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
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Another undesirable second-order effect would be a nuclear-armed Iran’s throwing its weight around regionally. The Iranian government’s pernicious influence already extends well beyond its own people. An Iran that feels more secure, indeed immune from attack, would likely increase its demands on its neighbors. During the Cold War, the term “Finlandization” described a nominally independent state’s devolution under pressure to a near-satrapy of the Soviet Union. How well would the Gulf states bear up under pressure from a nuclear-armed Iran? In 2010, certainly in response to the Iranian threat, the United States began to double the size of its naval base in tiny Bahrain, home to the 5th Fleet. How welcome a presence will the United States be if Iran has the bomb and “uses” it to coerce other states in the region?

The United States (and Israel) could still, presumably, try to deter Iran both from the actual use of a nuclear weapon and from its use as an instrument of coercive diplomacy. Articles and study groups have explored the possibility of living with a nuclear Iran. Unfortunately, they generally flow from the premise that the United States must seem strong and resolute to Iran. Exactly how strong and resolute the United States and its allies will seem once Iran, in defiance of the top foreign policy priority of the United States and its allies, has tested a nuclear weapon is a question that answers itself. There is already a broad perception in the Middle East, shared by Israel and its Sunni neighbors—whose intelligence services and senior officials seem to get along rather well on matters in their mutual interest—that U.S. influence in the region is declining. They suspect this is a matter of deliberate U.S. policy. Of course, not only in the Middle East now but also in other places at other times, U.S. influence has appeared to many to be on the wane until the United States has acted emphatically to demonstrate otherwise. The United States could do so now by preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. But without question, Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon would mark the effective end of U.S. credibility in the region (at least until the United States did something even more dramatic to reassert it).

As recently as a year ago, Israelis usually framed their concern about a nuclear Iran in terms of these two second-order effects: a neighborhood full of nukes and an emboldened Iran. It seemed to me then that there was a sense of hesitation on their part, almost embarrassment, about bringing up what was really foremost in their minds, which is the existential threat they believe an Iranian nuclear weapon poses to them. This was problematic, as I’m not sure a war over second-order effects is worth risking if the immediate danger of an Iranian nuclear weapon isn’t self-evident. 

By now, however, Israelis have found the—is it courage? forthrightness?—to speak up about the existential danger they personally perceive. I don’t think an Iranian nuclear weapon poses an existential danger to the United States or most of the rest of our allies. Iran is not Nazi Germany. But one can hardly fault Israelis for taking Iran personally. And the fact that an Iranian nuclear weapon is more dangerous to Israel than to any other American ally does not mean Iran is or should be exclusively an Israeli problem. Iran, at this moment, may in fact be relatively weak, not strong, as the former head of Mossad, Efraim Halevy, contends. If the Iran-backed Assad regime in Syria collapses, it will be a serious blow to Iran’s position. But an Iranian nuclear weapon would represent a substantial increase in the power of a dangerous regime. That’s a matter the United States and its allies around the world cannot ignore and must not acquiesce in.

If you say something is unacceptable, you are either bluffing or are obliged to do what you can to stop it. Increasingly tight sanctions have not worked, nor blandishments. Western capitals have come round to interpreting Iranian offers to talk further on the subject, as Iran recently proposed, as playing for time while the weapons program enters a decisive stage. In fact, the recent experience of India and Pakistan going nuclear may suggest to Tehran that the quickest way out from under sanctions is nothing other than a nuclear test: Iran will be more powerful, and the world will have to adjust. What happens, then, when sanctions have not worked as time is running out?

Both the United States and Israel believe they have viable military options against Iran. Neither promises to be capable of destroying the Iranian nuclear program altogether. Degrading the program substantially, however, and delaying it potentially for years are within the realm of practical achievability. Obviously, the United States has vastly more military resources it could bring to bear on the task than does Israel. But Israel needs nothing material from the United States in order to attack Iran, nor does it need the permission of the United States. 

Of course, the United States may be able to punish Israel for striking Iran against the wishes of the United States. We could, potentially, reduce military assistance to Israel, deny access to parts for weapons systems, scale back military and intelligence cooperation, or cease to protect Israel at the United Nations Security Council as the inevitable resolution condemning the attack comes forward. We could also, in advance, threaten Israel with any and all of these and other consequences. It would be surprising if the United States were not currently engaged in a policy of dual containment or “pivotal deterrence”: We promise Israel that we will dissuade Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon while threatening Israel with abandonment if it acts on its own. Israel would have to be prepared to pay a price for taking military action, and it might be high.

But if Israel perceives a truly existential threat from the Iranian nuclear program, as it appears it does, then Israel may be willing to pay a very high price indeed and at the moment of truth, tell the United States as much. (Our subject here is not U.S. domestic politics, so we will bracket and set aside the question of the viability of the U.S. making good on its threat to punish Israel.) At some point—perhaps sooner, but at the latest as Israel’s F-16s are, so to speak, revving on the tarmac—the United States must confront a very basic question: If someone is going to strike Iran, who should that be?

Sheerly from the point of view of military effectiveness, the answer must involve the United States. The Israelis know this. Our allies know this. We know it. And they know that we know, etc. Iran, once struck, will certainly want to respond. But even if the strike comes solely from Israel, will Iran confine its response to action against Israel? If not, then we are likely to find at a minimum our vital interests placed at risk. We would have to respond militarily to any attempt to, for example, shut down the Strait of Hormuz, to say nothing of an attack on a U.S. warship.

These considerations militate in favor of a U.S. decision to attack Iran should sanctions fail to dissuade the Iranians from further pursuit of a nuclear weapon. So does the fact that we already seem to have edged into a state of covert bellicosity with the Iranian government: dead scientists, mysterious explosions, Stuxnet. So does the regrettable fact that the threat of military force has entered our diplomacy only very recently; this has permitted the Iranians to dismiss the credibility of a military option, paradoxically increasing the likelihood of its necessity if we mean what we say when we say “unacceptable.”

Of course Israel would rather see the United States attack Iran than do so on its own, and not only for reasons of military effectiveness. But if an unattacked Iran is a nuclear-armed Iran, the latter would amount to a crippling failure of U.S. policy (always an option, I suppose). If an attack takes place and the United States is uninvolved, we are nevertheless unlikely to avoid involvement in the ensuing conflict. Our collision with Iran is imminent.

Tod Lindberg, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and editor of Policy Review, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 18 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers