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.

A second element is the view of Iran as a rational actor. Put aside talk of “rogue states,” let alone the old “axis of evil”: The Iranian government would respond, in this view, to incentives positive and negative—carrots and sticks. If the cost of continuing its nuclear program is elevated and promises to keep mounting the longer Iran persists, and if the benefit from abandoning the program would be considerable in terms of reintegration into the world economy, one could reasonably expect Iran to give up its program.

The Obama administration’s early overture to Iran was worth a try (though not to the point of turning its back on the Iranian “Green Revolution” movement that took to the streets following fraudulent elections in summer 2009). But Iran has not budged in the face of tightening sanctions, nor does it appear to value reentry into the world community as highly as the security gains it believes a nuclear weapon would provide. This does not necessarily make Iran “irrational”; it may simply mean that Iran’s rulers calculate costs and benefits differently from Americans and Europeans.

In this context, the Western rumors of war in early 2012 could be construed in part as the last peaceable attempt to persuade Iran to change course. It appears to be failing. The Iranians want a nuke and appear to be pressing ahead as fast as they can.

The United States and its allies have said repeatedly that an Iranian nuclear weapon is “unacceptable.” One must ask: Why? There are two responses to this question. The first is that the Iranian regime is so dangerous, internally unstable, and ideologically inflamed that it might use a nuclear weapon if it had one, specifically against Israel. If not a missile, then a suitcase. If not directly, then indirectly through surrogates closer at hand.

What, then, about Israel’s undeclared but widely acknowledged nuclear arsenal, which would surely be unleashed in reprisal? Perhaps there are those in Iran who would be prepared to pay such a price for the destruction of the Jewish state. Surely the rhetoric of the Holocaust-denying Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, calling for the annihilation of Israel is not reassuring. Iran might well be deterred from using a nuclear weapon against Israel by the prospect of nuclear retaliation. But what are the chances that it won’t be? Is one chance in five over the next 20 years an acceptable risk? Precise calculation of such a risk is impossible. Yet it may be worthwhile, even at considerable cost, to attempt to reduce the likelihood of a low-probability, high-impact event to zero at least for some period of time. This view is understandably more prevalent in Israel than among Americans—though if it’s a suitcase that concerns you, Tel Aviv is not the only place about which you might be concerned.

A more common worry among American analysts is the possibility that if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia will want one as a deterrent. Perhaps Iran’s neighbor Turkey will as well. From there, who knows? The fear is that Iran is the tipping point to a so-called polynuclear Middle East, which might easily extend into Central Asia. The stability of such a situation is highly open to question. If one state in the region goes on nuclear alert, all the other states will follow suit (as, likely, would the United States, Russia, and China). The regional nuclear arsenals in question will likely not be large, and each state will feel a certain “use ’em or lose ’em” pressure in fear of being attacked first. The chance of such fears leading to catastrophe—well, once again, it is incalculable, but it is not zero. Deterrence theory, even on the assumption that all of the states involved seek only to deter the others from attack, is not at all reassuring in such a scenario.

A polynuclear Middle East would be a potential second-order effect of an Iranian bomb. One could address it by trying to dissuade other states in the region from going nuclear through the extension of security guarantees. How credible they would be is another question. Would Saudi Arabia feel reassured under an American nuclear umbrella? A Pakistani nuclear umbrella? Would such an exercise in “extended deterrence” make sense to Americans?

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.

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