Military strike on Iran would be disastrous
A military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities would have multiple negative consequences, not the least of which is that it would initiate a prolonged war with Iran with a potential for huge loss of life on both sides. Iran would be emboldened to overtly pursue a nuclear weapon and escalate its destabilizing operations against U.S. allies and support for terrorism. The inevitable result of a bombing campaign aimed at stopping their nuclear weapons program would be an invasion and prolonged occupation which neither the international comunity or American public would likely tolerate.
When the debate turns from discussing the consequences that would flow from Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon to discussing the consequences of a U.S. military attack on Iran, the mode of argument used by proponents of an attack changes entirely. Instead of the worst case, the emphasis is now on the best case. This “best-casing” often rests on the assumption that military action would take the form of a confined, surgical use of air power to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. But the dispersed nature of the target and the U.S. military’s operational requirements (including the suppression of Iranian air defenses) would make this a major assault. It would be the start of a war with Iran. As Richard Betts remarks in his recent book about the American use of military force, anyone who hears talk about a surgical strike should get a second opinion. If the kind of worst-casing that war proponents apply to the implications of a nuclear Iran were applied to this question, the ramifications would be seen as catastrophic: we would be hearing about a regional conflagration involving multiple U.S. allies, sucking in U.S. forces far beyond the initial assault. When the Brookings Institution ran a war-games simulation a couple of years ago, an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear facilities escalated into a region-wide crisis in which Iranian missiles were raining down on Saudi Arabia as well as Israel, and Tehran launched a worldwide terrorist campaign against U.S. interests.
Surely, Iran would strike back, in ways and places of its own choosing. That should not be surprising; it is what Americans would do if their own homeland were attacked. Proponents of an attack and some Israeli officials offer a more sanguine prediction of the Iranian response, and this is where their image of Iran becomes most inconsistent. According to this optimistic view, the same regime that cannot be trusted with a nuclear weapon because it is recklessly aggressive and prone to cause regional havoc would suddenly become, once attacked, a model of calm and caution, easily deterred by the threat of further attacks. History and human behavior strongly suggest, however, that any change in Iranian conduct would be exactly the opposite—that as with the Iran-Iraq War, an attack on the Iranian homeland would be the one scenario that would motivate Iran to respond zealously. Iran’s specific responses would probably include terrorism through its own agents as well as proxy groups, other violent reprisals against U.S. forces in the region, and disruption of the exports of other oil producers.
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Why do such distinctions matter? If Iran’s nuclear and anti-Israeli policies are equated with the global terrorist threats of radical Sunni groups such as al-Qaeda, then US bargaining with Iran over its policies will remain impossible. US threat conflation creates a world in which the only viable US policy option toward Iran is eventual precision military strikes against nuclear facilities, should sanctions ultimately fail to reverse all of Iran’s previous decisions to build up nuclear infrastructure. US military strikes would, in turn, cause an escalation of tensions throughout the region. Iran would work even harder to strengthen the most militant elements of anti-Israeli groups, doing all it could to undermine an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Arab citizens, already disillusioned by the US invasion of Iraq, and now galvanized by a wave of revolutionary movements across Northern Africa, the Levant, and the Gulf, would react to the US use of mili tary force negatively—perhaps even violently—across the Middle East. Further, preventive military strikes with a counterproliferation mission would promise strong retaliation by Iran through missile strikes on Arab neighbors, blocking of Gulf shipping, and paramilitary retaliation via all arms of the Revolutionary Guards, including in Gaza and Lebanon. Brutal repression against the Iranian domestic populace itself would certainly increase.47
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While the drawbacks of a nuclear Iran are grave, the ramifications of a premature military strike—what the US military refers to as “second- and third-order effects”—could also be dire. Among them:
- Iran and its allies are in a position to retaliate against Israel with thousands of missiles and rockets. Uzi Rubin, the father of Israeli missile defense, estimated in 2012 that Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas possessed 13,000 such weapons that could hit the central core of the Jewish state, including 1,500 that could reach greater Tel Aviv.43 Some of those missiles were used or destroyed during a November 2012 mini-war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza during which Israeli anti-missile defensive systems such as the Iron Dome also proved their worth. However, Iran’s and Hezbollah’s arsenals remain and some missiles would get through in the event of a wider conflict.
- Israel and the United States would face international condemnation, and the multilateral coalition against Iran so painstakingly constructed over the past four years could dissolve, along with sanctions enforcement. It would thus be far more difficult to prevent Iran from rebuilding its program and actually making nuclear weapons.44
- Iran would likely expel IAEA inspectors and withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, thereby eliminating the most valuable source of information now available to the international community on Iran’s nuclear program.
- Iran would probably increase support for militant groups in Afghanistan that target US personnel, making a US withdrawal even harder and further destabilizing Afghanistan. Iran could also stir the pot in other strategic countries such as Bahrain and could target US military installations there and in other GCC countries.
- The mere fact of a new confrontation in the region would drive up oil prices, potentially creating a new global economic crisis.
- Thousands of Iranians would be killed by the attacks—if not immediately, then from the spread of radioactive and other toxic materials. Iran would recoup much of the regional and international support it has lost because of its Syria policy; domestically, the Khamenei regime would likely be strengthened, putting off chances for political reform.
These potential adverse consequences underline the need to redouble efforts to reach a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
Officials and security experts make several broad points about why a military strike on Iran anytime soon would be an abominable idea.
First, it would set back Iran’s program by only one to three years — and then it presumably would go ahead more covertly and with more domestic support than ever.
