05/18/2012 10:40 am ET Updated Jul 18, 2012

Nuclear Strategy: Why a Military Strike on Iran Would Only Make Matters Worse

Nuclear proliferation in Iran -- which is currently at an unprecedented level of development -- has heightened the concerns of the international community, particularly those of Western countries, including Israel and the United States. The nuclear program in Iran can be best understood as an enrichment in uranium that is necessary for nuclear energy in both peaceful means, such as medical technology, and defensive means, such as the development of a nuclear weapon. Diplomatic measures introduced by the United States have gained support from countries both in the West and in the Middle East in hopes that a pressured Iran would reconsider its entire nuclear program. Although Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, critics of the program argue Iran's real intentions are to arm themselves with nuclear weapons--a threat destabilizing to international peace. "Under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), every country does have a right to nuclear development for peaceful purposes (i.e., nuclear energy)..." however, as in the case with Iran, "...the fear is that countries may use this as a guise for weapons development." Iran has insisted that this is not the case and has restated several times that according to Islam, nuclear weapons are a "grave sin" and would not be pursued.

The very thought of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon makes the international community uneasy not least because of the public hostility, including verbal threats, expressed toward the West by current president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. In response to Iran's unpopular nuclear program, the United States and the European Union have imposed aggressive sanctions on the Shia-led country, including a severe oil embargo and regulation on the international banking system. Unfortunately, some against the nuclear program suggest that despite these measures that are sure to cripple the country's economy and force them to cooperate and comply with the rules of the NPT, a military strike on its facilities would be much more effective in ending any nuclear enrichment in the Islamic Republic of Iran. After careful analysis of both the risks and the aftermath of a U.S.-led military strike on Iran's nuclear enrichment program, one will be convinced that such action would produce more conflict and instability both in the region and internationally, and damage the global economy through vulnerability and surging oil prices, thus proving a strike would be a costly and regrettable decision.

Although Iran's pursuit for nuclear power has been decades in the making, it has never seen such high levels of enrichment. The global watchdog for nuclear development, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has made recent announcements that have alarmed already worried countries. The report "provided the most compelling evidence yet that the Islamic Republic has [...] been testing nuclear triggering devices and redesigning its missiles to carry nuclear payloads." Additionally, the Economist has raised concern over the possibility that Iran could produce its first "workable weapon within a year..." if it abandoned the NPT. Such observation is a significant blow to the West, who has held that economic sanctions and tough diplomacy would deter the nuclear program. Israel, the closest ally to the United States in the Middle East region, has voiced a controversial alternative that would inevitably involve the United States -- a military strike on Iran.

In his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a powerful pro-Israel lobbying group that shapes relations between the United States and Israel, President Barack Obama empathized with the Jewish community in its resistance toward a nuclear Iran. He stated, "No Israeli government can tolerate a nuclear weapon in the hands of a regime that denies the Holocaust, threatens to wipe Israel off the map, and sponsors terrorist groups committed to Israel's destruction," and when speaking of the possibility of a U.S. backed military strike, he assured the Israelis, "...When I say all options are on the table, I mean it" What Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's current prime minister, and President Obama both fail to accept is that a strike would merely delay Iran's nuclear program, not eliminate it. Not all of Iran's nuclear facilities are known or visible, which leaves a possibility for covert plants to exist throughout the country. It has been noted that most of Iran's nuclear facilities are "dispersed across the country, buried deep underground and hardened against attack, and ringed with air defenses, making a raid complex and dangerous." Without knowing for sure that U.S. missiles could accurately pinpoint locations in Iran and destroy them in their entirety, a military strike would be foolish as it would merely stall Iran's plans and encourage their rationale for enrichment.

A military strike not only threatens state sovereignty but also evokes retaliation. Iran, although a small and isolated state, would have a greater incentive to both develop nuclear weapons and attack its enemies through various methods if its facilities were hit. According to the U.S. government, Iran is "the most active state sponsor of terrorism." If this account was even partially true, it is quite feasible that Iran would use all of its resources to counter any aggression on its regime. Colin Kahl, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, argues that a strike on Iran would provoke "proxy attacks against U.S. civilian personnel in Lebanon or Iraq, the transfer of lethal rocket and portable air defense systems to Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, or missile strikes against U.S. facilities in the Gulf," all which would guarantee a significant number of U.S. casualties and prolonged conflict. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta also expressed his concern over a strike, warning that the consequences would include "increased domestic support for the Iranian regime; violent Iranian retaliation against U.S. ships and military bases [...] and, perhaps, escalation that could consume the Middle East in a confrontation and a conflict that we would regret." The risks of perennial conflict alone are enough to keep the United States from engaging in any type of attack on Iran's facilities, yet awareness of the possible number of civilian casualties should be all the more convincing.

