Why Attacking Iran is a Good Idea

 MATTHEW KROENIG – Attacking Iran might be risky, but the alternative is far worse.  

(For the converse argument, see Why Not to Attack Iran with Colin Kahl)

In Foreign Policy you wrote about the importance of deterrence when dealing with terrorist networks. Could you describe why, as you put it, deterrence “remains a poorly understood and underutilized element of US counterterrorism strategy”?

During the Cold War, deterrence was a key part of American strategy. The idea was that if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe or launched a nuclear attack, the US could threaten to retaliate in kind. US leaders could convince the Soviets that the cost of an attack would outweigh the potential benefits.

After September 11 many analysts said that kind of deterrence would not work for terrorist groups because these individuals were clearly willing to give their life for the cause. Threats to retaliate against them would not be perceived by them as adequately threatening: if they are willing to die, the threat of retaliation is not really a cost these people would recognize. Because of that reasoning, during the early stages of the ‘War on Terror,’ analysts, strategists, and the most of the Bush Administration argued that the only way to beat Al Qaeda was to track down members and kill them.

I understand how these analysts came to that position. To some degree they were correct: The hardcore of Al Qaeda cannot be deterred. Yet, I came along four years after 9/11 to work in the Department of Defense, and realized that it is possible to deter some terrorists. Not all terrorists are like Osama Bin Laden: those in the support network — playing a role either as financiers or radical clerics — do not want to give their life: There are things that these people value. The US can threaten these factions with retaliation, deterring them from participating in terrorist activity. Moreover, there is the “deterrence by denial element,” which was part of America’s Cold War strategy; the idea was that if one could credibly threaten to deny benefits to his adversary — say, threaten to shooting down soviet nuclear war heads with ballistic missiles, to show that the enemy had nothing to gain. With terrorists, one can practice a similar policy: If the US or any country can credibly threaten to thwart an attack — if that country can convince terrorists not to even attempt the attack against a certain target — successful deterrence is possible.

So we are not talking nuclear deterrence at this point?

No. Deterrence is often thought of in terms of nuclear deterrence , because that strategy was vitally important during the Cold War. But “to deter” is defined simply as “convincing the adversary not to take an action he otherwise would have taken, through the fear of the consequences.” That can either be fear of retaliation or fear of failure, if one is talking about benefit denial.In the terrorist context, there is no real need or possibility of nuclear deterrence.

Looking to Iran. Sanctions and other modes of deterrence have seemingly failed to stop Iran from continuing its nuclear program. Is deterrence a failing strategy when it comes to the “Iranian Problem”?

 A key question here is: deterring them from doing what? So the first step would be deterring the Iranians from acquiring nuclear weapons, which is what the US believes they are trying to do now. The second question would be: once Iran has nuclear weapons, how can the US deter them from using those weapons. American efforts to convince Iran to give up this nuclear program have so far not succeeded. I have reasons to believe that they will not. I think at this point it is difficult to imagine a diplomatic settlement that Iran’s supreme leader would be willing to sign and that would simultaneously convince the United States the Iranian program is no longer a problem.

I don’t think that America’s efforts to deter or dissuade Iran from pursuing a nuclear program are going to work. If they acquire nuclear weapons, the United States would certainly put into place a “deter and contain” strategy. I think the US could probably deter Iran from intentionally starting a nuclear war. But I think that many of the other threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran — further nuclear proliferation in the region, the transfer of nuclear material to other states, and an increase in Iranian support to terrorist and proxy groups — could not be confronted by a deterrence strategy.

How could the United States influence a nuclear-armed Iran?

The US can deter Iran from intentionally using nuclear weapons through the threat of nuclear retaliation: if they attack the United States or attack US allies, this country would respond with a massive nuclear strike similar to American strategy during the Cold War. The government of Iran is pragmatic enough to want to survive, and they would not take that chance. Yet that leaves many of the other lower-level — but still serious — threats posed by such a situation. In that context, the threat of a US military retaliation would be less credible. It is incredible that we would start a war with a nuclear-armed country, for example, if they transferred nuclear material; the Iranians understand that. There is precedent for this kind of situation: North Korea and Pakistan recently transferred nuclear material to other countries. In those instances the US was upset, but did not do much in response.

