The Magazine

The Coming Attack on Iran

When an irresistible force meets an immovable object, something’s gotta give.

Feb 20, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 22 • By TOD LINDBERG
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The United States and Iran have been on a collision course since the Iranian revolution in 1979, when elements of the newly proclaimed Islamic Republic took U.S. diplomats and Tehran embassy personnel hostage. U.S. relations with Iran have been bad ever since. The focus in recent years has been the Iranian program to develop a nuclear weapon, but the backdrop is Iran as a growing regional threat, not only to Israel and to U.S. and allied interests in the Persian Gulf region, but also to the many Sunni governments of the Gulf, which fear an increasingly powerful Shiite government in Tehran.

Photo of A Zelzal missile launched outside Qom, Iran, June 2011

A Zelzal missile launched outside Qom, Iran, June 2011

Meanwhile, Iran props up the Assad dictatorship in Syria, meddles in Lebanon through the Hezbollah militia, supports the radical Hamas regime in Gaza, and seeks to expand its divisive clout in neighboring Iraq, a task made easier by the decision of the Obama administration to end the deployment of U.S. combat forces there. The picture that emerges is of an Iran that is not so much a problem but the problem of the broader Middle East, eclipsing even the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

The Iranian nuclear program is now variously estimated to be less than a year to three years away from a bomb, notwithstanding the U.N. Security Council-approved sanctions on Tehran, as well as tougher sanctions the United States and Europe have imposed. Iran also has a robust missile program underway. The Israeli vice prime minister recently disclosed that Tehran is working on a missile with a range of 6,200 miles, enough to reach the United States. Israel and other potential Middle East targets are already within range of Iranian missiles, as is Europe: The potential threat from Iran has served as a mainstay in the case for the deployment of a missile defense system in Europe, as well as Israel’s system. Add a murky plot disclosed last year to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States by blowing up a Georgetown restaurant—a terrorist attack on American soil that would have killed many Americans—and you have a serious problem that is quickly growing worse.

What will the United States do in response? The situation in which the United States finds itself vis-à-vis Iran has acquired a logic of its own. And that logic points to U.S. military action against Iran within the next 12 months. It’s not that attacking Iran is a good option; it’s that all the other options are worse. Policymakers and commentators who think we will have other, pacific approaches are in my view mistaken. The only real hope is that the current much-expanded debate in the United States, Israel, and Europe over a military move against Iran—a marked change from just a few months ago, when even well-informed observers mostly dismissed the idea of a U.S. attack—will finally succeed in deterring Iran from pursuing its nuclear weapons program. The chances are slim.

Iranian persistence in pursuit of a nuclear weapon is the heart of the problem. Senior Obama administration officials arrived in 2009 thinking that a major part of the Iran problem was the lack of diplomacy in the George W. Bush administration. Obama’s predecessor steadfastly rejected any opening toward Iran in the absence of evidence that Tehran was abandoning its nuclear weapons ambitions and complying with its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions. The Obama administration accordingly reached out to Iran. The implicit terms of the bargain were that, in exchange for compliance, Iran could look forward to an end to its international isolation and the milder sanctions then in place, renewal of diplomatic relations with the United States, and an opportunity for integration into the world economy and the investment (particularly for development of its oil resources) such a reopening would bring.

The assumptions underlying this policy change present a view of the world and an attendant approach to policymaking that characterize the Obama administration. The first element is the conviction that U.S. hostility can produce only hostility in return. Whatever may have justified American hostility in the first place, the result over time could only be a vicious circle. As George Mason’s Colin Dueck has noted, a consistent theme of Obama’s foreign policy has been accommodation—a gesture on the part of the United States toward its erstwhile adversaries in the hope of reciprocation and the emergence of a way out of the snare of mutual hostility.

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