The United States must consider the human cost that would be suffered in Iran. Iran has strategically placed some uranium-conversion plants near civilian populations. Opponents of a U.S. raid caution of the potential of "hundreds, if not thousands of deaths" occurring in Iranian neighborhoods, however, some who support a strike like the former advisor in the U.S. Secretary of Defense Matthew Kroenig, dismiss the threat to humanity, claiming "the majority of the victims would be the military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians working at the facilities." The risk of killing civilians -- even Iranian workers who are gainfully employed in technology, not politics -- would not be justified, let alone supported, through mere speculation of a nuclear program aimed at creating weapons.

Further, the attack would hinder relations between Americans and Iranians indefinitely. Paul Pillar, professor at Georgetown University, writes that consequences of a strike would create "deepened anger at the United States for what would be seen as unprovoked killing of Muslims..." - this would inevitably entail a stimulation of "more extremist violence against Americans." And although some Arab countries might support U.S. military action, Kahl argues that many would reject it and that some extremists would take advantage of the opportunity to "transform the Arab Spring's populist antiregime narrative into a decidedly anti-American one." Such a situation would empower Iran's political influence and guarantee years of stronger hostility from that region. The threats to security -- both domestically and internationally -- should discourage the U.S. from provoking, assisting or supporting a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities. Another ramification that the United States must consider is the decaying global economy that would emerge at the inception of conflict.

A fractured international economy would be both inevitable and immense if the West were to engage in conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. Supporters of a military strike fail to offer pragmatic and plausible solutions that would fathom an oil crisis or plummeting financial markets. Matthew Kroenig suggests the U.S. could "offset any disruption of oil supplies by opening its Strategic Petroleum Reserve and quietly encouraging some Gulf States to increase their production in the run-up to the attack." Kroenig does not mention, however, that the Strategic Petroleum Reserve is relatively small and has restrictions on the amount of oil it can extract. He also does not disclose the fact that most of Saudi Arabia's oil passes through the Straight of Hormuz -- the 120-mile long straight that accounts for the passage of approximately 20 percent of the world's oil, and is consistently threatened to closure by the Iranians. The reality is that the "mere threat of closure could send oil prices surging." Aside from closing or even threatening to close the Straight of Hormuz, Iran may also attack Arab oil infrastructure, with intent to use oil prices as a weapon of war. Additionally, according to Mr. Pillar, "given the fragility of Western economies, the full economic cost of a war would likewise be out of proportion to the direct effect on energy prices, a sudden rise in which might push the U.S. economy back in recession.

In addition to price hikes in crude oil, the United States will also suffer economically through post-conflict operations in Iran. Just as the Gulf War essentially called for the United States to launch years of containment in Iraq, the post-conflict period in Iran would inflict the same model. Post-war containment is not only a risky move but a very costly one as well. Kahl assures that U.S. containment -- which would be necessary in Iran to prevent the further pursuit of nuclear enrichment and alleviate violence -- will require "Washington to maintain sufficient air, naval, and ground forces in the Persian Gulf to attack again at a moment's notice." The millions of dollars that would be thrown away to yet another unnecessary conflict will simply dig America in a deeper financial hole that it just cannot currently sustain.

In what the Republic of Iran claims as necessary, just, and peaceful, the West interprets as threatening, provocative, and defiant. A nuclear powered Iran will not be easily welcomed in the international community, but countering their mission through military means is not the answer. To better resist Iran's nuclear ambitions, powerful nations like the United States should employ methods that will not perpetuate conflict, hinder the global economy or violate state sovereignty. Attacking Iran's nuclear facilities will do all of the above, and the detrimental consequences would be shared globally. Negotiations are the best alternative for dealing with Iran. If the United States began to slowly lift the sanctions that are forcing Iran into isolation, on the condition Iran opened all of its facilities to inspection and complied with the rules of the NPT, then both states could coexist with peaceful nuclear enrichment.