So America might not be able to control a nuclear-armed Iran, in terms of it giving nuclear materials to other countries and similar transgressions?

There a number of threats a nuclear armed Iran would pose that the United States would have a difficult time managing: Iran transferring nuclear materials to other countries is one example. Iran historically has ties to various terrorist and proxy groups. They would almost certainly step up its support to those groups if it had nuclear weapons. Short of responding to a devastating terrorist attack against the US homeland, it would be difficult for America to deter Iran from supporting those groups. It would be incredible to start a war against a nuclear-armed country unless there was a major attack, such as if they gave their terrorists nuclear weapons, and those groups attacked the United States.

You write in Foreign Affairs that it is “time to attack Iran.” If an attack succeeded in destroying the Iranian nuclear facilities, what prevents the country from “starting over” in its bid to acquire weapons?

There is no guarantee that a strike would permanently prevent Iran from having the option of acquiring nuclear weapons. On the other hand, by standing by while Iran builds nuclear weapons, we will be guaranteed that they will have nuclear weapons in the near future.

There are many reasons to believe that Iran would not reconstitute this program after an attack. It is possible that Iran would give up: they have spent decades building this expensive nuclear infrastructure and if it is reduced to rubble, it is possible that they would decide it is not worth spending another decade and hundreds of millions of dollars rebuilding this infrastructure, only to have it at risk from another attack from the United States or Israel. There is historical precedence for such a situation. Syria’s nuclear reactor was bombed by Israel in 2007, at which point Syria gave up it program: there is no evidence that Syria has an interest in rebuilding its nuclear infrastructure.

A strike would buy time. It is difficult to estimate with any precision for how long the Iranians would be stalled, but I estimate that a US strike could set them back three to ten years. As a US strategist, I would rather face a nuclear-armed Iran in ten years rather than next year.

There is a great deal that could happen in those three to ten years that would open avenues for a diplomatic settlement or an indigenous regime change within Iran to one less pursuant of nuclear weapons. It is possible that there would be some kind of future conflict that would prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. While there is no guarantee that a strike would permanently prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons it would at a minimum delay them. And it is possible that such a strike would permanently prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Some people are comparing your call for an attack on Iran to the buildup to the 2003 Iraq War. What do you think of this comparison — was the attack on Iraq justified too, does Iran pose unique threats, or does the current situation present a combination?

I understand why people make comparisons to the Iraq war, but I think these statements are misleading. Ten years ago Professor Yuen Foong Khong at Oxford University wrote a book — Analogies at War — in which he said that when it comes to foreign policy decision making people often reason by analogy: what was the lesson of Munich? What was the lesson of Vietnam? What was the lesson of Iraq? They seize on these prominent historical examples and try to apply them to future cases. But he argued that these comparisons are almost always mistaken, because the individual details of each case are important. If these historical analogies are applied in an overly simplistic way, it is possible to miss the crucial details.

That principle is true when considering comparisons between Iraq and Iran. Today, Iran is much closer to having a nuclear weapon than Iraq ever was. Analysts know this because the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors are on the ground in Iran — visiting the nuclear facilities every two weeks, writing detailed reports every three months, chronicling exactly how many nuclear facilities Iran has and what is happening at those installation. Experts estimate that if Iran made the decision today to build its first material nuclear weapon, it could have enough material for its first weapon in four months. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein did not even have a nuclear program: the US was speculating about what he might have given what he had in the past. That is the first difference; Iran is very close to having nuclear weapon capability, Iraq was not.

Second difference — and the main reason Iraq I think was such a foreign policy disaster — is that the US invaded the country, overthrew the government, and we had to have hundred of thousands of troops there, on the ground, for a decade to govern the territory. That kind of operation is exorbitantly expensive; nobody is talking about that kind of attack on Iran. What I advocate for is a strategic bombing campaign against a minimum of four, up to a dozen or so, targets. A better analogy to this operation might be the precision raid to take our Osama Bin Laden: Go in during one night, get the target, get out. That kind of attack is possible in the Iran case, to go after these four to twelve buildings in a single night. The crisis could end there if Iran is willing to restrain its response afterwards.

In sum, those are the two major ways this situation is different from Iraq: Iran is much closer to having a nuclear capability, and the kind of military conflict being discussed would be much shorter, much cheaper, and much less catastrophic than the Iraq campaign.

