Illegal Attacks on Iranians Won't End the Impasse
It is fanciful to think that launching such an attack would cause the Iranian negotiators to “soften” their positions.
Giorgio Cafiero notes near the end of a new article on Israel and Iran that Iranian nuclear weapons are not a foregone conclusion if the Vienna talks fail and the agreement collapses:
Iran’s nuclear activities seem designed to be mainly about boosting the country’s standing and leveraging the fears that other powers have of the Iranian nuclear program. To continue achieving such goals, the Iranians do not necessarily ever need to acquire nuclear weapons and Iran could remain a nuclear threshold country if the JCPOA is not restored.
This is an important point, and one that needs to be emphasized as the prospects for a successful negotiation are dwindling. The nuclear issue is frequently framed as “letting” Iran get nuclear weapons or waging preventive war to stop that from happening, but there are other alternatives. It is not a given that the Iranian government will choose to build nuclear weapons even if the JCPOA collapses. They have not had anything resembling a nuclear weapons program for the last 18 years, and they have not made the political decision to develop these weapons despite being sanctioned heavily for most of the last 15.
The JCPOA was considered necessary to demonstrate that Iran intends its nuclear program to be peaceful, and to prove that Iran accepted substantial restrictions on their program that were not otherwise required by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Many of those restrictions expired over time because Iran was never going to accept them in perpetuity. If Iran remained on the threshold but took no action to cross it, that is something that everyone should be able to live with. Preventive war wouldn’t prevent anything, since it would almost certainly provoke Iran to change its position and seek a deterrent.
If the nuclear deal isn’t going to be salvaged, that does not have to mean war or proliferation, but it will give Iran hawks an opening to start a war that will likely end with more proliferation. Salvaging the nuclear deal was still the best way forward, but there is clearly no political will in Washington or in European capitals to do what is necessary to save it. Having completely failed in upholding their obligations, the U.S. and its European allies will pretend that Iran is to blame for the fruits of their failure.
The Times of Israel reports today that the Israeli government will ask for the U.S. to attack Iranian forces somewhere in the region:
Channel 12 news said the target of a US potential attack would be not a nuclear facility in Iran, but rather a site like an Iranian base in Yemen. The aim of such a strike would be to convince the Iranians to soften their positions at the negotiating table.
Attacking Iranians operating in other countries seems even more foolish than launching attacks on Iran’s nuclear facilities. It might be comparatively easier to do and it might be less likely to trigger a full-blown war, but a strike in Yemen would be an unprovoked attack on Iranians in a third country for which there is no conceivable justification. It is fanciful to think that launching such an attack would cause the Iranian negotiators to “soften” their positions. Would U.S. negotiators suddenly become more accommodating if Iran attacked Americans at Al Udeid with drones? If anything, it would give Iran an excuse to walk away from the negotiations by giving them solid proof of American bad faith. There is also that pesky matter of any such attack being flagrantly illegal. The president has no authority to order attacks on Iranian targets, and he wouldn’t even be able to dress this one up under a very expansive interpretation of Article II.
Needless to say, one or more strikes on Iranian targets in the region would invite reprisals against U.S. troops in Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf. It would be unconscionable to expose American military personnel to greater danger as a sop to the Israeli government, especially when the current impasse is the result of reneging on the nuclear deal with that government’s encouragement. The Biden administration should reject that request, and it should also make clear that Israel will be on its own if it chooses to launch more attacks by itself.