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Bombing Iran's Nuclear Facilities: Shortsighted or Resolute?

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In what may perhaps be one of the most outrageous comments about resolving the Iranian nuclear standoff, presidential hopeful Rick Santorum said that he would bomb Iran's nuclear facilities if they do not open up for IAEA inspectors.

Is this prudent or foolish?

Missing from this equation is definitive proof that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. While Iran openly admits that it is pursuing peaceful nuclear energy, something Iran has the right to do under international law, suspicions linger that the real goal of the program is military use.

A tough stance can be ideologically driven without due consideration to a process to arrive at the right course of action. A process should include consideration of positives, negatives, alternatives and ways to achieve a desired outcome.

First, consider some positive outcomes of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

  1. It would bring an immediate halt to enrichment at that nuclear site setting Iran's program back.
  2. Iran would know that the U.S. means business; the U.S. could not be called a paper tiger.
  3. Other nations considering a secret nuclear weapons program may re-consider.
  4. By some estimates, it is better that the U.S. does this than Israel.

Second, consider some negative outcomes of a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.

  1. It would foment more anti-American sentiment in Iran (unifying segments of the population that do not like the government behind the government) and much of the non-Western world.
  2. It would not eliminate the knowledge about how to build a nuclear weapon that Iran already has.
  3. It would not do anything about the nuclear sites that we do not know about.
  4. It would be a good reason to build a nuclear bomb at the sites that are unknown, which would then be a deterrent to any further aggression.
  5. Iran could retaliate against U.S. interests, including targets in Iraq (our embassy), in Afghanistan, and anywhere the U.S. has an embassy.
  6. It could make the U.S. become at tense odds with China and Russia, two partners that are needed to successfully resolve this issue via non-military means, as well as other seemingly unrelated issues.

It is not enough to say that because there may be more negative outcomes than positive that the negatives outweigh the positive; such would assume equal weight to each point. However, in this case, the case for striking Iran's nuclear program over a lack of inspections is not prudent. Striking or not striking is not the only set of options.

Third, consider an alternative scenario.

An alternative way forward is through a dual approach of diplomacy and sanctions. The sanctions must be specific, not affect world oil supply, and target elements that support the government and not the people. This is easier said than done. At present, the new round of sanctions designed to target Iran's central bank would negatively affect world oil supply and consequently prices. Other sanctions have been more carefully crafted and more effective.

Diplomacy must be done with various interests in mind. These include: U.S., Israel, Iran, the greater Middle East and the international community. Diplomacy also requires the right people at the table with the right set of carrots and sticks who also have a sense of empathy (understanding the other's point of view), a clear sense of what success will look like, and a clear line of what is not acceptable.

The U.S. extended a hand to Iran in 2009 but this was rejected at the time. Iran has recently signaled that it is willing to restart talks with the 5 plus 1 group (the UN Security Council and Germany). There is reason for hope that Iran will come around and allow IAEA inspectors to resume inspections.

However, there always exists the possibility that Iran may use IAEA inspections as a way to buy time at sites unknown to the IAEA. North Korea seems to have successfully used this strategy and now is believed to possess nuclear weapons. Only after sanctions and diplomacy have failed, and proof of a nuclear weapons program is established, should the military option be seriously considered. Even then, as with the Dayton Accords where military pressure was applied in conjunction with diplomacy and sanctions to successfully reach peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, diplomacy and sanctions should never be taken off the table in place of military options.

These options have not been exhausted and this is why a strike on Iran as Rick Santorum described it is ill-advised and short-sighted.

This is not a comprehensive analytically driven process; that would require far more details and facts. This is a sketch intended to raise awareness of the need for a process.

Thinking Long-Term

There is an appropriate saying for this situation: "If you make someone do something through fear, they will do what you say. But once you remove the fear, not only are they not going to do what you say, they are going to come after you."

Any nation pursuing a nuclear program is extremely serious. It is even more serious when that country has a long and hostile relationship with regional and distant countries. But precisely because this is a serious and potentially dangerous situation, the utmost caution must be applied when considering the use of military force on another nation.

Short-sighted saber-rattling, such as threats made by a presidential candidate, does nothing to help this delicate and tense situation. While the U.S. is the strongest country in the world, prudence would suggest that we pursue a course of action that successfully respects and appeals to all parties, and not one that involves the other side deciding what to do with a gun to their head, especially when there are other options available that won't lead to unintended second-order consequences.

PAUL HEROUX previously lived and worked in the Middle East and was a senior analyst at the Institute for Defense and Disarment Studies. He has a masters in International Relations from the London School of Economics and a Master's from the Harvard School of Government. Paul can be reached at PaulHeroux.MPA@gmail.com.