New Report Finds an Israeli Attack on Iran to be a Comprehensively Bad Idea

Colin Kahl, who until recently served as the Pentagon's top Middle East policy official, is just out with an exhaustive and authoritative report on the Iranian nuclear challenge. The report, written with Melissa G. Dalton and Matthew Irvine and published by the Center for a New American Security (where Kahl is a senior fellow), argues fairly persuasively that an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities -- an attack they seem to believe is highly plausible, if I'm reading them correctly -- would have a great many negative ramifications.

Their conclusions are well thought-out and argued (even the ones with which I disagree). The authors believe, among other things, that:

1) The Iranian threat is serious but not imminent;

2)  Iran's leaders are rational enough to believe that they would neither use a nuclear weapon or give one to terrorists (I'm not so sure they're right on the first point, but pretty sure they're right on the second -- makes no sense to give your most prized weapon to unstable, and possibly semi-independent actors);

3) An Israeli-Iranian nuclear rivalry creates the risk of an inadvertent nuclear exchange (they downplay this risk somewhat, but not too much;  I tend to think that inadvertent escalation to nuclear exchange is the prime reason to keep the bomb out of Iran's hands);

4) Containment of a nuclear Iran is not a great option for the U.S. (I'm with them on that).

On the one hand, the report represents mainstream American defense thinking on this question. On the other hand, it is not at all mindless and reflexive, unlike much of what I read on this subject these days.

I thought it would be interesting to have a conversation about the report with Kahl, who is now at Georgetown University. What follows is our exchange, which is long, but seriously, read the whole damn thing -- it's important. I should also note that Kahl is the same guy who spent the past two years working assiduously from inside the Pentagon to strengthen and deepen America's security relationship with Israel. Or, to put it another way, his opposition to an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear program is not motivated by animus toward Israel, but by a concern that Israel stands to do something precipitous that could bring harm to itself, and accelerate Iran's drive toward a bomb.

Jeffrey Goldberg: You argue that an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would almost certainly be disastrous for Israel. In a previous conversation (on Twitter), you suggested that Israel's only real choice is to trust that the United States will prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Israeli leaders point have pointed out to me that the United States wanted neither Pakistan nor North Korea to cross the nuclear threshold, but they did anyway. Why is this situation different? If you were an Israeli leader (or a Saudi, or Emirati, leader) would you trust the United States to use all elements of its national power to stop Iran from going nuclear?

Colin Kahl: Good question. I think there are several reasons Israel should trust the United States on the issue.

First, this administration has been pretty clear where it stands. Obama has consistently said that an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable. He clearly prefers a diplomatic solution, believes a negotiated settlement is possible and the most sustainable outcome, and thinks there is time to pursue this course. Force should be a last resort, and there is still a window of opportunity to find a peaceful way out of this crisis. But Obama has also made clear that all options, including military force, are on the table to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. In both his interview with you in March and his AIPAC speech, Obama said he does not favor a policy of nuclear containment. And his Secretary of Defense has stated more than once that Iran's development of a nuclear weapon would represent a "red line" for the United States.

Second, historically Obama is a guy who means what he says, and does what he says. And Obama has consistently matched his words with his deeds on Iran. During the 2008 campaign, he said he was willing to enter into unconditional negotiations to test the Iranian regime's willingness to reach a diplomatic agreement, and that is what he did in 2009. When Iran proved unwilling and incapable of responding, the president said he would work to forge a historic consensus to increase pressure on the regime -- and that too is exactly what he did in 2010-2011, working with the UN, international partners, and with the U.S. Congress to put in place the toughest sanctions Iran has ever faced.

Indeed, much tougher sanctions than the previous, ostensibly more "hawkish" Bush administration was ever able to accomplish. Israel and other partners should trust that he is willing to use all elements of national power to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons because he is already doing it. Sanctions, diplomatic efforts to isolate the Iranian regime, and intelligence activities have all been used and integrated toward that objective.

And, on the military front, when Obama says all options are on the table, he has actually backed that with concrete actions. Even as U.S. forces completed their drawdown from Iraq, he authorized the re-posturing of U.S. forces in the Gulf to ensure they were set to deal with any scenario, defend our partners, and check Iranian aggression in the region. He deployed a second aircraft carrier, improved U.S. air and missile defenses in the region, bolstered the defensive capabilities of Gulf states (including a record-setting arms package to the Saudis), and done more than any previous administration, in terms of security assistance and defense cooperation, for Israel's security. Moreover, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has noted on more than one occasion that the United States military is prepared and has a viable plan for any Iran contingency, and Secretary Panetta and others have pointed to the unique capabilities the United States military has developed--most notably the Massive Ordinance Penetrator--to ensure the maximum prospects for success should they be called upon. So, when Obama says "all options are on the table," these aren't just words -- the options are viable and the table has been set.

