Even before the announcement of a successful nuclear "framework" deal last week between the United States, leading world powers, and Iran, the drums for war were beating. Advocates of a military strike argue that any deal will at best forestall Iran's progress and that only military force will thwart its attempts to acquire a nuclear weapon. The problem is, even a large-scale, coordinated U.S. attack on Iran's nuclear infrastructure is unlikely to effectively cripple the program, and such an attack is likely to energize Tehran's ambitions to obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as possible. Thanks to the deal achieved in Lausanne last week, America should not have to make such a choice. But those who seek to scuttle and undermine the deal and continue to advocate for a military "solution" to the Iranian nuclear program should answer the following five questions and consider some relevant counterpoints.
1. What would the operation(s) really look like?
Most military and defense experts agree that limited air strikes are simply incapable of significantly degrading or destroying the Iranian nuclear program. For this exact reason it has been argued that even with its formidable capabilities, the Israeli Defense Force does not possess the capacity to successfully achieve this objective on its own. U.S. airpower would be required to effectively carry out the mission of crippling Iran's program. However, well-protected and deeply buried installations like Fordow present difficult targets even for advanced U.S. munitions, and critical components of the nuclear program are dispersed across the country. Given the nature of Iranian air defenses and the likely number of sorties required to execute a successful air campaign, there is significant probability of American and or Israeli casualties, and escalation seems highly likely.
2. What would Iran's reaction be?
This is obviously an important but difficult question to answer. However, if the regime perceives a threat to its survival, and doesn't necessarily accept the "limited" rationale of a U.S. or U.S.-Israeli attack, then it would be highly likely to retaliate in whichever ways are perceived to maximize the costs to the U.S. and its allies. From closing the Gulf of Hormuz to missile attacks against regional targets, to the use of irregular forces, there is little reason to expect Tehran to practice restraint.
Moreover, given the high value that the Iranian regime allegedly places on the acquisition of nuclear weapons, it seems incredible that any sort of U.S. or Israeli attack would dampen or decrease its desires. Rather if Iran is able to maintain any semblance of its nuclear program after a U.S. strike, it would seem almost certain that the regime would proceed at breakneck speed to achieve a weapon, sparing little expense. To argue otherwise seems to engage in unmitigated wishful thinking.
Finally, there is little reason to be optimistic that a U.S. attack would somehow precipitate regime change. Instead, a large-scale attack, particularly in wake of the diplomatic success at Lausanne, would likely ignite vehement anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment and galvanize support for the regime. While Iran's leaders may indeed be "ideological" they are also intensely nationalist. It is not difficult to envision an overwhelming nationalistic response, popular expressions of "rallying around the flag," and the deployment of intense "us versus them" rhetoric and symbolism that leaves moderates and reformers with little political space for opposition, and little choice but to support the regime in a time of crisis.
3. What would the regional political-military implications of an attack look like?
Given the chaotic nature of the Middle East and the open conflict between Sunni and Shia, it is not difficult to envision a major response by Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces against their common enemies. Terrorist attacks against, U.S., Israeli, and Gulf Arab targets across the region (and perhaps beyond) would be likely, but larger-scale operations like missile and rocket attacks by Hezbollah against Israel from Lebanon and possible conventional attacks against U.S. Navy assets in the Persian Gulf should not be discounted, leading to the distinct possibility of military escalation on those fronts. Certainly an open split with Shia forces in Iraq would greatly complicate the ongoing efforts against ISIS, and undermine the tenuous political progress recently made in Baghdad.
4. What would the diplomatic implications of such an attack be?
Seemingly absent in any of the discussions advocating for the bombing Iran are serious assessments of the likely diplomatic responses of other world powers. While the context and timing will certainly matter, given the current situation and the perceived success of the P5+1 process, it is difficult to see how a unilateral U.S. air campaign (with or without Israeli participation) will be viewed as anything but a massive affront to the international community, particularly to key U.S. allies and partners. In the absence of some egregious case of Iranian defection from the framework agreement, the other permanent five members of the United Nations Security Council will join with the rest of the membership of the UN General Assembly in outrage. Russia and China can be expected to work openly against U.S. interests, using the military campaign as a cudgel in their own self-serving rhetorical attacks. But even Germany, France and the new government in London will have a difficult time condoning -- never mind supporting -- the U.S. action. At best, the United States will enjoy the support of Israel's government and the Gulf Arab states. Far from being viewed as a positive or beneficial exhibition of U.S. power and strength, an attack on Iran under the current circumstances would leave the U.S. in a place of diplomatic isolation it has not experienced.
5. What are the (real) goals and objectives?
Advocates of employing U.S. military force are often unclear about the actual objectives of such a mission. Ideally, the use of U.S. military force should achieve what diplomacy has not; to effectively knock out Iran's nuclear infrastructure for a significant period of years. However, as discussed, even a large-scale air operation is unlikely to do the type of damage necessary to confidently stop the program, and may actually push the regime to redouble its efforts. Many of the advocates seem surprisingly unconcerned with achieving this primary mission -- crippling the Iranian nuclear program. Instead, they simply argue that the United States would keep bombing with impunity (whether over a course of weeks, months, or even years) or perhaps even expand our military options (ground troops?) to keep the program off-line, and thus "contained." If the United States was indeed going to commit itself to the use of military force, wouldn't the likelihood of success actually matter?
This contradiction in the logic of bombing advocates seems to reflect two important points. First, even the most optimistic advocate knows that attacking Iran's nuclear program is likely to be a major, costly U.S. military endeavor, and unlikely to be "easy" by any measure. Second, the willingness (even eagerness) to engage in a persistent, open-ended military campaign reveals the real primary objective of most advocates: regime change in Tehran.
If in the interest of U.S. national security, the politicians, policy advisers, and various pundits advocating for a military solution believe that regime change in Iran is vital to protecting U.S. citizens at home and abroad and safeguarding key allies, then they should argue for that policy. They should explain why the large and foreseeable commitment of U.S. blood and treasure, not to mention other important political-military, diplomatic and economic implications of such a policy are worth the perceived benefits. This is a completely fair argument to have and an important one, but the Iranian nuclear program should not be allowed to become another case of "Iraqi WMD," which obfuscates and confuses the real intentions of advocates and undermines honest debate.
An Iranian bomb would certainly add to the volatility of the Middle East, and may lead Saudi Arabia or others to acquire their own. Iran's regime will believe it has a deterrent to the United States and Israel, which may make it more assertive (though the logic behind this claim is not necessarily supported by the historical record) and Israel and our allies would face a greater threat. In short, it would make U.S. foreign and national security policy making much harder, there is little doubt. But that doesn't seem like enough of a rationale for undertaking a military campaign that may not achieve the actual objective of crippling the nuclear program, may only make an Iranian bomb more likely over a longer term, and is unlikely to achieve the regime change that advocate so desperately want. Thanks to the Iranian nuclear deal, diplomacy may accomplish what the use of military force could not: preventing an Iranian nuclear bomb. Here's hoping it's given a chance.