Iran’s allies today include nations such as China and Russia, members of the UN Security Council. What responses could we expect from these nations in the event of a US strike on Iran? How would an attack on Iran pan out in the UN — could Russia and China be persuaded to look the other way?

The United States would try to build international support for an attack, to build a coalition, or even call for a vote in the UN Security Council. China and Russia would almost certainly veto such a measure, so it is very unlikely there could be a Security Council Resolution. But the US could build an international coalition with the British, the French, and other allies to support an attack. The question is, what would China and Russia do, would they support Iran? They are not formal allies of Iran.They have been less than amicable with Iran; Russia and China would almost certainly protest a US strike, yet it is unlikely that they could or would retaliate in a meaningful way against the United States economically or militarily: I think they would lodge a diplomatic protest, but that is all.

Does a nuclear-Iran pose a serious threat to the West and its allies in the region? Could a nuclear-armed Iran, like North Korea, be mitigated through traditional doctrines of nuclear deterrence? 

I think a nuclear-armed North Korea poses more of a problem than some people do. In the case of Iran, I think that the most likely consequence of nuclear-acquisition would be other countries in the region launching nuclear weapons programs in response. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, maybe even Iraq at some point in the future, would decide that they need their own nuclear weapons to protect themselves from Iran.

Iran could transfer nuclear material to other US enemies around the world. It would step up its support for terrorist groups, right now its refraining from providing such support because it fears US military retaliation, but if it had a nuclear weapon Iranian leaders could feel confident that it could deter a US military attack. A more aggressive Iran could lead to an even more crisis-prone Middle East. If there are more crises occurring in that region, with a nuclear armed Iran and a nuclear armed Israel, and other the potentially nuclear armed states, there is a real risk that a crisis could spiral out of control and result in nuclear exchange. Given Israel’s small size, a nuclear war could very well mean the end of the state of Israel. If Iran creates ballistic missiles capable of reaching the East Coast of the United States — weapons which Secretary of Defense Gates estimated Iran could have in as little as five years — any one of those crises could result in a nuclear exchange that could hit the East Coast of the United States. The security risks are very real, up to and including a possible nuclear war.

It is a terrifying world to think about, going back to a Cold War-style balance.

In some ways I think it is even more frightening then the Cold War because many of things that that lead to stability between the United States and the Soviet Union do not really exist between Israel and Iran. They are smaller countries, they have less stable nuclear arsenals, they do not have clear lines of communication. There are many reasons to believe that, in a crisis, it is more likely things would spin out of control and result in a nuclear exchange.

It is perhaps a good idea at this point to look at “deterrence” at a macro-level. Cold War strategies of deterrence were rooted in the idea that one country — the US — could use its arsenal to prevent aggression in a bipolar world. In what some describe as an increasingly multipolar world, can this unilateral strategy still work, or does “deterrence” now require a broader consensus of one group opposing another?

It depends on the adversary about which we are talking. Today’s international system is more multipolar, but at this point the United States is still the only country with a global military reach. What that means is the United States must now face off against a number of regional adversaries.

There is still the idea of global deterrence with a Russia that — while much weaker than it was when it was the Soviet Union — still has a large nuclear arsenal. There is a US deterrence relationship with China: a rising competitor to the United States. The United States thus extends its nuclear umbrella to a number of allies in the region: Japan and South Korea, for example. Washington is certainly deterring China from attacking the United States but, similar to the Cold War, it is trying to deter China from threatening its allies in that region.

A nuclear arm Iran would be similar in a way: There would exist an Israel-Iran deterrence relationship; the United States would also be a player probably extending its umbrella to Israel, to Saudi Arabia and to some of the Gulf States. The core assumption of this question is correct: the world today is much more complex, and because of that complexity, the possibility of something going terribly wrong is much higher.


MATTHEW KROENIG is a Stanton nuclear security fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an assistant professor of government at Georgetown University. From July 2010 to July 2011, he was a Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in the Department of Defense, where he worked on Middle East defense policy and strategy. Previously, in 2005, he worked as a strategist in the Office of the Secretary of Defense where he authored the first-ever, U.S. government strategy for deterring terrorist networks. For his work, he was awarded the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s Award for Outstanding Achievement.

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