Reports are proliferating that the US is drawing up plans to attack Iran’s emerging nuclear weapons capability. The fear is that Iran would exploit its nuclear prowess to aggressively promote its interests and undermine those of the west. What is more, deterrence might not work; Iran might actually use a nuclear weapon or make it available to terrorists. And an Iranian nuclear programme could lead its neighbours to follow suit, leading to an even more unstable Middle East.
These are the rationales for contemplating a preventive attack. The problem is that the likely costs of carrying out such an attack substantially outweigh probable benefits.
The most dangerous delusion is that a conflict would be either small or quick. Destroying Iran’s nuclear capacity would require numerous cruise missiles and aircraft. Iran would be sure to retaliate, using terrorist groups such as Hizbollah and Hamas and attacking US and British forces and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would require the US to respond militarily against a larger set of targets inside Iran. What would begin as a limited strike would not remain limited for long.
Any scenario resembling the above would roil global energy markets. Oil prices would climb above $100 a barrel. Iran could push the price even higher if it reduced its oil exports or took action to disrupt the regional outflow of oil. Although industrialised countries would tap into strategic petroleum reserves, a sudden and prolonged increase in prices could set off a chain of events leading to global recession.
To be sure, using military force would set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It could buy time. But a strike would not eliminate knowhow. Also, you cannot destroy what you cannot target, and you cannot be sure you will be able to destroy all that you do target. One certain effect would be to push Iran to try to clandestinely reconstitute a nuclear weapons programme that could bear fruit in a few years.
An attack on Iran could well trigger a popular coming together in a country that is currently divided. It risks creating a siege mentality that reduces prospects for political reform and increases the odds that Iran would produce a nuclear weapon under a regime resembling the current one.
Using nuclear weapons to destroy hard-to-reach targets would contribute to, rather than diminish, the proliferation threat. It would weaken the taboo against nuclear use—a taboo that has gained strength over 60 years—and only increase the odds that others would obtain or use nuclear weapons to promote their objectives.
Attacking Iran would further inflame US relations with Muslim and Arab countries, including those with little warmth for Iran. A US attack would also fuel anti-Americanism in Europe, and strengthen the hands of those in Russia and China calling for a reassessment of their ties with America and of their role in the world.
Given these potential high costs, Washington should be searching harder for a diplomatic alternative, one that entails direct US talks with Iran beyond the narrow dialogue announced on Iraq. Iran would be allowed no—or at most, a token—uranium enrichment programme (one too small to produce a militarily significant amount of nuclear material over the next decade) coupled with the most intrusive inspections. In return, Iran would receive a range of economic benefits, security guarantees and political dialogue. If Iran refused, the United Nations Security Council would ban investment in Iran’s oil and gas sector.
Would such a deal work? The short answer is “maybe”. There is evidence that not all Iran’s leaders are comfortable with their president’s outrageous statements and his confrontational tack. Publicising the contents of the diplomatic offer would increase their discomfort. In this way, the Iranian people, who care more about jobs than nuclear weaponry, would pressure their government to compromise. Presenting a fair and generous diplomatic offer would also make it easier to rally international support for escalation against Iran if diplomacy is rebuffed.
This suggests that the principal argument for planning a preventive attack, if one is making the case, should be as a threat that complements diplomacy, not substitutes for it. The threat might increase Iran’s willingness to compromise; it might also increase the willingness of Europe, Russia and China to consider meaningful sanctions lest President George W. Bush concludes he has no alternative but to employ force.