The case for a U.S. attack on Iran

Matthew Kroenig is an assistant professor of Government at Georgetown University and a Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. From July 2010 to July 2011, he was a Fellow at the Department of Defense, where he worked on the development and implementation of U.S. defense policy and strategy in the Middle East.

In an article in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, Kroenig argues that the time is now for the U.S. to attack Iran’s nuclear capacity. According to Kroenig, “a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-range national security of the United States.”

Kroenig’s article consists of two main parts: a discussion of the risks associated with a nuclear Iran and an analysis of the adverse consequences that could result from a U.S. attack.

In discussing the risks of not acting, Kroenig discounts the idea that Iran would start a nuclear war for the purpose of destroying Israel. His concerns are that a nuclear Iran would significantly reduce U.S. influence in the region; trigger a nuclear arms race; possibly transfer nuclear technology to its allies, including terrorists; and provide cover for Iranian acts of aggression. He is also concerned that, in the face of Iranian aggression, a dispute with Israel could escalate into a nuclear war.

Moreover, the U.S. would be compelled to “contain” Iran. This would require a vast and expensive commitment to the region. In addition to deploying additional forces, we would need substantially to improve the military capacity of our allies, which would include helping Israel develop the second strike capability required to make deterrence work.

But what about the risks associated with an attack on Iran? The first is that we would not succeed in crippling Iran’s nuclear capacity. But Kroenig argues that all but one of the key facilities are above ground or vulnerable to U.S. bunker busters. The one exception – the facility at Qom – is not yet operational and has little nuclear equipment right now. If the U.S. strikes soon, it won’t need to destroy this facility.

As to possible “blowback,” Kroenig focuses on two concerns: war and the closing of the Strait of Hormuz. Kroenig concedes that an attack on Iran would lead to war. But he argues that Iran won’t want to push the war too far since doing so would put the regime’s military capacity, and the regime itself, at risk of being destroyed. Iran will thus limit its response, provided it believes the U.S. is interested only in destroying its nuclear capacity, as opposed to changing the regime.

It seems to me that this argument puts too much faith in the ability of the U.S. and Iran to manage a conflict. If Iran is this easily managed, then one must question the extent of the danger it would pose as a nuclear power.

Kroenig also concedes that an attack on Iran would result in the closing of the Strait of Hormuz. However, he believes we could offset this disruption by opening the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and encouraging our allies in the Gulf to increase production in the run-up to our attacks.

Finally, Kroenig considers the objection that Iran could simply rebuild its nuclear capacity following an attack. He notes that neither Iraq nor Syria did so after their nuclear capacity was taken out. In any case, Kroenig believes that we can set Iran back up to ten years. A lot can happen in ten years.

As long as Barack Obama remains president, I believe the issue of a U.S. attack is purely academic. It took what Joe Biden tells us was an agonizingly heroic decision just to approve the killing of bin Laden. Obama will not approve an attack on Iran. If Mitt Romney replaces Obama, then it will be time to decide the issues raised by Kroenig.

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