Would It Be Easy to Destroy Iran's Nuclear Program?

Alan Kuperman argues on the Op-Ed page of the Times today that the military option is the only option for Iran. And not only that, but that it would probably work, with a minimum of military and political collateral damage. You should read the whole thing, but here's one, rather blithely-stated argument:

As for the risk of military strikes undermining Iran's opposition, history suggests that the effect would be temporary. For example, NATO's 1999 air campaign against Yugoslavia briefly bolstered support for President Slobodan Milosevic, but a democratic opposition ousted him the next year. Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America's opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway. Iran's leaders are discouraged from taking more aggressive action against United States forces -- and should continue to be -- by the fear of provoking a stronger American counter-escalation. If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to.

He goes on to write that "incentives and sanctions will not work, but air strikes could degrade and deter Iran's bomb program at relatively little cost or risk, and therefore are worth a try."

Would that be the old college try? I don't mean to mock (well, I do a little) but Kuperman is a serious guy, and I'm surprised he would write that something so momentous and consequential as the aerial bombardment of Persia is "worth a try." Perhaps I have overlearned the lessons of Iraq, but I've developed an allergy to any strategy that promises an easy solution to any of our Middle East dilemmas. Yes, an Iran with nukes is a very bad thing, but, really: To argue that bombing would work in Iran because it worked in Serbia? I am not convinced. Marc Lynch has a better-developed set of thoughts than I do on the Kuperman op-ed:

His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.  

  • Does he rule out the alternative policy be default?  Yes he does!  "peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work"
  • Does he reduce the policy options to two extreme positions, one of which is guaranteed to be rejected?  Yes he does!   "the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons." 
  • Does he warn that  Saddam, um, Ahmedenejad will give WMD to terrorists?   Yes, yes he does.  "if Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb." (the "neighborhood bully" is a nice touch.) Will, pray tell, the smoking gun be in the shape of a mushroom cloud? 

I'm worried about this last possibility, of course, though less so now than I was before, since the Iranian regime has shown itself recently to be mainly interested in self-preservation, and someone interested in staying alive and staying in power doesn't sneak nukes to Hamas. And by the way, nice catch by Lynch on the reference to "neighborhood bully," which Kuperman misinterprets tragically, if he even meant to make a Dylan reference. For a full explanation of "neighborhood bully," see this piece.