Opponents of military action against Iran assume a U.S. strike would be far more dangerous than simply letting Tehran build a bomb. Not so, argues this former Pentagon defense planner. With a carefully designed attack, Washington could mitigate the costs and spare the region and the world from an unacceptable threat.
Matthew Kroenig’s recent article in this magazine argued that a military strike against Iran would be “the least bad option” for stopping its nuclear program. But the war Kroenig calls for would be far messier than he predicts, and Washington still has better options available.
To suggest a nuclear Iran would result in a cascade of proliferation across the Middle East neglects the United States' power to prevent clients from building their own bombs.
The new sanctions regime places the United States' tactics and objectives -- a negotiated end to Iran's nuclear ambitions -- at odds. In effect, the administration has backed itself into a policy of regime change, an outcome it has little ability to influence.
It has been the policy of U.S. presidents over the last three decades to state that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. Yet as Iran moves closer to achieving that goal, political leaders, including key Obama administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have begun to waver. They now speak more frequently about the potentially disastrous consequences of an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran's nuclear program than about the dangers of a nuclear Iran.
Matthew Kroenig thus deserves credit for advancing the argument that the repercussions of a military attack on Iran's nuclear program are a worthwhile risk, given the far more dangerous consequences of Iran getting the bomb ("Time to Attack Iran," January/February 2012). There are, however, problems with Kroenig's strategy for avoiding the nightmare scenario. Namely, a limited military strike would only be a temporary fix, and it could actually do the opposite of what it intends -- drive the program further underground and allow Iran to retain the ability to threaten the United States and its allies.
If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.
Kroenig bases his argument on Israel's successful limited strikes against Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981 and against Syria's Al Kibar reactor in 2007. Yet the Iranian nuclear program of 2012 is not comparable to either of those cases, which were embryonic and focused on building reactors with limited auxiliary facilities. Once those reactors were destroyed, it was difficult for either country to reconstitute their efforts immediately. Even so, Saddam Hussein did eventually return to the nuclear weapons business. After the Osirak strike, he drove the Iraqi program further underground and diversified it, exploring multiple pathways to the bomb. By 1991, Iraq was close to developing a nuclear weapons capability -- a fact only discovered after the Gulf War...