Go Big – Then Go Home

By Jamie M. Fly and Gary Schmitt

It has been the policy of U.S. presidents over the last three decades to state that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptable. Yet as Iran moves closer to achieving that goal, political leaders, including key Obama administration officials such as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, have begun to waver. They now speak more frequently about the potentially disastrous consequences of an Israeli or U.S. military strike on Iran’s nuclear program than about the dangers of a nuclear Iran.

Matthew Kroenig thus deserves credit for advancing the argument that the repercussions of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program are a worthwhile risk, given the far more dangerous consequences of Iran getting the bomb (“Time to Attack Iran,” January/February 2012). There are, however, problems with Kroenig’s strategy for avoiding the nightmare scenario. Namely, a limited military strike would only be a temporary fix, and it could actually do the opposite of what it intends — drive the program further underground and allow Iran to retain the ability to threaten the United States and its allies.

If the United States seriously considers military action, it would be better to plan an operation that not only strikes the nuclear program but aims to destabilize the regime, potentially resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis once and for all.

Kroenig bases his argument on Israel’s successful limited strikes against Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 and against Syria’s Al Kibar reactor in 2007. Yet the Iranian nuclear program of 2012 is not comparable to either of those cases, which were embryonic and focused on building reactors with limited auxiliary facilities. Once those reactors were destroyed, it was difficult for either country to reconstitute their efforts immediately. Even so, Saddam Hussein did eventually return to the nuclear weapons business. After the Osirak strike, he drove the Iraqi program further underground and diversified it, exploring multiple pathways to the bomb. By 1991, Iraq was close to developing a nuclear weapons capability — a fact only discovered after the Gulf War.

In contrast, Iran has had years to expand its program and already boasts several large reactors and enrichment facilities, which the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspects, and a host of associated research programs and facilities at which equipment to enrich uranium is studied, manufactured, and assembled. Although the declared facilities tend to be isolated in secure compounds or on military installations, many of the subsidiary facilities are in residential urban neighborhoods. Thus, Kroenig is wrong when he writes that an attack on Iran’s nuclear program “could reduce the collateral damage . . . by striking at night or simply leaving those less important plants off its target list.” If the United States decides not to target associated sites for humanitarian reasons, Iran could still have a nuclear future. Read more…

Jamie M. Fly is Executive Director of the Foreign Policy Initiative. Gary Schmitt is Director of Advanced Strategic Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

As published in www.foreignaffairs.com on January 17, 2012.


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