(U.S. Navy / flickr)
Matthew Kroenig's argument for preventive military action to combat Tehran's nuclear program -- "Time to Attack Iran" (January/February 2012) -- suffers from three problems. First, its view of Iranian leaders' risk calculations is self-contradictory. Second, it misreads nuclear history. And third, it underestimates the United States' ability to contain a nuclear Iran. When these problems are addressed, it is clear that, contrary to what Kroenig contends, attacking Iran is not "the least bad option."
Kroenig's view of the way Iranian leaders are willing to take on risks is deeply incongruous. In his view, a nuclear bomb will push Tehran to block U.S. initiatives in the Middle East, unleash conventional and terrorist aggression on U.S. forces and allies, and possibly engage in a nuclear exchange with Israel. This would mean Iranian leaders are reckless: given the United States' conventional and nuclear superiority, any of these actions would provoke considerable retaliation from Washington. And, of course, a nuclear exchange with Israel would invite annihilation. At the same time, Kroenig suggests that Tehran would remain remarkably timid after a preventive strike from the United States. Presented with clear redlines, Iran would not retaliate against U.S. troops and allies or attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz. Kroenig's inconsistency is clear: If Iranian leaders are as reckless as he seems to believe, a preventive strike would likely escalate to a full-blown war. If they are not, then there is no reason to think that a nuclear Iran would be uncontainable. In short, a preventive attack on Iran can hardly be both limited and necessary.
Kroenig's argument misreads nuclear history at least three times. First, he writes that a targeted preventive strike would likely wipe out the nuclear program in Iran, as strikes against Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 did in those countries. These comparisons are misleading. Recent research based on captured Iraqi documents demonstrates that the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak reactor, near Baghdad, actually spurred a covert