The issue of whether and under what circumstances to use military force to disrupt Iran’s nuclear programme is a 60/40, not a 90/10. In other words, it is a more marginal decision than polemicists on either side often recognise.
Which is the greater evil? An Iranian bomb, or a preventative war against Iran?
A view, for what its worth: military action is probably a greater evil than Tehran’s uranium enrichment programme. But an actual weaponised nuclear capability is probably a greater evil than war.
This is an important distinction: having a latent, breakout capability and an actual deliverable bomb are distinct states that have different implications. From what we know, it seems Iran has embraced the former, but not yet the latter. Attacking while it is enriching uranium, perversely, might persuade Tehran to go for weaponisation.
We don’t yet know whether intensifying economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure will successfully persuade the Iranian regime to abandon uranium enrichment, or at least agree to a bargain, in which the international community agrees for it to enrich towards civilian nuclear power in exchange for a continuous inspection and verification.
But what if it doesn’t, and Iran keeps enriching to weapons-grade level? What if it then overtly or covertly begins a weapons programme?
The ‘worst case’ scenarios must be considered. It is way too convenient for supporters of military action to presume that military strikes will succeed without serious blowback. Against that, it is way too convenient of opponents to assume that an Iranian nuclear weapon will be something we’ll just have to live with, or even that it would be ‘no biggy’ because deterrence works, or because we’ve got greater stockpiles than them, or any other comforting, ahistorical view of the stability of nuclear diplomacy. The Cold War, one of the most carefully managed antagonisms in history, could have broken out into hot nuclear war on a number of occasions.
So what would be at stake in attacking or not attacking?
A military strike against Iran has a decent chance of bleak and unintended consequences. These include, but are not limited to, the undermining of the Iranian opposition and dissident movement in a siege atmosphere; retaliation such as a blockade of the Straits of Hormuz and/or through Iran’s paramilitary proxies in Hezbollah and Hamas; the further radicalisation of the country, motivating its leaders to accelerate their nuclear programme while ensuring that it is a hostile radical in power when it finally nuclearises. Military action itself, in the fog of war and mutual uncertainty, would probably not be confined to ‘surgical’ strikes against hardened nuclear facilities, but could well escalate into a much more severe conflict. It would probably re-energise militant global Islamists, such as Al Qaeda who in terms of capability and charisma are mostly on the ropes. It would make the whole region a place Westerners dare not enter without great fear. It could sour domestic politics at home. In some combination, it would be bloody bad.
But an Iranian bomb would also be bleak for the region and the world. In many ways it is rational for Iran, and for Iranians across the political spectrum, to desire some kind of nuclear capability. They are encircled, they have seen what happens to America’s adversaries who lack or who have renounced their programmes (remember the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Colonel Qaddafi). They have become the dominant regional power since we did them the favour of creating a vacuum in Iraq, generating a drive towards nuclear-status ‘prestige.’
But the fact remains that this is a regime that has made death threats to Israel, hosted Holocaust-denial conferences, its frequent street chant is ‘death to Israel.’ We cannot be sure whether a nuclear Iran would moderate its behaviour, like Mao’s China did, or whether its rabid ideology would effect its behaviour as a nuclear state. We do know that it is locked in a protracted geopolitical struggle with America and its clients such as Saudi Arabia. A nuclearised Iran, at minimum, would increase general insecurity in the region, leading to increased tension and confrontation, probably some kind of renewed arms race, even reactive proliferation from states such as Saudi Arabia, or at least a demand for even more Western military presence and security guarantees. A prolonged project of containment and deterrence would be on the West’s shoulders for decades at least. An era of dangerous new confrontation would arrive. Even if Iran was governed by restrained and reasonable people, the history of nuclear antagonism suggests that we could not rule out accident, miscalculation and tragedy.
Bottom Line: a war would be so awful in its costs and consequences, that if we are to draw a red line, it should be at weaponisation, not uranium enrichment.
But: if that is the case, the US and its allies should regard military force with a clear-eyed conservatism: mindfully restrained about the limits and dangers of the military instrument, but when using it, doing so decisively and overwhelmingly. The use of force is so tragic, so blunt and so chaotic that it should not be mistaken for performing surgery with a scalpel. It will kill innocents and unleash forces we can hardly anticipate. Iran is not a case for half-measures. The threshold for war should be high (I think weaponisation meets that threshold, though I could be wrong). There are plenty of other things that should be tried short of war (including taking steps to reduce the existential threat feared by the regime). But if the evil hour arrives, it is vital to consider what force should entail.
It should entail a devastating blow against Iran’s military capabilities. Not just a few punitive strikes against selected targets, ordered by nervous politicians keen to solve a diplomatic problem on the cheap while no bystanders get hurt. It should not be a tame, high minded policing action, to tweak the world with a few forensic blows back into order. It would have to involve knocking Iran to the floor. Setting its naval and air power back by decades. War will inflame Iranian politics and intentions. To make that ‘worth it’, its capabilities should be seriously degraded. Bluntly, they will hate us -even more- so the resort to force, if it comes, had better make them fear us.
So proponents, and opponents of war should honestly confront what they are advocating, and what it could cost. Its a difficult marginal decision, a 60/40, which we will be living with for years to come.