Tehran Timebomb?

Attack Iran—now!  So argues Matthew Kroenig, a national security expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.  Without prompt military intervention, Tehran will go nuclear, a prospect with grave consequences for the region and the world.

Kroenig makes a forceful case for imminent armed intervention in Foreign Affairs.  The Islamic Republic, he points out, has worked assiduously over years in the face of international opprobrium to enrich uranium, accruing enough stocks of the material to produce a nuclear bomb within six months, according to many experts.  Meanwhile, Iran has allegedly tested nuclear triggering devices and is refining its missiles to carry nuclear payloads.

The consequences of Tehran’s entry into the nuclear-armed club would be dire, argues Kroenig.  Emboldened, Iran would likely threaten US freedom of action in the region and might ramp up its support to its lethal proxies, including Hamas and Hezbollah.  “Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy,” Kroenig writes.

Israel might view a nuclear-armed Persian state led by Holocaust deniers who vow to eradicate the Jewish state as an existential threat, but predominately Sunni countries in the region, whose disdain for Shia Iran matches that of Israel, would also be alarmed.  Saudi Arabia would likely develop its own nuclear deterrent, as would other Middle Eastern countries, turning one of the world’s least stable regions into one of its most potently armed ones.

Kroenig’s alternative to this dystopian vision is a preventive airstrike.  While most military experts dismiss the option on grounds that it would temporarily set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions, possibly at the cost of a regional war, Kroenig is more sanguine.  Meanwhile, fears of the downside of a strike are “overblown,” he confidently asserts.  A surgical attack would caused little collateral damage while inflicting considerable harm—possibly critical harm—to key facilities involved in the manufacture of Iran’s fledgling nuclear capability.  Fears of massive Iranian retaliation, he adds, are overblown.

Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative and Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute go a step further.  A limited airstrike, they say, would be a “temporary fix” at best, causing negligible damage to Iran’s nuclear infrastructure while prompting Iran to redouble its efforts to get the bomb even more clandestinely.  Nor would it mitigate the country’s technical mastery of uranium enrichment.

As such, a sustained military assault that targets key assets of the regime, including command and control elements of Iran’s Republican Guard and intelligence ministry, is necessary.  Fly and Schmitt blithely dismiss the risk associated with the move, arguing, for example, that Iranians, witnessing their leadership’s fecklessness, would launch a coup.

Sound familiar?  It should: Fly and Schmitt are close to the same catastrophically confident hawks that banged on about that other shambolic escapade, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.  Much of the salesmanship preceding that campaign proved bogus and, as Iranian expert Hooman Majd reminds, much of what supports a strike on Iran is similarly baseless.  To cite one example, just as Iraqis didn’t ultimately take kindly to their US-led “liberation,” Iranians also wouldn’t welcome foreign intervention.  “Iranians have never, in their more than 2,500-year history, taken the side of a foreign invader,” Majd writes in Politico.  “Not even the Arabs, who invaded Persia and forced Islam on its people—which they later adhered.”

The foolhardiness of attacking Iran is also obvious to policymakers.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta darkly cautioned against the “unintended consequences” of a military strike, while his predecessor, Robert Gates, warned that it would only temporarily set back Tehran’s nuclear program while “cementing” the country’s determination to acquire a nuclear deterrent.  Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan warned that an Israeli airstrike on Iran would lead to regional war.

Forbearance, of course, won’t deliver regional harmony; a nuclear Iran, as Kroenig convincingly points out, will be highly problematic.  But some policy choices only offer bad options.  There’s reason for hope, however.  In many ways, Iran is a paper tiger, a country of 73 million riven by a failing economy and divided and illegitimate leadership.  “The real story is Iran is weak and getting weaker,” Fareed Zakaria writes in the Washington Post.  Sanctions have cut deep—”For the first time I see Iran wobble,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently remarked of their impact—while Iran’s only significant regional ally, Syria, is crumbling.

This doesn’t mean the current regime in Tehran will fall before the country acquires nuclear weapons, or that its successor will abandon any nuclear ambitions.  But armed intervention will guarantee the worst of all outcomes: a nuclear Iran led by clerical zealots whose stature is enhanced by their defense of the homeland from ghastly Zionists and the Great Satan.

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