Testimony of Colin H. Kahl: Iran, Hezbollah and the Threat to the Homeland
A final diplomatic settlement that provides sufficient transparency and assurances against weaponization efforts while respecting Iranian rights to a civilian nuclear program under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) will be more difficult to achieve. But, unlike military action, it is the only sustainable solution. The Supreme Leader’s repeated insistence that Iran’s program is solely for peaceful civilian purposes, as well as his statements that the acquisition or use of nuclear weapons would be a “grave sin” against Islam, may or may not reflect his true beliefs. But they provide a public discourse that would allow the regime to climb down from the current nuclear crisis without losing face, so long as there are clear benefits to any final agreement and Iran’s rights under the NPT are respected.
An attack could also rally domestic Iranian opinion around weaponization. Currently, there seems to be consensus among Iranians that the country has a right to a robust civilian nuclear program, but there is no domestic agreement yet on the pursuit of nuclear weapons. An attack could tilt the internal debate over the nature of Iran’s nuclear program in favor of those advocating for a nuclear deterrent to prevent future attacks. And, depending on the target set, a strike could also produce significant Iranian casualties, increasing popular support for a regime that is otherwise struggling to maintain its legitimacy. As a result, there is a risk that a strike would doubly backfire by driving Iran to go for the bomb while strengthening the regime.
To prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program after a strike, the United States would have to be prepared to encircle an even more hostile adversary with a costly containment regime – much like the twelve-year effort to bottle up Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War – and be prepared to re-attack at a moment’s notice. Moreover, in the absence of clear evidence that Iran was dashing for a bomb, a U.S. strike risks shattering international consensus, making post-war containment more difficult to implement. And, with inspectors gone, it would be much harder to detect and prevent Iran’s clandestine rebuilding efforts.
In short, far from being a substitute for containment, a military strike could be the prelude to a decades long containment commitment against an even more implacable nuclear foe.
According to U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials, and independent assessments by the Institute for Science and International Security, it would currently take Iran at least four months to produce sufficient weapons-grade uranium (WGU) for a single nuclear bomb, and at least a year total to produce a crude testable nuclear device, once Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamanei decides to do so. It would take several more years to develop a miniaturized nuclear warhead for a missile.
Although Iran is clearly positioning itself to develop a nuclear weapons capability, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, has testified that there is no hard evidence that Khamenei has yet made the final decision to translate those capabilities into a bomb. Moreover, Khamanei is unlikely to dash for a weapon anytime soon because doing so would require Iran to divert low-enriched uranium (LEU) stockpiles and enrich to weapons-grade level at the declared enrichment facilities at Natanz or Fordow. Because International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors would detect such moves, the Iranian regime is unlikely to “break out” until they can dramatically reduce the timeline to build several bombs or build a weapon at new covert facilities. This could be years away.
A U.S. strike would likely produce significant spillover risks as well, including: much higher oil prices at a precarious time for the global economy; the possibility of Iranian and proxy retaliation against Israel leading to a wider war in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria; and the prospect of American allies in the Gulf entering the fray. A unilateral attack against another Muslim country would also further destabilize a region already caught up in the turmoil of the Arab Spring. And, by allowing Iran to play the victim and demonstrate its “resistance” credentials through retaliation against the United States and Israel, a strike could help resuscitate Iranian “soft power” across the Middle East at the very moment when Tehran is facing historic isolation and its only state ally in Syria is wobbling.
Ultimately, if the United States and Iran go to war, there is no doubt that the United States would win in the narrow operational sense. Indeed, with the impressive array of U.S. naval and air forces already deployed in the Gulf, the United States could probably knock Iran's military capabilities back 20 years in a matter of weeks. But a U.S.-Iranian conflict would not be the clinical, tightly controlled, limited encounter some predict, and the prospects for further destabilizing the region would be high.