Barack Obama faces no more important foreign policy decision during his presidency than whether to take military action against Iran’s nuclear program (a decision that also includes whether to give a green light to Israel to do so). Among the possible consequences of a military strike, we must consider a long-term, inconclusive war with Iran, a wider conflict across the entire Middle East, the destabilization of moderate regimes in the region and an increase in terrorism around the world. Then, too, the possible consequences of a failure to strike include a more aggressive Iran, a nuclear arms race across the entire Middle East, the destabilization of moderate regimes in the region and an increase in terrorism around the world. It’s damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. Compared to the three-dimensional chess game playing out between the United States and Iran, Afghanistan looks like tic-tac-toe.
Some experts estimate Iran has now come within a year of acquiring the bomb (and others say the experts have been estimating the same thing for years). Many, perhaps most, Israelis view a nuclear Iran as an existential threat to their country. Tellingly, Benjamin Netanyahu has said he will wait no longer than December for economic sanctions to generate results.
If there’s any satisfaction to be taken from our current perilous situation, it’s that the debate over Iran has proved fuller and more wide-ranging than anything that preceded the 2003 Iraq war. The prime example of this debate was Jeffrey Goldberg’s indispensable cover story in the September Atlantic Monthly and the extensive discussion on the magazine’s website that followed it. After interviewing about 40 Israeli policy makers, Goldberg concluded: “there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike.”
Just about every major publication in America and England (and no doubt Israel as well) has contributed to the debate. All possible viewpoints and positions have been expressed, so that when the crunch comes, no one can claim to be ill-informed or surprised. Yet I, for one, have been unable to take much satisfaction from the discussion. As someone who has reached the conclusion that military action against Iran would be a bad idea—or, rather, a worse idea than the alternative—I worry that the way the argument has been framed makes military action all but inevitable.
Discussion of Iran tends to follow certain well-rutted paths. The foreign policy journalist Robert D. Kaplan reflects the feelings of many when he says he hopes the sanctions work so that there won’t be a “need for a military strike.” My fellow Entangler Reuel Marc Gerecht asks: “Are we willing to credibly threaten the use of force against Khamenei if he does not stop the nuclear program?” Christopher Hitchens provides a list of the terrible things that will happen if the world permits Iran to acquire the bomb: International law will be sacked, nonproliferation will be a dead letter, and “there will never be a settlement of the Israel-Palestine dispute.”
Moving further up the food chain, Tony Blair recently said in a telephone conversation, “personally, I think Israel would not allow Iran to get nuclear weapons.” In March, Joseph Biden declared that “the United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.” Barack Obama has repeatedly called a nuclear Iran “unacceptable.” Just a few weeks ago, Obama reiterated to a group of reporters in the White House that he would use “all options available to us to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region and to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”
Taken together, all these statements add up to a consensus that if sanctions don’t work, the U.S. or Israel will move to the next step and bomb Iran. The key assumption here seems to be that we have it within our power to stop Iran in its tracks by military means. But do we? Read the fine print of the debate and it becomes clear that very few commentators believe we do. Instead, what’s being argued is the much more modest proposition that we can delay Iran from going nuclear—some say for as little as one year, others for as many as seven. Goldberg suggests a 3-5 year delay and that seems to be as reasonable a guess as any.
The real policy question, then, should not be whether to bomb in order to forestall a nuclear Iran but whether to bomb to delay a nuclear Iran, and in any cost-benefit analysis, the latter calculation carries a very different weight. The advantages of denying Iran the bomb are self-evident, but how much will be gained from delay, and how much lost? (It should be added that we have two ways to prevent Iran from going nuclear. One would be to put boots on the ground, invading and occupying the country; the other would be to employ nuclear weapons. Presumably, neither of these options has been put on the table, though there has been some talk of Israel’s using tactical nuclear arms to reach deeply buried Iranian facilities.)
If we deem prevention to be impossible, “what’s wrong with delay?” That’s the question Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal asks in a hawkish article in the July/August Commentary. The question answers itself: Delay doesn’t get the job done, and probably leaves us worse off. Some of the possible negative consequences of a military strike have already been catalogued. Others include Iranian missile retaliation against Israel, perhaps forcing the evacuation of Haifa and Tel Aviv, followed by steady escalation of hostilities; the re-launching of wars by Hezbollah and Hamas against Israel; Iranian strikes at Saudi oil facilities and the mining of the Strait of Hormuz, causing a spike in oil prices and a possible world-wide depression. A well-publicized wargame simulation conducted by the Brookings Institution in which Israel hit Iran carried the simulated conflict to the eighth day. At that point, the United States had inevitably been drawn in and was on the verge of striking all Iranian air, ground and sea targets around the Strait of Hormuz.
It’s possible that if Israel did strike, a rational Tehran would be content to conduct low-level war against Israel for years to come, while avoiding any action that would invite a direct confrontation with the United States, and at the same time be rebuilding its nuclear facilities in more secure, and maybe even populous, locations. But does anyone really believe a wounded Iran would act rationally? One prominent Israeli journalist reports: “[A]ll war games and war simulations conducted by Israeli military and academics take for granted that Iran would retaliate with every force at its disposal.”
The steepest cost of a military strike might not be the mayhem unleashed outside of Iran, but rather the political effect inside Iran. If there’s any prospect of getting Iran to reverse course, it surely lies with the country’s reformers, the Green Movement. Hope for internal reform in the near future remains slim indeed—repression has exacted its toll. But bombing can, with near certainty, be expected to unite the country around the present regime, extinguishing even that slim hope.
True, there’s at least one knowledgeable commentator, Gerecht again, who believes the opposite—that a strike would bolster the opposition by demonstrating the true weakness of Khamenei and Ahmadinejad. “Too much has been made in the West of the Iranian reflex to rally round the flag after an Israeli (or American) preventive strike,” Gerecht writes. “Iranians aren’t nationalist automatons.” Maybe not, but neither were the Germans and Japanese when they rallied round the flag after we bombed the bejesus out of them during World War II, or the North Koreans when we devastated their cities during the Korean War, or the North Vietnamese during the napalm-drenched years of the Vietnam War or, for that matter, the Americans after 9/11. When lives are being lost and homes destroyed by an outside force, people—including Iranians—don’t behave like automatons; they behave like people.
But if Iran can’t be prevented from getting the bomb, then the debate we’re having is all wrong. We shouldn’t be discussing whether or not to bomb but what to do once Iran succeeds in going nuclear. Should Israel be offered security guarantees from the U.S., and perhaps even suggested for NATO membership? Should other countries in the region be brought under the American nuclear umbrella? No doubt such discussions have been underway at the Pentagon and State Department, and some outside experts have also been exploring the prospect in the wonkier corners of analysis. But in the public discussion, accepting a nuclear Iran amounts to the policy that dare not speak its name; certainly, any American politician who suggested as much would be accused of “defeatism” or worse. So most of the current debate unfolds in the realm of military strategy.
Yet unless a wider acknowledgement of the real facts of our bleak situation prevails, we are headed in a single and singularly dangerous direction. At the end of that road looms an unknowable but probable foreign policy disaster—and we won’t even have accomplished what we hoped to accomplish in the first place.
Barry Gewen has been an editor at The New York Times Book Review for over 20 years. He has written frequently for The Book Review, as well as for other sections of The Times. His essays have also appeared in World Affairs, The American Interest, World Policy Journal, and Dissent.