Second, this wouldn’t be a single strike but would require sorties over many days to attack many locations. And the aim would be in part to kill the scientists running the program, so there would be civilian casualties. Day by day, anger in the Muslim world and around the world would grow at Israel — and at America. The coalition pressuring Iran through sanctions might well dissolve.
Third, a regional war in the Middle East could result, sucking in the United States. Iran could sponsor attacks on American targets around the world, and it could use proxies to escalate attacks on American troops in Afghanistan.
Fourth, oil supplies through the Persian Gulf could be interrupted, sending oil and gas prices soaring, and damaging the global economy.
Fifth, sanctions and covert methods like the Stuxnet computer worm have already slowed Iran’s progress, and tougher sanctions and covert sabotage will continue to delay the program in a low-risk way.
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While determining the impact of the broader idea of the military option, recent military operations in the Middle East offer thought provoking lessons. After significant U.S. military intervention and attempts to democratize the region by force as part of a greater War on Terror, the war in Iraq is officially “over,” and American troops are scheduled to pull out of Afghanistan by 2014. This greater War on Terror, justified as a promotion of human rights and democracy, has cost American taxpayers over $1 trillion since September 11, 2001. Analyzing the potential situation in Iran from an economic standpoint, any violence by (or supported by) the United States and any additional military involvement in the Middle East would be a costly endeavor, funded by the future tax dollars of an already crippled economy. A recent estimate by the non-partisan Federation of American Scientists puts the estimated cost of a military strike, with involvement ranging from surgical strikes to a full-scale invasion of Iran, between $713 billion and $1.7 trillion. Global-economic impact aside, analysis of U.S. foreign policy goals in the Middle East help determine whether or not a military strike by (or supported by) the United States would support those goals.
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.
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Whatever limited benefits would accrue to the United States by delaying Iran's capacity to cross the nuclear threshold for a handful of years would be offset by a wide range of negative consequences. A strike would galvanize Iran's nationalistic population and consolidate public support for an unpopular government and its nuclear ambitions. The regime's retaliatory reach, by both conventional and unconventional attacks, would be felt throughout the region, particularly by American allies such as Israel. The aftermath would almost surely doom any prospects for revitalizing the Arab-Israeli peace process or wresting a stable outcome from Iraq. The sole beneficiaries from a military conflict between Washington and Tehran would be Iranian hard-liners and the forces of radical anti-Americanism throughout the Islamic world. For this reason, many of America's closest regional partners have long viewed the consequences of an attack on Iran as more threatening than the alternative of a nuclear Iran. While they press Washington for more robust action against Iran, Persian Gulf leaders have also carefully cultivated relationships with Tehran and have consistently advocated publicly for a peaceful resolution to the nuclear dispute. Absent a more immediate Iranian provocation, there seems little evidence that Gulf states such as Qatar would readily provide the basing and support needed to undertake a sustained military campaign against Iran. Each of these caveats about the utility of military force in addressing Iran's nuclear ambitions would apply even more forcefully to the frequently discussed proposition of an Israeli strike on Iran.
There are two main schools of thought about how air strikes on Iran would work out. Most Americans seem to envision something cleanly surgical--a few days of bombing runs and then we get that "mission accomplished" banner out of the closet. A smaller number of Americans--notably including a lot of national security experts--realize that Iran would probably retaliate, possibly in ways that drew America into a sustained and even far-flung conflict. What too few people emphasize, it seems to me, is that these two scenarios don't exhaust the possibilities. Even if air strikes don't draw us into an instant conflagration, they could drag us into a long-term conflict with Iran that winds up with American boots on the ground. In fact, when you think about the military and political logic of the situation, the invasion and occupation of Iran is the most likely long-term outcome of bombing regardless of what happens in the short term. Among national security experts there is nearly universal agreement on the following: Bombing could set Iran's nuclear program back by one or two years, maybe even several, but it would also (1) remove any doubt in the minds of Iranian leaders about whether to pursue nuclear weapons; and (2) ensure that the Iranian nuclear program was revamped to resist future air strikes. And the new, more entrenched Iranian nuclear program wouldn't be the kind of thing that could be undone by a new generation of bunker-buster bombs. According to experts I've talked to, Iran would probably react to bombing not by burying its nuclear facilities deeper, but by dispersing them much more widely. They would be impossible to identify from the air and for that matter not readily identifiable from the street. Meanwhile, the international inspectors who now keep us apprised of Iran's nuclear status would be banned in the wake of air strikes. So even if we were willing to make additional bombing runs on an annual basis ("mowing the lawn," as some call it), we could never be confident that Iran wasn't producing a nuclear weapon. The only path to such confidence would be to invade the country and seize the instruments of state.
Political, diplomatic and military obstacles to taking action in Iran have been well recognized. Strategists who think of themselves as stalwart, steely-eyed and far-seeing regard these obstacles as challenges to be simply overcome or disregarded in order to do what is necessary, even if it is less than a perfect solution. But if bombing known nuclear sites were to mean that Tehran could only produce a dozen weapons in 15 years rather than, say, two dozen in ten years, would the value of the delay outweigh the high costs? The costs would not be just political and diplomatic, but strategic as well. Provoking further alienation of non-Western governments and Islamic populations around the world would undermine the global War on Terror. Inflaming Iranian nationalism would turn a populace that is currently divided in its attitudes toward the West into a united front against the United States. Rage within Tehran's government would probably trigger retaliation via more state-sponsored terrorist actions by Hizballah or other Iranian agents.
The authors review Iran's military program and capacity to respond to a military attack, concluding that with a military attack against Iran's nuclear program, "the risk of escalation poses such extreme and costly risks, that few in the profession of arms recommend this course of action for achieving the limited objective of destroying Iran’s nuclear program."
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