With some sort of showdown with Iran over its nuclear ambitions looming on the horizon, a divisive new foreign policy debate has sprung up in Washington. At issue is whether the United States can and should carry out a pre-emptive attack on Iran's numerous nuclear facilities.
So far, these discussions have generated a good deal of heat, but precious little light. Proponents of military action contend that the United States is capable of quickly and effectively neutralizing Iran's nuclear program through a few surgical aerial strikes. Detractors, meanwhile, say that such steps are not feasible, and if attempted will create catastrophic regional consequences.
The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle. Few doubt that the United States has the operational capability to carry out such a strike. But "pre-empting" Iran's nuclear program is likely to be an elaborate and costly affair -- and one with very real risks for the United States and its allies in the Middle East.
The first set of variables that requires consideration is targeting. A limited American strike could indeed be done "in one night," as some commentators have suggested. But simply bombing Iranian nuclear facilities is likely to be profoundly self-defeating. Over the past decade, spurred by the lessons of Israel's 1981 attack on Iraq's nuclear reactor, Iran has put a premium on scattering, hardening and concealing its atomic sites. As a result, while many key locations are now known to Western intelligence services, it must be assumed that at least some are not.
A military strike on Iran's nuclear complex, therefore, can be expected to slow down Iran's nuclear program, perhaps even substantially, but it will not eliminate the threat completely. For that, Washington will need a more elaborate plan of attack -- one that focuses not only on nuclear installations but also on key nodes of regime power, such as the regime's internal militia, the Basij, and its feared clerical army, the Pasdaran. Just as significantly, it would require the Bush administration to throw its weight, and its resources, behind an explicit goal of regime change, rather than simply nuclear rollback.
The second set of variables relates to internal dynamics. Some observers have predicted that because of differences in ethnicity, culture and national identifications, a large segment of the Iranian population will not rally around the flag following an attack on Iran's nuclear installations. But this analysis skirts the fact that Iran's atomic drive is by all indications a wildly popular domestic issue, supported both by ordinary Iranians and by regime hardliners (albeit for very different reasons). This sentiment, moreover, appears to cut across both ethnic and cultural lines. All of which means that American planners must assume that military action will prompt an upsurge in nationalist sentiment within the Islamic republic, and strengthen -- rather than weaken -- the current regime's grip on power.
Finally, there is the issue of likely consequences. Before launching any sort of military action, American policy planners will need to prepare for -- and mitigate against -- a serious Iranian asymmetric response. Iran could foment far greater instability in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, complicating Coalition operations in both countries. Given its role as the world's premier state sponsor of terrorism, Iran could also empower a range of radical groups to step up their attacks on the United States and its allies. And, because of its strategic position in the Persian Gulf, the Islamic Republic has the ability to dramatically impact the safety and stability of world oil supplies.
None of these risks mean a military option should be taken off the table. Quite simply, the United States cannot hope to effectively use its other strategic tools -- economic, diplomatic or covert -- if they are not backed up by a credible threat of force. But policymakers in Washington need to see military action for what it is: a last resort. And, if they are serious about eliminating the threat posed by an atomic Islamic republic, they must expand their commitment to the one surefire way to do so -- by changing the regime that will ultimately wield an Iranian bomb.