Is It Time To Attack Iran? No

December 22, 2011 3:42 pm ET — Walid Zafar

An article in the upcoming edition of Foreign Affairs magazine tries to make the case that the window of opportunity to strike Iran's nuclear facilities is closing. Written by Georgetown University professor and Council on Foreign Relations fellow Matthew Kroenig, the piece uses the same sort of simplistic speculation and analysis that was in circulation in the months preceding the Iraq War debacle, overselling the benefits of war and dismissing critics who argue that war won't be a cakewalk.

There are so many errors in this piece that they practically jump off the page.

KROENIG: Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran.

Oh yeah? Name one.

Without some examples, this is meaningless at best and intentionally misleading at worst. In addition, Kroenig's assertion is contradicted by the rest of his piece, where the case for a strike is partly made on the premise that other regional actors are weary of the Iranians and want the U.S. to strike. (That argument is deconstructed by Paul Pillar here.)

KROENIG: These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. ... Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack.

This has to be one the most foolish arguments in support of war. In short, we need to go to war because the financial cost of containing a possible (but by no means inevitable) nuclear threat from Iran would be too high.

One of the benefits of choosing containment and deterrence over war, especially when dealing with a rational regime, as the author admits Iran is, is that you have the ability to convince decision-makers in Tehran that they need to behave responsibly and, perhaps, eventually convince them to abandon their nuclear program altogether. Since we haven't launched a preemptive strike against Iran, there is still the opportunity for rapprochement. With a strike, we close that door — perhaps permanently.

Also, both opponents of military action and neoconservative supporters of war agree that an attack would at most delay the program by a few years. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has said that allowing Iran to have a bomb is unacceptable, believes a strike would delay the project by about two years.

Forget all that, Kroenig argues. "Military action could ... delay Iran's nuclear program by anywhere from a few years to a decade, and perhaps even indefinitely." Says who?

Kroenig also dismisses the retaliatory steps the Iranians may decide to take if attacked. There are many options, from the relatively non-violent closing of the Strait of Hormuz to violent actions like attacks against U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan, bombings at U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and around the Gulf, and attacks on Israeli cities and European capitals. The list goes on. At the present, Iran has been a very rational (albeit nefarious) actor on the world stage. But there's no telling how they would respond to such a clear case of hostility.

Kroenig has found a way around the concern. He explains:

KROENIG: None of these outcomes is predetermined, however; indeed, the United States could do much to mitigate them. Tehran would certainly feel like it needed to respond to a U.S. attack, in order to reestablish deterrence and save face domestically. But it would also likely seek to calibrate its actions to avoid starting a conflict that could lead to the destruction of its military or the regime itself. In all likelihood, the Iranian leadership would resort to its worst forms of retaliation, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles at southern Europe, only if it felt that its very existence was threatened. A targeted U.S. operation need not threaten Tehran in such a fundamental way.

That simply doesn't make sense. On one hand, the Iranians are such a threat that we can't live in a world where they may have nuclear weapons. However, at the same time, the Iranians are levelheaded and cautious enough that they would not launch responsive measures to an unprovoked attack on their country. Kroenig's logic just doesn't work. As Stephen Walt observes, "When Kroenig is trying to justify the need for war, he depicts an Iran with far-reaching capabilities and dangerously evil intentions in order to convince readers that we have to stop them before it is too late. But when he turns to selling a preventive war, then suddenly Iran's capabilities are rather modest, its leaders are sensible, and the United States can easily deal with any countermeasures that Iran might take."

KROENIG: Washington could also reduce the political fallout of military action by building global support for it in advance. Many countries may still criticize the United States for using force, but some — the Arab states in particular — would privately thank Washington for eliminating the Iranian threat. By building such a consensus in the lead-up to an attack and taking the outlined steps to mitigate it once it began, the United States could avoid an international crisis and limit the scope of the conflict.

Iran is becoming increasingly isolated (not primarily because of its nuclear program but due to its abysmal human rights record). But the international community, and certainly China and Russia, are unlikely to support a strike, especially not with the memory of Iraq still fresh. In fact, many states that have supported tough sanctions against Iran have done so in the hopes that they would reduce the possibility for war.

KROENIG: With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and the United States facing economic hardship at home, Americans have little appetite for further strife. Yet Iran's rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war.

This is a false dilemma. Kroenig, who certainly knows better, gives two terrible choices when there are in fact several choices, some which aren't at all terrible and could lead towards an end to the impasse.

This is a deadly serious issue, with a lot at stake. The least we can expect from some of our best and brightest minds in the field is to be a bit more responsible in making these important cost/benefit judgments.