It’s time for some hard thinking on the subject of Iran’s nuclear program. Specifically, the Bush administration must decide whether it is willing to accept the following risks associated with a nuclear Iran: (1) the possibility, real but probably not substantial, that Iran will in some fashion use its nuclear capability against the U.S. (2) the real and substantial possibility that Iran will use that capability against Israel, and (3) the near certainty that Iran will successfully use its capability to become the dominant power in the Middle East.
The only alternative to accepting these risks is military action against Iran. Scott’s post from earlier today is just the latest piece of evidence that Europe is not serious about dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. Europe does not perceive any real risk that it will be the target of Iranian nukes, and it is largely indifferent to the fate of Israel and other Middle Eastern states that might run afoul of a nuclear Iran. And even if Europe were serious, there’s no reason to believe that, together with the U.S., it could impose strong economic sanctions, given the likely willingness of Russian and China to trade with Iran and the porous nature of economic sanctions generally. Finally, we have no assurance that even effective economic sanctions would dissuade the mullocracy from developing the weapons that are so central to its ambitions.
Before deciding on military strikes, however, at least two factors must be considered: will they work and how will Iran retaliate. Both questions are impossible for an outsider, and probably difficult even for the administration, to answer with confidence. The consensus seems to be that the Iranian nuclear program is so dispersed and hardened that it cannot be destroyed through air strikes. But it doesn’t need to be destroyed. If, as is likely, the program can be set back several years through strikes, that’s good enough for now. Moreover, the way in which Iran will try to revive its nuclear program after military strikes would probably provide us with invaluable intelligence about the program. It’s important to remember that Iran is not nearly the closed society that Iraq was under Saddam Hussein. For example, Israel, which was basically shut out from Iraq, has excellent intelligence when it comes to Iran, a country with which it had fairly good relations prior to the 1979 revolution.
There are several ways Iran might retaliate in response to a military strike. Its actions towards Iraq are of particular concern. I doubt that Iran is prepared to send troops into Iraq to face our battle-hardened forces, but we might well see stepped-up efforts by its proxy forces in Iraq. However, without the support of mainstream Iraqi Shiite elements, it’s highly questionable that these proxy forces can tip the balance against the U.S. And it’s not clear why mainstream Shiite elements would want to disrupt a status quo that is operating so decisively in their favor merely because Iran is unhappy.
But this is just speculation on my part. I do not purport to provide a comprehensive or persuasive assessment of the risks associated with taking military action against Iran. I am simply arguing that the administration needs to assess those risks, balance them against the risks of not taking military action, and reach a decision. It also needs to avoid the kind of wishful thinking that might tempt it conclude that there is other than a military alternative to a nuclear Iran. And it needs to do all of this very soon.
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