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Attacking or Threatenting Iran Makes No Sense (Key Points)

No one disputes that the United States must "keep force on the table" with Iran.

The issue is whether the United States should make force or make threats of force a prominent part of U.S. diplomacy at this point.

The answer is no, for at least seven good reasons, which apply with equal weight to an attack by Israel. An Israeli attack would have very similar consequences in Iran as a U.S. attack.  And any attack by Israel would be attributed to the United States: everyone knows where Israel's bombs and money come from. more

Seven good reasons not to bomb Iran, or threaten Iran with bombing at this stage:

(1) Bombing Iran's openly declared and safeguarded facilities won't stop Iran's nuclear program.  It will simply drive the program underground while creating or hardening Iran's resolve to pursue nuclear weapons in secret.

A military attack will only buy us time and send the [Iranian nuclear] program deeper and more covert.

-- Sec. of Defense Robert Gates (May 2009)

Even those who favor the military option admit that a ground invasion is out of the question.1 But bombing Iran's nuclear facilities without a subsequent invasion would merely trigger rage in Iran, and solidify their intention to pursue nuclear weapons in secret.

Nuclear capacity lies mostly in knowledge.  Facilities can be hidden. If hit and destroyed they can be re-built.  As Secretary of Defense Gates put it: "Even a military attack will only buy us time and send the program deeper and more covert." 2

Israel's bombing of Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor in 1981 is widely cited as a favorable precedent for bombing Iran. It should not be.  We now know that Israel's bombing of the Osirak reactor did not stop Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program.  On the contrary, it so enraged Saddam Hussein that he covertly expanded that program by more an order of magnitude, according to the later, independent reports of two Iraqi nuclear scientists.3 It took Operation Desert Storm and the inspections regime that followed it to bring the program to a halt.   We should expect no different results from any bombing of Iran.

(2) Bombing an open and declared facility that is enriching uranium to low levels under full IAEA safeguards would constitute a lawless act of agression that would isolate the United States and Israel, not Iran.

International law on the use of force is crystal clear: nations may use unilateral force only to defend themselves against attack or imminent threat of attack. more

In this case, even Israel's Mossad doesn't claim that Iran will be able to produce a bomb before 2014.4 U.S. intelligence agencies believe it will take until at least 2013.5 So there is not even a figleaf argument that attacking Iran could be justified by self-defense. more

Bombing Iran under such circumstances would trample existing law, while perversely reinforcing the discredited doctrine of "preventive war" that President Bush invoked in justifying the war in Iraq: that notion that one country may attack another whenever the first country feels threatened by the second.  This is not a prescription for peace and security. It is a formula for perpetual war. more

(3) Bombing Iran would cause massive civilian casualties, fortify the current regime in power and rally the Iranian people around the flag -- against the United States.

Bombing Iran would create generations of jihadists, and our grandchildren will be battling our enemies here in America.

-- Sec. of Defense Robert Gates (2007)

Iran's nuclear facilities involve much more than a single reactor. There are dozens of nuclear facilities scattered in population centers around the country.  Bombing these facilities would kill large numbers of Iranian civilians, with disastrous consequences not only for the victims and their loved ones, but for the United States.

Despite a long history of conflict at the official level, the Iranian people are more pro-American than any population outside Israel. They held candle-light vigils for America in the streets of Tehran after 9/11.  Bombing Iran would change all that.  A population that is now largely pro-American and angry with their own government would be enraged against the United States, and would rally round the flag against a foreign enemy (just as we would in their shoes).  It is hard to imagine a better way to play into the hands of hardliners in Iran.

(4) Bombing Iran would unleash chaos throughout the region, putting our troops' lives at risk and undermine the war on terror.

As part of its deterrent to a feared U.S./Israeli attack, Iran has assiduously developed close relationships with Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Iran, militias in Iraq and warlord clans in Afghanistan.  These groups are not puppets of Iran.  They have their own agendas.  Nonetheless, experts find it quite likely that some or all of these groups would retaliate against U.S. forces as a gesture of solidarity with Iran, particularly if they perceived Iran to have been attacked without just cause.  Our troops' lives would be put at risk by any rash decision to attack Iran.

Terrorists thrive on hate. They find their refuge and recruits in hostile populations. With Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Egypt already hotbeds of anti-American feeling and terrorist recruiting, America cannot afford to be turning yet another large Muslim population against the United States.8

(5) Bombing Iran would undermine the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

Bombing declared facilites operating under under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection would send a terrible signal about the costs of cooperating with the IAEA.  It could well undermine the NPT and IAEA safeguards regime around the globe.

(6) Bombing Iran would be premature, to put it mildly.

Iran is years away from having a nuclear weapon, if it is pursuing one at all.  Meanwhile, the United States has squandered six years refusing to talk to Iran until it suspended enrichment.   We owe it to ourselves and the world to give diplomacy a chance before resorting to violence or draconian sanctions that could well lead to violence.

(7) Threatening force while lacking a credible scenario for using it would be self-defeating.

The Iranian leadership is fully aware of all the factors just cited, and has publicly dismissed the threat of force as incredible. So any bluff in this area is highly likely to be called.

Moreover, threats of force poison the waters of diplomacy. They isolate the United States in world opinion. And they entrench hard liners in Tehran who already are predicting - hopefully - that President Obama will turn out to be no different from President Bush.

Footnotes

1. See, e.g., Bipartisan Policy Center, Meeting the challenge: U.S. policy toward Iranian nuclear development: Report of an Independent Task Force Sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center (Sept. 2008), p. 72 ("A ground invasion of Iran is widely discounted among experts. The size and complexity of the operation are daunting, the Iranian population would resist, and U.S. forces are already overstretched"). [back]
2. David Blair, “Robert Gates: bombing Iran would not stop nuclear threat,” Daily Telegraph (May 1, 2009. [back]
3. See Imad Khadduri, Iraq's Nuclear Mirage, Memoirs and Delusions (Toronto: Springhead Publishers, 2003), p. 82. Khadduri's account is independently corroborated by another Iraqi nuclear scientist, Khidir Hamza, who would become a leading supporter of the Iraqi invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.  He reports that the Israeli raid on Osirak had the effect of transforming what had been a relatively modest operation involving 400 scientists funded at $700 million a year -- with a capability for generating enough plutonium for less than one bomb a year -- into a large, covert enterprise involving over 7,000 scientists and technicians with a $10 billion investment dedicated to developing the underground capacity to enrich enough uranium for six nuclear bombs a year.  {footnote}See  "Crossfire transcript,"CNN , February 7, 2003, <http://www.cnn.com/> [back]
4. Amos Harel and Natash Mozgovaya, “U.S. intel: No chance for Iran bomb before 2013 - Haaretz - Israel News,” Haaretz.com, August 10, 2009. [back]
5. Id.  See also, Dennis Blair, “FEBRUARY 2009: INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY ANNUAL THREAT ASSESSMENT; Statement for the Record,” February 12, 2009. [back]
6. For an excellent and concise analysis of the relevant law on the use of force, see Sir Richard Dalton, “Iran: Breaking the Nuclear Deadlock” (Chatham House, Dec. 2008), pp. 36-37. [back]
7. UN Sec. Resolution 487 (1981), cited in Sir Richard Dalton, “Iran: Breaking the Nuclear Deadlock,” (Chatham House 2008), p. 37. [back]
8. As Paul Rogers of the Oxford Research Group observed in a 2006 report, "any attack on such a significant Islamic republic would inevitably increase the anti-American mood in the region and beyond, giving greater impetus to a [terrorist] movement that is already a global phenomenon." [back]