaign would be unlikely to succeed absent a fundamental change in the perception of the Iranian government. Failing such a change, a perpetual-strike campaign would leave us in a worse situation. Tehran would have an added incentive to obtain a nuclear capability to strengthen its deterrent against attack. U.S. military power would be shown to be of limited value. And an international coalition against Iran’s nuclear program would fall apart. Finally, if the Iranian regime did succeed in acquiring a nuclear capability even after a sustained U.S. attack, it would be sure to be even more paranoid and on edge, with deeply worrying implications for how it would posture its nuclear arsenal. Since Tehran would reasonably believe the United States and other powers were aiming to take military action to deprive it of its nuclear weapons, Iran would have a strong incentive to take destabilizing steps to ensure those weapons were protected and, ultimately, that they could be used. No one should want Tehran delegating nuclear-launch authority to lower-level commanders, for example, or prepositioning nuclear weapons with Hezbollah, precisely the kind of steps Iran might choose to take in such circumstances.

Many attack proponents argue that U.S. military strikes against Iran would embolden resistance to the government. If this were true, there would be much to recommend them. But nothing is more likely to spur support for the Islamic Republic regime than repeated air strikes by the United States or under its auspices. Large-scale bombing campaigns didn’t break support for North Vietnamese or North Korean regimes, or for the German or Japanese governments during World War II. Rather, they hardened support for them. Iran showed gruesome fortitude and chilling cohesion during the Iran-Iraq War, when it sent waves of youths into mass infantry attacks, and nothing in Persian history or today’s Iran gives reason to think Iran would do anything but rally around the flag of the Islamic Republic when under attack.