It is worth starting any discussion of the military option by recognizing that, unless Tehran does something stupidly belligerent, the United States will not have any standing in terms of international law (or international opinion) to mount such an attack. All of the UNSC resolutions against the Iranian nuclear program have very clearly stipulated that they do NOT authorize the use of force. This reflects the Russian, Chinese and scores of other countries’ deep and widespread animosity toward a military solution. Any unprovoked American attack on Iran is likely to be harshly condemned across the globe.
Perhaps even more importantly, it is likely to be condemned by ordinary Iranians. Many advocates of air strikes argue that they would help turn the people against the regime, as the population would blame the leadership for bringing this calamity down upon them. This is obviously possible, but there really isn’t much evidence to support the idea. In fact, the vast majority of the evidence, both from Iran and from other historical cases, points in the opposite direction. Iranians are highly nationalistic, and past aggression—from the Iraqi invasion of 1980 to the Taliban’s killing of eight Iranian diplomats in 1998—has typically engendered a powerful “rally ’round the flag” effect, regardless of who is in power. Likewise, in most cases of strategic bombardment, or even just more limited air strikes, the people getting bombed have tended to blame their attackers, not their leaders.
This means that an American air campaign would probably strengthen popular support for the current leadership—exactly the effect we should hope to avoid. It will also provide those in power with the opportunity to crack down even more on the opposition, pushing any change in regime even further into the future.
Moreover, a different group of leaders might decide that having once been attacked for pursuing nuclear enrichment, the smart thing would be to give up this effort. But Iran’s hard-liners are not the kind to reach that conclusion. They are mostly motivated by fear and hatred of the United States, consistently favoring belligerence over acquiescence. What’s more, many of the hard-liners seem to want nuclear weapons to deter just such a strike. Consequently, the best bet is that in the wake of a bombing, the regime will redouble its efforts to acquire a nuclear deterrent to prevent Washington from being able to bully Tehran again.
As well, an unprovoked American attack will likely mean the end of the international effort to contain the Iranian nuclear program altogether. Tehran will probably withdraw from the NPT, arguing (rightly) that the vast majority of the information that the United States relied on to mount the air strikes came from the IAEA inspectors—and since the NPT was a vehicle for American aggression against Iran, there is no reason for Tehran to remain a party to it. As for the international community, they will doubtless blame Washington for having driven the Iranians out of the treaty. Gone too will be the international consensus to compel Iran to end its nuclear activities through sanctions. America would have violated a critical provision of the resolutions, not to mention the UN Charter, and will have to expect that China will lead a stampede of countries away from that effort and back into the arms of the Islamic Republic.
A repeat attempt by the United States (or anyone else) to destroy Iran’s facilities by force will then be impossible. Once the IAEA inspectors are gone, so too will be our best and most comprehensive sources of information on the Iranian program. Washington won’t have the option of bombing Iran again if the regime begins to rebuild its nuclear capabilities after the first round of strikes. And serious international pressure on Tehran will come to an end.
Thus, air strikes have to be seen as a “bet everything on one throw of the dice” kind of policy: either they succeed in ending the Iranian program now and forever (which seems extremely implausible), or else they thoroughly undermine all of America’s options to do so—additional military strikes, sanctions, international isolation and everything else. Under current conditions, attacking Iran is more likely to guarantee an Iranian nuclear arsenal than to preclude it.
Nor does the other side of the ledger have much to recommend it. Most American (and Israeli) nuclear experts now think that Tehran is so far along that it could rebuild the entire program and be back to where it is at present in just a year or two. And many already fear that Iran has secret facilities, or is hiding key machinery and material for its nuclear program—then the program wouldn’t be set back much at all by a military campaign.
It is also worth keeping in mind that Iran probably will retaliate against the United States. Again, this isn’t certain, but the evidence indicates that Iran does retaliate whenever it is (or believes it is) attacked. The Islamic Republic has a formidable capacity to employ terrorism and a lot of allies, like Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, who could also cause a great deal of damage on Tehran’s behalf. If there is anyone out there who might be able to replicate a terrorist attack as terrible as 9/11, it is Iran. Tehran can also ramp up its support of Taliban fighters battling U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and it could turn up the heat on American allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Iraq. Now, all of this might be a worthwhile price to pay if the United States could eliminate the threat of an Iranian nuclear program altogether, but given the fairly modest delays that air strikes seem likely to impose—and the damage to U.S. policy in the aftermath—these risks further suggest that the costs of an attack outweigh the benefits.
Once the United States starts a war with Iran—and launching air strikes will be war—it is impossible to know how it will end, and what would be required of Washington to end it. America may well feel compelled to respond to any Iranian retaliation, setting off a tit-for-tat cycle, raising the risk of escalation on both sides. The incredible paranoia and intractability of the Iranian regime has led to repeated instances in which Tehran refused to abandon courses of action even though it was suffering horrific damage—remember the hostage crisis? The Iran-Iraq war? In other words, the same behavior patterns that make it hard for the United States to coerce Iran by sanctions also make it unlikely that Washington can coerce the Islamic Republic by war. As we should have learned in Iraq, wars always entail very significant unforeseen consequences, and we need to recognize that bombing Iran could lead us down unexpected paths to even-worse outcomes (like invading and occupying Iran) to end what we started.
With a country as difficult as Iran, the United States should only launch air strikes if it is ready to pay all of the potential costs—and there are few Americans ready to bear the price of another major U.S. war in the Middle East.
SINCE THE cost-benefit analysis of a military campaign against Iran still does not add up the right way for the United States, a number of Americans have begun to argue that Washington should fall back on deterrence instead. While there is considerable evidence that deterring Tehran could work, many find it an unpalatable option: simply acquiescing to an Iranian nuclear capability—and possibly to an Iranian nuclear arsenal. And the problem with nuclear deterrence is that as robust as it has proven to be, there are no guarantees of success, and failure is invariably catastrophic. For that reason, it would still be far more preferable to convince Iran not to acquire a nuclear-weapons capability in the first place, rather than to allow it to do so and then try to protect American interests without triggering a nuclear exchange.
So what is the right answer? For those concerned that the current approach won’t succeed, but are fearful that air strikes will create more problems than they solve (and are not yet ready to simply accept an Iranian nuclear capability), the best course of action is to go back to the administration’s basic strategy—and put it on steroids.
Pressure is our only recourse. Even intense pressure may not be enough, but it is better than doing nothing, and better than war—and it might even work. Intense pressure on the regime could slow the program further. It could create new stresses and strains in the system. It could create new opportunities for Iran’s moderates, those most interested in reaching an accommodation with the international community. It could even empower the Green movement.
The key is to defeat Tehran’s strategy. Since Iran’s hard-liners believe that they can withstand any pressure from the international community and that eventually that pressure will slacken, America’s best chance is to design a strategy that will ensure that the pressure never lets up, and instead increases steadily over time. If Iran’s situation gets worse and worse, rather than better and better, the United States and its allies may just be able to alter Tehran’s path. It could happen from above: the more pragmatic Iranian power wielders may change course, discrediting the hard-liners along with the rest of the Iranian elite. It could happen from below: the opposition could be strengthened by deepening disaffection, creating bottom-up pressures on the leaders that would frighten them into reversing course. Either way, Iran might finally back down. The question is whether we have the time to enact such a python-like strategy.Image: Pullquote: The United States needs to make Iran a true pariah state, and one squeezed enough from both outside and inside that it eventually recognizes it would be better to make some concessions than continue under the strain.Essay Types: Essay