The Insane 'Option' of Attacking Iran
Debating this is like debating the details of how to shoot yourself in the foot, except that the human cost of launching an attack on Iran would be much, much higher.
Eric Brewer argues that Iran’s shorter “breakout” time to acquiring enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon requires the U.S. to be ready to attack much more quickly:
The most impactful step the United States could take, however, would be to shorten military response time. This step might also be the hardest. One option would be increasing readiness and ensuring that all capabilities required for a strike, such as refueling aircraft, would be available on short notice. Another would be positioning aircraft, missile defense systems, and other support assets in the region. U.S. B-2 bombers, for instance, periodically deploy outside the United States but have no sustained overseas presence. Washington would need to examine the requirements, and risks, of more frequent deployments or permanent stationing abroad. Still, these steps would give the United States more flexibility should a crisis arise and would signal to partners in the region as well as to Iran that the United States is prepared to act if needed.
The U.S. debate over Iran’s nuclear program has been going on for at least two decades, but in the end it always comes back to this fantasy of using force to “stop” Iran from building nuclear weapons. There are a few basic truths that we need to remember before we go down the rabbit hole that Brewer invites us to enter. First, the U.S. has absolutely no right or authority to attack Iran over its nuclear program, and this is true even if Iran chose to violate its commitments under the NPT by building a bomb. There is no universe in which that attack constitutes self-defense. Any attack on Iran for the purpose of destroying nuclear facilities would be illegal aggression. It would not only make a mockery of everything U.S. officials have said about the invasion of Ukraine, but it would also alienate many other countries around the world as they would once again see us as a lawless, rogue superpower. As Steven Metz said yesterday:
Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would make the US president who ordered it a war criminal and be jaw droppingly stupid from a strategic perspective.
Second, military action would not “stop” anything, but it would almost certainly accelerate Iran’s development of nuclear weapons by giving their government a major incentive to build a deterrent to prevent further attacks. Third, attacking Iran would very likely set off a larger regional conflict that would result in the deaths of many thousands and possibly tens of thousands of people, and under current circumstances that would further exacerbate our economic problems and send the globe into a bigger recession. Finally, the only practical way to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons is to give their government strong incentives to continue abiding by their commitments not to build them. There is no alternative to striking a diplomatic bargain with them. If the Biden administration fails to reach a bargain, that does not justify the use of force. Talking about a military “option” here is absurd, since there is no scenario where using that option is legitimate and effective. Debating this is like debating the details of how to shoot yourself in the foot, except that the human cost of launching an attack on Iran would be much, much higher. If all of this seems familiar, that’s because people have been pushing the insane option of aggressive war against Iran for half of my lifetime.
Brewer makes a curious claim elsewhere in the article:
Even if Iran never produces a bomb or the necessary fissile material, a nuclear-capable Tehran would still generate serious policy challenges. Iranian foreign policy would grow bolder and more aggressive if Tehran believes it can hang the nuclear breakout sword of Damocles over the head of the international community.
It is possible that this could happen, but why should we assume that it would? Iran hawks find it hard to believe, but most of Iranian foreign policy is aimed at providing them with strategic depth in order to deter attacks on their country. Most of what the U.S. and their regional rivals describe as “malign activities” are their efforts to build up a network of allies and proxies that they can use to keep their neighbors in check.
The memory of Iraq’s invasion still shapes Iranian policymaking to a considerable degree, and that should not surprise us. It is normal for any state to base its security strategy around its traumatic experiences with foreign invasion. Americans may have a harder time grasping this because our country is extraordinarily secure from physical attack, but this is how the Iranian government understands what it is doing. Because of that, assuming that Iran will become “more aggressive” if it is close to “breakout” doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iran has that capability, that might make their government feel more secure from outside attack and cause them to be less interested in meddling in other parts of the region. The most likely scenario is that Iran would continue its existing policies without escalating anywhere.
Instead of responding to Iran’s nuclear program with threats and more sanctions, the U.S. should seek détente with Iran. War is a dead end, and “maximum pressure” is an embarrassing failure, so the U.S. should try something that it has never seriously tried for the last forty-three years: reestablishing normal relations and stop treating Iran as a pariah. I am keenly aware of the political obstacles that stand in the way of doing this and I know that Biden is currently moving in the opposite direction, but it is the only constructive way forward that serves both U.S. and Iranian interests.