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.
In contrast, Iran has had years to expand its program and already boasts several large reactors and enrichment facilities, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspects, and a host of associated research programs and facilities at which equipment to enrich uranium is studied, manufactured, and assembled. Although the declared facilities tend to be isolated in secure compounds or on military installations, many of the subsidiary facilities are in residential urban neighborhoods. Thus, Kroenig is wrong when he writes that an attack on Iran's nuclear program "could reduce the collateral damage . . . by striking at night or simply leaving those less important plants off its target list." If the United States decides not to target associated sites for humanitarian reasons, Iran could still have a nuclear future.
More troubling are, in the words of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the "known unknowns." There is no question that covert elements of Iran's nuclear program exist. After devoting so many resources to its nuclear program and suffering years of increasingly tough sanctions, it is entirely reasonable to believe that Tehran maintains at least a small pilot enrichment facility far away from the scrutiny of the international community. After all, hiding one from the world's eyes would not be difficult; the IAEA has very limited access to the workshops where Iran produces the components for and assembles its centrifuges and thus cannot precisely track the size and scope of Iran's enrichment activities.
Further, Iran's capability to enrich uranium is a technical skill that cannot be bombed out of existence. Nor can the progress it has made on weaponization. Those aspects of the program would likely survive a limited bombing campaign along the lines advocated by Kroenig.
To be sure, a limited strike is not pointless. Kroenig's support seems in part an effort to avoid the consequences skeptics of military action often highlight, such as Iran responding militarily or with operations via its terrorist proxies. He argues that the United States "could first make clear that it is interested only in destroying Iran's nuclear program, not in overthrowing the government" to moderate the Iranian response. But there, too, he is wrong. Iran has been in a standoff with the international community over its nuclear program for years. Whether a limited military strike or regime destabilization operation, Iran's leaders would almost certainly believe they would have to respond forcefully to such a challenge to maintain their credibility in the region, employing missiles, proxies, and their own terrorist operatives. After all, Iran has been killing Americans for years -- most recently, U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, as the Iranian plot last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador on American soil revealed, Tehran seems to be in no mood to modulate its behavior. It is dubious that the Iran's supreme leader and the Republican Guard Corps would, or even could, accept a limited strike without retaliating.
Given the likely fallout from even a limited military strike, the question the United States should ask itself is, Why not take the next step? After all, Iran's nuclear program is a symptom of a larger illness -- the revolutionary fundamentalist regime in Tehran.
Thanks to internal political developments and sanctions, the regime is at its weakest point in decades. But the international community is slowly exhausting the universe of palatable sanctions, and even the pressure brought to bear on Iran thus far has not caused it to halt its program. A limited strike against nuclear facilities would not lead to regime change. But a broader operation might. It would not even need to be a ground invasion aimed specifically at toppling the government. The United States would basically need to expand its list of targets beyond the nuclear program to key command and control elements of the Republican Guard and the intelligence ministry, and facilities associated with other key government officials. The goal would be to compromise severely the government's ability to control the Iranian population. This would require an extended campaign, but since even a limited strike would take days and Iran would strike back, it would be far better to design a military operation that has a greater chance of producing a satisfactory outcome.
Of course, there is no assurance that the Iranian regime would immediately crumble under such an onslaught. But as the cost to the country of the strike and the weakness of the current regime became clear, the door would open for renewed opposition to Iran's current rulers. It is sometimes said that a strike would lead the population to rally around the regime. In fact, given the unpopularity of the government, it seems more likely that the population would see the regime's inability to forestall the attacks as evidence that the emperor has no clothes and is leading the country into needlessly desperate straits. If anything, Iranian nationalism and pride would stoke even more anger at the current regime.
At a minimum, it would be far better for Iran's rulers to be distracted by domestic unrest after a massive strike than totally free to strike out at enemies after a limited one.