Is an Attack On Iran a Good Idea?

By Jeffrey Goldberg

For those of you who care, here is the official Goldblog position -- the Goldblog position of the moment, at least -- on the matter of a potential Israeli or American strike on Iran's nuclear sites: profound, paralyzing ambivalence.

Actually, let me amend that: For now, and for the remainder of 2010, I think the idea of a preemptive attack on Iran is a bad idea; I think it is important to allow President Obama's plan -- and yes, he has a plan, and he's sticking to the plan -- to play out. Increasingly harsh sanctions, combined with an open invitation to dialogue (plus the credible threat, lurking in the background, of eventual military action) could conceivably work to bring the Iranian junta around on the nuclear question.

The problem comes if the Obama plan doesn't work. The secretary of defense, Robert Gates, says that Iran might reach nuclear break-out capacity in a year. This means that choices have to be made at the beginning of next year. And the choice is between two lousy options. My position, I suppose, is the Mike Mullen position. Admiral Mullen, the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has said repeatedly that the U.S. is faced with no good options. Most recently, he had this fascinating exchange with David Gregory on Meet the Press:

Gregory: I just want to ask you a couple of questions about Iran, another threat that this administration is facing.  The consequences of Iran developing a nuclear weapon are vast, and something that the administration certainly wants to prevent.  This is what you said back in April of 2010, I'll put it up on the screen, at Columbia University:  "I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing.  I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome." Keen analysis, but my question is, which is worse?

Mullen: Actually, when I speak to that, I talk to unintended consequences of either outcome.  And it's those unintended consequences that are difficult to predict in what is a, an incredibly unstable part of the world that I worry about the most.  What I try to do when I talk about that is, is identify the space between those two outcomes, which is pretty narrow, in which I think the diplomacy, the kind of sanctions, the kind of international pressure that, that is being applied, I am hopeful works.  I, I, I recognize that there isn't that much space there.  But, quite frankly, I am extremely concerned about both of those outcomes.

Gregory: But leaders have to make a decision. You're a leader, the president's a leader.  Which is worse, Iran with a nuclear weapon or what could happen if the United States attacks?

Mullen: Well, certainly for our country, the president would be the one making those decisions, and I wouldn't be one that would, would pick one or the other along those lines.  I think they both have great downside, potentially.

Eventually, Mullen, who is President Obama's chief military adviser, will have to make a recommendation. Unfortunately, awful consequences could flow a decision to stop the Iranian program by force, and awful consequences could flow from a decision to acquiesce to a nuclear-armed Iran. I suspect that the price of inaction might be greater than the price of action, but the opposite could just as easily and plausibly be true. People who think there is an easy answer here are kidding themselves.

On the question of whether Israel should do this unilaterally (my article argues that there is a good chance they will do it), I'm very dubious. But I'll address this question in a later post.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/is-an-attack-on-iran-a-good-idea/61346/