What the White House Really Thinks About Bombing Iran

>This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

According to Elliott Abrams:

If Iran acquires a nuclear weapon during his tenure, Obama would -- in his own eyes -- see the UN Security Council's resolutions made a mockery, the International Atomic Energy Agency transformed into a joke, the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty come to an end. Multilateralism a la Obama would be finished, for Iran would have proved the "international community" to be toothless or non-existent.
What Abrams is saying, in effect, is that Obama is so ideologically committed to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons that, if multilateralism "fails" to stop Iran, he will have no choice but to abandon it and use unilateral military force.

Now, to blame Obama for failing to prevent Iran from obtaining the bomb is a little like blaming George W. Bush for failing to properly contain al-Qaeda before September 11 -- something I suspect that Abrams, a former adviser to President Bush, would be reluctant to do. But if Iran were to go nuclear, it would, indeed, be very easy to blame Obama. I have no doubt that the political conversation in the U.S. would go exactly in that direction, and that the counterfactual, "Iran wouldn't have the bomb if Obama had bombed them first," would become a mainstream historical account (despite the truth that history never really validates counterfactuals).

No, David Plouffe does not want Iran to go nuclear. (Here's a stumper: Would he prefer a flourishing economy or a nuclear Iran? Actually, that's not a stumper at all.) But here's the problem: Aside from the generic Joint Chiefs of Staff contingency plans, the U.S. military has few palatable or potentially successful tactical-strike options. (James Fallows knows this point well.) The military does not favor a "message strike" -- a single missile launched from a submarine that targets, say, a critical nuclear facility. Neither does the military believe that a special-forces ground infiltration is possible. So one reason why the administration doesn't want to use force against Iran is that force might not work. Indeed, it might result instead in Iran's existing nuclear infrastructure going even more deeply underground.
Meanwhile, what (and who) would the targets of a U.S. strike be? And why should we suppose that that Iran -- now seen as irrational and millennialist -- would suddenly become rational and incentive-oriented after an attack? The only thing that might work to stop such a putatively irrational regime is a massive decapitation campaign involving special forces insertions; thousands of missiles; hundreds of U.S. war planes, equipped with next-generation jamming technology; a major campaign to own the airspace; denying Iran the sea (because they'd immediately try to shut down the Gulf); the transfer of thousands of troops from South Korea and Afghanistan -- and more. A few F-22 passes and a B-2 sortie aren't going to do the job.
Importantly, to some in the Obama administration, the "fact" of Iran's eventual nuclear declaration is already priced-in to their Middle East calculus. For them, once such a nuclear declaration becomes a reality, the U.S. won't be forced to change its posture, basing, arms deals, or strategy -- all of which are designed to prevent Iranian (Shiite) hegemony in the region. (An implicit assumption: Iran would never actually use the bomb.) I've also spoken with Obama advisers who believe that breakout Iranian nuclear capacity would instantly create a new existential threat to American national security. But to a person, no one in power now believes that the consequences of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran would be productive, let alone acceptable.
Abrams seems to believe that Obama will face a political imperative to act decisively. Although politics is never entirely absent from discussions of policy, I don't see politics being a decisive concern here. To be sure, I have detected a measure of Nixon-goes-to-China slyness among some of Obama's more politically-oriented advisers, who wonder whether any Democrat would ever be seen as soft on national security again if Obama were to launch a military strike. But every time this thought arises, it seems to vanish immediately, and reality sets in. Right now, Obama believes in his nonproliferation strategy; he has, impressively, engaged China and Russia productively; and they are now following the U.S.'s lead.
The sanctions levied against Iran are tougher than Abrams might have predicted a few weeks ago. The engagement-plus-sanctions, carrot-and-stick approach seems to have created some confusion within Iran. But Obama's thinking has evolved, too: Since becoming president, he's acquired a deeper appreciation of the serious millennialism of the Iranian leadership -- as well as the contradictions inherent in Iranian identity. Iranians seem to want to engage peacefully with the outside world, and they want their country to possess a nuclear weapon. Obama meanwhile remains confident in his approach, but I think he's willing to accept the possibility that it will ultimately be futile.
And then what? Would force be the only alternative? If domestic politics intruded, perhaps it would be. But I just don't think Obama would take such an option unless he and his advisers truly believed that there was a way to strike Iran that would effectively curtail Iran's nuclear ambitions -- and more than that, a way that wouldn't create a tangle of unintended and negative second-order effects. I don't think the administration is resigned to the fact that Israel will bomb Iran. We tend to forget that there is an option that the administration is no doubt already exploiting -- one that lies about halfway in between a military strike and sanctions: clandestine activity by U.S. and Western intelligence agencies. What can we do overtly? We can buy up all the loose fissile material on the market. We can trick Iran into buying faulty centrifuges. And we can conduct surgical, targeted direct-action strikes against members of the Iranian military and intelligence establishment. (I'd be genuinely surprised if Israel, in particular, weren't already doing this.)
If Jeffrey Goldberg's reporting is correct, the failure of sanctions, engagement, and clandestine operations to work to Israel's satisfaction will lead to two major consequesnces. One: We in the United States will have to decide whether it's in our interests to continue with our public and private ambiguity about Israeli forces. Two: Obama will need to start planning for a post-bellum Middle East.

The debate continues here.