The Ultimate Nightmare: Why Bombing Iran Would Be a Disaster
Bombing Iran would ensure what the United States is trying to prevent—an Iran hellbent on acquiring a bomb.
A majority of Americans, an even larger majority of Jewish Americans, the entirety of the United Nations Security Council, and a long list of former U.S. national security leaders and diplomats endorse the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action as the best possible option for preventing a nuclear-armed Iran. But regardless of the merits of the negotiated agreement, some critics, like former Ambassador John Bolton, who explained why in a recent article, are unshaken in their belief that military force is the only way to stop Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon. This shortsighted and reckless approach would be counter-productive; as former director of the CIA Michael Hayden has explained, bombing Iran “will guarantee that which we are trying to prevent: an Iran that will stop at nothing to, in secret, develop a nuclear weapon.”
Unfortunately, this is hardly a surprise; Bolton, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas), and others were calling for airstrikes on Iran even during negotiations. But to advocate for military action is to ignore the fact that a strike on Iran “would be destabilizing and wouldn’t achieve [any] long-term objectives,” as explained by General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At best, an attack would delay Iran’s nuclear program “a couple of years;” and at worst, it would invite retaliation, eliminate opportunities for inspection and verification, and galvanize Iran to build a nuclear weapon.
With a comprehensive and verifiable deal on the table, the United States has nothing to gain by bombing Iran. A U.S.-led military operation would shatter the international coalition that is applying economic pressure on Iran and force the United States to confront Iran without international support. As President Obama exclaimed, "a military solution will not fix it. Even if the United States participates, it would temporarily slow down an Iranian nuclear program but it will not eliminate it.”
With the United States correctly cautious of military action in Iran, advocates of a military strike, including Ambassador Bolton and Senator McCain (R-Arizona), have urged Israel to “go rogue” (in McCain’s words) by taking military action on Iran’s nuclear program. This is an even worse alternative. First, an attack on Iran “would be a catastrophe,” says former Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and would likely further destabilize the region with retaliatory strikes. Second, Israel does not have the means to conduct the extensive aerial assault that would be required; Iran’s nuclear infrastructure is in hardened facilities and Israel lacks the strategic bombers necessary to deliver heavy penetrating payloads.
In response, Senator Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Representatives Grace Meng (D-Queens) and Lee Zeldin (R-Long Island) of the House Foreign Affairs Committee advocate giving Israel the bombs, known as Massive Ordnance Penetrators (MOPs), and the strategic bombers necessary to deliver them on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This plan is not only unwise but also tactically infeasible.
MOPs are not standoff weapons; they must be dropped above the target. This means Israel would need to penetrate Iranian airspace in order to deliver the bombs. The bombers capable of delivering the MOPs (likely U.S.-made B-52s) will be vulnerable targets for Iranian air defenses. Given Israeli and U.S. threats to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities over the years, it is safe to assume Iran has installed surface-to-air defense systems to protect their nuclear infrastructure. Therefore, an air campaign would be required to destroy Iran’s air defenses before Israeli bombers could attack Iran‘s nuclear program.
Even if a U.S. or Israeli bombing campaign were effective, it would need to be repeated every few years to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, resulting in a never-ending game of “nuclear program whack-a-mole.” This would create the difficult challenge of detecting covert facilities without the access or monitoring that is included in the comprehensive agreement.
An attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure would be the beginning of another long, costly war in the Middle East. At best, an attack would only delay Iran’s program a few years until a new covert facility could be made operational. The current agreement allows the international community to rigorously monitor, inspect, and verify that Iran’s nuclear program is for solely peaceful purposes. Military action should be the last resort, not the preferred alternative. The deal with Iran should be given a chance to work. If Bolton does not have the sense to stop calling for military strikes, Congress should at least have the sense to ignore him.
Robert G. Gard Jr. is a retired Army Lieutenant General and chairman of the board of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. Greg Terryn is a Research & Policy Associate at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Robert J. Horstman