Third, Obama recognizes the threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to Israel's security and to the stability of a region that is absolutely vital to U.S. interests. He also believes that if Iran is allowed to cross the nuclear threshold it would do grave damage to the non-proliferation regime -- an issue that he cares passionately about. Because, in Obama's view, it is a vital U.S. interest to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, one does not have to trust that he will take all necessary actions for Israel's sake -- one only has to trust that he will act in the U.S. national interest. He would clearly prefer not to use force -- and has cautioned against cavalier and "loose" talk of war given the costs and uncertainties.

But Obama has shown, repeatedly, that he is willing to use force in the U.S. national interest -- whether unilaterally or as part of a multilateral coalition. Don't take my word on that front -- just ask Osama Bin Laden or Muammar Gaddafi. Again, Obama clearly prefers a diplomatic solution, but no one should question the man's mettle on issues like this.

Finally, I think the intelligence picture, the level of inspections, and the international focus is much greater in the case of Iran than was the case with either Pakistan or North Korea. As such, I think it is much less likely that Iran could slip across the nuclear threshold without us knowing about it in time to act. At the moment, for example, it would take at least four months for the Iranians to enrich to weapons-grade level, and they would have to do it at declared facilities -- so they would get caught. Moreover, Western intelligence services have a pretty good track record of uncovering Iranian covert nuclear activities (e.g., Natanz and Fordow). I don't mean to be sanguine about the intel picture -- it is clearly imperfect and our assessments are fallible. But we are in a much better position to detect an Iranian break-out in time to act than was the case with other examples -- and, importantly, we are already focusing all elements of national power on the issue so we are poised and capable of responding quickly in the event that the Iranians are foolish enough to try to dash to a bomb anytime soon.

JG: Okay, imagine you're an intelligence officer with responsibility for Iran. You are handed evidence that Iran might -- might -- be trying a nuclear sneak-out. The evidence, like most such evidence in these cases, is ambiguous. You also know that if you, and your colleagues, were to reach the conclusion that Iran is making a dash for the bomb, you might be responsible for starting a war (intelligence officials certainly remember Iraq.) What I'm getting at is this: The U.S. intelligence community might understand that something nefarious is going on in Iran, but it might take months to process the intel, and the process might become politicized, precisely because the stakes are so high. So isn't there a chance that even if we know more-or-less that Iran is making a move, we might not be able to respond in time?

CK: It depends on what the evidence is. Some types of evidence would be relatively clear. The most important evidence of a decision to go for a bomb would be the nature of enrichment activities -- and, at least for now, these would likely be seen with enough time to react. If Iran diverted its existing stockpile of low-enriched uranium and began enriching above 90 percent or kicked out IAEA inspectors, that would both be noticed and be evidence of an intent to weaponize, and there would be enough time to react. Discovery of a wholly operational covert enrichment site (as distinct from Fordow, which was a structure under construction with no centrifuges in it when it was uncovered) might be another sign that Khamenei had made a decision to weaponize.

Where it gets trickier is if we started to see evidence that Khamenei had reversed the 2003 halt order on structured weaponization work (the order discussed by the 2007 unclassified NIE key judgments and (according to press reports) the 2010 update, and confirmed by the IAEA). We'd likely see it, but some of the evidence could be ambiguous and debated. That said, because of the technical hurdles (beyond just enrichment) that Iran would have to overcome to weaponize, current estimates suggest it would take a year from a decision to go for a bomb to generate a crude device. And that assumes a crash weaponization program. The more they rush, the more we'll see it -- and a year is a long time.

Still, at the end of the day, it is probably easier to see evidence of steps to produce weapons-grade uranium than it is to detect every element of covert weapons-related research and development, which is why it is important to limit Iran's ability to substantially shrink their dash time to producing weapons-grade uranium. That is why the 20 percent LEU issue is so important -- because, if they get one or more bombs worth of 20 percent uranium-235 they could shrink the time required to make the fissile material for the first bomb from four months to a couple of months. Similarly, if Iran began to install next generation centrifuges -- which they are testing now, but have experienced problems with -- on an industrial scale at Natanz or Fordow this could also shrink the dash time, because these machines are 3-4 times as efficient as the current models. If Iran were to successfully accomplish these steps, shrinking their dash time to a month or a few weeks, then you start getting into the margin for error where inspectors might miss something.

JG: The Iranian regime is ultimately interested in its own survival, and so direct pressure on the regime might force it to reconsider its nuclear goals. Do you think there's an appetite in Washington for regime-destabilization, and do you think it could work -- if not to bring down the regime, than to force it to deal with the demands of the international community vis-a-vis its nuclear ambitions?

CK: There is an important distinction between a strategy that aims to hold the regime "at risk" -- what I would call a compellence strategy--and a policy that actually aims at regime change. The former increases the costs to the Iranian regime to the point that it forces a difficult strategic choice--in this case a scaling back of their nuclear ambitions--that they would otherwise prefer not to make. Unprecedented sanctions and the credible threat of force can hold the Iranian regime at risk and thus help compel a change in behavior -- but only because the regime has a way out. If the regime changes its behavior, the pressure is lifted.

