Is an Attack on Iran's Nuclear Program a Bad Idea?

Yes, an attack on Iran's nuclear sites is a bad idea. So is the idea of an Iran with nuclear weapons. Hence, a dilemma.

James Fallows has a characteristically thoughtful post up about the latest Iran brouhaha, and comes to the conclusion (actually, he came to the conclusion quite some time ago) that bombing Iranian nuclear sites -- either by America, Israel, or some combination of states to be named later -- is a bad idea. We don't really disagree on this basic point. I think it would be reckless for either Israel or America to try to preempt by force the Iranian nuclear program now (as I wrote in this column, it would be smart to continue, and intensify, the sabotage programs that have already apparently slowed-down the Iranians, and tightening sanctions on Iranian banks, in particular, might have some impact). I tend to think now that an Israeli strike would be very ineffective and dangerous no matter what point in the future it is launched, in part because Israel's capabilities are so much more limited than America's.

As for the U.S., I believe two things: One, that President Obama is serious and sincere when he says that all options remain on the table and that a nuclear Iran is "unacceptable" to him, and two, it is a good thing that Obama is sincere, because I don't have much faith in the idea that the U.S. could safely contain a nuclear Iran, as some people have argued. President Obama rightfully fears a nuclear arms race in the Middle East, which is what would happen once Iran goes nuclear, and a nuclear arms race in the world's most volatile region could lead to a nuclear exchange, even an inadvertent nuclear exchange.

I've been raising the issue of Obama's record of seriousness on counter-terrorism and nuclear nonproliferation issues (to the chagrin of some critics to my right) because I believe Iran should take him seriously on this particular matter, and I also believe Israel should take him seriously. There are many advocates in Israel of a preemptive strike against Iran who do not believe that Obama would ever use force to stop its nuclearization. These are the sort of people who are pushing hardest for a unilateral Israeli strike, soon. I think they are wrong. I believe, in part based on reporting that appears in this article, that Obama understands the threat posed by Iran, and would contemplate military action against Iran.

Jim writes: 

You know, and I know, that promising to kill Osama Bin Laden, and doing it, is different from telling the Iranians that "all options" are under consideration -- and going ahead and "doing it" with an attack. Barack Obama knows that better than anyone else. But if the best way to avoid having to launch an attack, and deterring the Israeli government from launching one, is by really, truly convincing the Iranians that he might very well do it, then any bluster for dramatic effect, and to leave doubt in their mind, is fine with me. (In keeping with Goldberg's very sensible point #2.) As long as he doesn't fool himself, or back himself in a "manhood" / "losing face" corner of having to do something he realizes will only compound longer term problems.

He goes on to write:

Do I worry that in the high councils in Teheran someone would say at the crucial moment: "Oh, Obama is just bluffing. We read some blogger in the Atlantic saying that he should. So let's just call his bluff." ? No. I do not worry about that.

Jim underestimates the power of Atlantic bloggery, but I'll cede him this point. I believe our only disagreement comes in forecasting what a Middle East with a nuclear Iran might look like, and what it would mean for the U.S. My sense is that Jim thinks this is something America and its allies could handle, and he might be right. But I fear his (appropriate) loathing of preemption has led him to posit a best-case scenario for what might happen if Iran goes nuclear. As for me, well, I don't know which one is worse: A preemptive attack, or a nuclear Iran. An attack would be disastrous on many levels, but I also think that a nuclear Iran would not be fully containable.

In any case, for those of you who doubt Israeli seriousness about the Iran threat, please look at Ehud Barak's recent statements on the subject. Last year, when I wrote my cover story on the subject, I sensed that Barak was more ambivalent than Netanyahu about the likelihood of Israeli preemptive success. Now, he seems to be readying the Israeli public for a decision he may already have made:

Barak dismissed concerns raised in Israel in recent days that military action against Iran could lead to heavy casualties in an Iranian counterstrike or in missile attacks by the Iranian-backed militant groups Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

"Let's assume we get to war against our will," Barak said. "There will not be 100,000 dead, not 10,000 dead and not 1,000 dead. And Israel will not be destroyed. There's no way today to prevent certain damage. It's not pleasant on the home front . . . [but] if everyone just goes into their homes, there will not be 500 dead, either. And I don't belittle a single fatality."

He continued: "If there is no alternative, and in certain stages there will be no choice, and Israel will have to protect its vital interests, then there will also be missiles on the home front. But we are preparing for this, and there's no real danger either to Israel's existence or to its ability to withstand [attacks] . . . . There's no existential threat to Israel from the types of rockets and missiles held by Iran and Hezbollah."