As Iran continues its nuclear program and Israel ramps up its threatening rhetoric, there has been widespread speculation about whether Israel will launch a strike against Iranian nuclear facilities, when it might do so, and to what extent the US would support such an attack. But amidst all of the debate, far less has been said about what a strike would require, how it would be carried out and what its effects might be. On Thursday, September 13, the Iran Project released a highly-publicized report that offers a refreshingly level-headed analysis of some of the consequences of a strike against Iran.
The report, entitled “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” is endorsed by an impressive lineup of foreign-policy and national security heavyweights from both political parties, including former National Security Advisors Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, former U.S. Senator Sam Nunn, and Princeton professor and former U.S. State Department Director of Policy Planning Anne-Marie Slaughter. The key finding of the report is that a preemptive strike by the United States could set back Iran’s nuclear program by up to four years, but, on its own, could not prevent the program from re-emerging in the long term. As MIT’s Dr. James Walsh, a contributor to the report (and a member of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation’s board) noted in a Woodrow Wilson Center panel discussion outlining the report, Iranian scientists have a basic understanding of how to build a bomb, and the US “can’t bomb the knowledge out of their heads.”
More chillingly, the report argues persuasively that a strike would actually increase Iran’s desire to build a nuclear bomb to “redress the humiliation of being attacked and restore national pride.” Military action, then, might forestall the problem for a few years, but ultimately it would cause precisely what it sought to prevent – a nuclear Iran.
This scenario is just one example of the report’s commendable effort to look ahead to the days, weeks, and years after the strike is undertaken. In addition to discussing more immediate possibilities such as retaliatory missile strikes against Israeli cities and the closing of the Strait of Hormuz, the authors also delve into broader, more long-range problems, including weakened resolve in Europe for continued sanctions against Iran, the erosion of US credibility around the world, a boost for Al-Qaeda recruitment, and increased instability around the already volatile Middle East.
If you’re thinking that planning for these long-term issues sounds like a nice change from a decade of shortsightedness in the Middle East, you’re not alone. In what seemed to be a clear nod to America’s difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Frank Kearney, an endorser of the report, noted the need for an exit strategy before any conflict with Iran begins. Speaking at the Woodrow Wilson Center’s panel, he asked the packed auditorium to consider, “what is the end state? What are we trying to achieve?”
Lt. General Kearney’s language reflects the Iran report’s use of Iraq and Afghanistan as a frame of reference for thinking about future conflict. The report cautions against the pursuit of ambitious goals such as regime change, which would require “a commitment of resources and personnel…greater than what the United States has expended over the past ten years in the Iraq and Afghanistan combined.” In this way, the paper frames the Iran question within the broader context of America’s war-weariness. Or, as Time reporter Mark Thompson wryly summarized the report, “Possible Iran war needs careful cost-benefit analysis. Unlike you-know-what and you-know-what-else.”
The Iran Group report is a welcome addition to a debate that has focused too much on the next few weeks, and not enough on the next few years. If the report encourages policymakers to think carefully through the endgame in Iran before beginning the “game” in the first place, it will have done its job admirably.