In contrast, a "regime change" campaign aims to topple the regime, regardless of what they do. It is grounded in the view that the current regime is irreconcilable and must fall. Applied to Iran, however, this approach is deeply problematic. For one thing, it would provide no positive incentive for the supreme leader to strike a nuclear bargain because doing so would get him nothing--it wouldn't be enough to save the regime. And, worse, it would validate the Islamic Republic's existing narrative about Western motivations and encourage Tehran to move more quickly for a bomb to produce a nuclear deterrent against externally-imposed regime change and in order to invest the international community in the continued stability of the regime. Moreover, if the policy succeeds, there is no guarantee that the regime that followed would be better--it could be an IRGC-dominated military dictatorship, for example. Or what follows might simply be state collapse and chaos.

So, while I think it is important to hold the regime at risk--and I think elements of the current strategy do that, or are at least starting to do that--I think a policy of regime change would be deeply counterproductive to resolving the current nuclear crisis.

JG: Why wouldn't a regime change program help compel the Supreme Leader to alter his nuclear course? Why wouldn't he trade aspects of his nuclear program for a Western promise to desist from regime-change operations?

CK: It completely depends on what the specific actions are. A lot of actions aimed at regime change might convince the supreme leader that we are committed to his demise no matter what he does -- making a deal less likely, and a bomb more likely. Better to increase pressure in a way that holds the regime at risk -- through tough sanctions and leaving military action on the table -- rather than make regime change our policy. This gives Khamenei a way out.

JG: A final question: How do we know that Iran would respond to a strike against its nuclear facilities by doubling-down on its program and rushing to breakout? Is there a chance Iran might simply decide that a nuclear program isn't worth it? Asked another way, is there anything that Israel or the U.S. could do to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions post-strike? Would this require follow-up strikes, or is there a non-military option?

CK: We don't know anything for sure, but the most likely outcome of a strike is an attempt by the Iranian regime to rapidly rebuild its program. The regime is currently pursuing a nuclear "hedging" strategy in order to give it the technical capability to produce nuclear weapons at some point in the future if the supreme leader decides to do so. One motivation for pursuing this strategy is to provide a deterrent against future external threats to the regime, including a possible attack by Israel or the United States. Khamenei looks around and sees Muammar Gaddafi gone and Saddam Hussein gone, but the North Korean regime still around and he likely concludes that the biggest reason for the difference is the fact that North Korea developed nuclear weapons and the other two states had their programs removed. A second motivation for seeking the capability to produce nuclear weapons is likely the hope that it would boost Iran's prestige and Tehran's potential for coercive diplomacy, facilitating expanded Iranian influence and advancing the regime's ambitions for regional hegemony.

A strike would confirm the regime's vulnerability and buttress the perception of the unrelenting hostility of foreign powers, which would provide decisive support to those inside the regime arguing that only a nuclear deterrent could prevent future attacks and arm Iran with what it needs to lead the resistance against the West. At the same time, an attack would allow Iran to play the victim, kick out the IAEA, and perhaps leave the NPT all together. And, in the absence of inspectors on the ground, Iranian leaders would likely calculate that they could rebuild their program more easily and engage in illicit activities without being detected. An Israeli attack would also shatter the international consensus that is currently slowing Iran's nuclear progress through sanctions and other counter-proliferation activities.

This is not purely hypothetical; we have a past example of this happening. As we discuss at length in our report, Israel's 1981 strike on Osirak did not end Saddam Hussein's nuclear program and actually led him to double down, devote more resources and better organize his program, and create a widely dispersed clandestine nuclear program that -- by the time of the 1991 Gulf War -- was a year or two away from producing a bomb. Ultimately, it was not the 1981 Osirak attack that ended the program, but rather the destruction of the 1991 Gulf War followed by more than a decade of sanctions, diplomatic isolation, no-fly zones, and periodic bombing that ended the program -- and even then the Bush administration thought (incorrectly) elements of the program remained.

This brings me to a final point: the only way to prevent Iran from rebuilding its program after a strike is to have sufficient international consensus and a large enough coalition to create and maintain a post-strike containment regime. Sanctions and counter-proliferation measures designed to disrupt Iranian attempts to obtain the materials necessary to rebuild their program would have to be maintained, and there would have to be regional support for the continuation of a robust military presence and potential re-strikes.

The only way to create such a post-strike containment system is to go into the war with international support and a certain degree of international legitimacy. That means acting only after non-military options have been exhausted and in the face of evidence that Iran was going for a bomb (by enriching up to weapons grade or kicking out inspectors, for example). And it means the country leads the effort must be capable of crafting and holding together a coalition. Only the United States can meet these criteria. (By the way, the criteria are so stringent because the potential costs of military action are so high and the benefits are so uncertain.)

In 2003, the Bush administration made the historic error of launching war to disarm a regime they claimed was pursuing WMD without sufficient evidence that the Iraqi threat was imminent, without sufficient international support, and without a plan for the day after. We can't make that mistake again.