Would a Preemptive Attack Ensure That Iran Gets Nuclear Weapons?

This is an important bit of analysis from Colin Kahl, the former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East (who, by the way, has spent much of the past three years working to strengthen the U.S.-Israel defense relationship):

A near-term U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear program would knock it back, at most, a few years. Meanwhile it would motivate Iran's hardliners to kick out International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, incentivize the regime to rapidly rebuild a clandestine nuclear program, and rally the Iranian people around that cause to deter future attacks.

Consequently, in the aftermath of an Israeli or American strike, Washington would have to encircle Iran with a costly containment regime--much like twelve-year effort to bottle up Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War--and be prepared to re-attack at a moment's notice to prevent Iran from reconstituting its program. And with inspectors gone, it would be much more difficult to detect and prevent Iran's clandestine rebuilding efforts. The net result would be a decades-long requirement to contain an even more implacable nuclear foe.

Unless an attack on Iran forced the current regime to crumble, which it most likely won't, what Kahl describes might very well come to pass. There is a chance, of course, that a sustained attack (of the sort only the U.S., not Israel could launch), could convince the Iranians that it is not worth their while to continue their nuclear pursuits. But this seems not-entirely plausible: The Iranian regime would then know its days are numbered, in the manner of Saddam and Qaddafi. The likelihood is that the Iranians would try to reconstitute their nuclear program as quickly as possible, openly (and, presumably, with outside help), and that this would force the West to keep bombing ad infinitum, which seems like not such a great thing. Sanctions now appear to be working, to at least a modest degree. More time is needed to let those sanctions bite.

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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