Why attacking Iran is still a bad idea

Background:  Matthew Kroenig has written a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, advocating a preventive war against Iran's nuclear facilities.  I criticized his arguments in a previous post, and Kroenig offered this defense in response.  Here is my rejoinder.

Matthew Kroenig's defense of his Foreign Affairs article calling for launching a preventive war against Iran does little to strengthen his case.  He provides no additional evidence to explain why war is necessary; nor does he remedy the gaps and inconsistencies in his original analysis.  Given that he's now had two swings at the same pitch, one may safely conclude that there is no good case for attacking Iran.

It is clear from the beginning of Kroenig's response that he misunderstood the central point of my critique.  I accused him of employing the "classic blueprint" for justifying a preventive war, whereby one exaggerates the dangers of inaction, overstates the benefits of war, and understates the costs and risks of employing force.  Kroenig responds by pointing out that "any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force," and he seems to think that this was the feature of his analysis to which I objected.  Not so: my objection was to the one-sided way in which he conducted his assessment. 

As I noted in my original post, Kroenig assumes that Iran's leaders are firmly committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon (as opposed to a latent capability), even though U.S. intelligence agencies still reject this conclusion.  He provides no hard evidence demonstrating that the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates on Iran are wrong.  Furthermore, he assumes that a nuclear-armed Iran would unleash a series of fearsome consequences, even though we have no theory that explains how Iran could use its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes, and no examples of other nuclear-armed states doing so successfully in the past.  He also assumes that rejecting the war option will force the United States to maintain a costly and dangerous "containment and deterrence regime" for decades.  In short, when considering the "no-war" scenario, he consistently employs worst-case analysis. 

When making the case for how a war against Iran will succeed, however, he switches to "best-case" assumptions about the short-term consequences, the dangers of escalation, and the long-term benefits, even though each of his forecasts is wide open to challenge.  My point was not that Kroenig failed to discuss the costs and benefits of using or not using force; it was that if he had adopted a similar standard on both sides of the equation, his conclusion that war was the "least bad" option would fall apart.

Kroenig's piece in Foreign Affairs is entitled "Time to Attack Iran." However, he says in his response to me that he doesn't think "Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack."  Indeed, he now appears to concede that Iran might not be developing nuclear weapons and that we should wait to see if it takes certain measures (expels inspectors, enriches uranium to weapons grade levels, installs advanced centrifuges, etc.) before unleashing the dogs of war.  But these arguments contradict both his title and his original argument, which is that preventive war is the least bad option and now is the time to do it.  We are thus left wondering: is Iran developing nuclear weapons or not ?  And if Kroenig isn't sure, is it really "Time to Attack?" 

Kroenig tells us that "in the coming months, it is possible, even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice" between containment or military action (my emphasis), and he recommends we "begin building global support for (military action) in advance."  As I've noted before, the danger here is that if you keep repeating that preventive war against Iran is necessary, people gradually become comfortable with the idea and assume that it is going to occur eventually.  In fact, if we beat the war drums for months but don't attack, you can be confident that people like Kroenig will then arguethat U.S. credibility is on the line and we have to strike, lest those dangerous Iranians conclude we are paper tigers.

As in his original article, Kroenig's image of Iran is simplistic and contradictory. He portrays it as a highly capable and dangerously ambitious power, whose support for terrorism and proxy groups is supposedly restrained only by "fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation."  But he never describes Iran's actual capabilities (which are quite modest) or explains why the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests is grave enough to warrant rolling the iron dice of war.  Nor does he discuss Iranian threat perceptions, internal politics, or foreign policy strategy (including how its policies have evolved over time), or consider the possibility that some of its activities (including its support for some extremist groups) are an asymmetric response to past U.S. efforts to isolate and marginalize it.   Instead, his portrait of Iran is conveniently contradictory: as Paul Pillar puts it, for Kroenig "the same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things . . . turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S. ‘redlines' once the United States starts waging war against it."  If "knowing one's enemy" is a prerequisite for going to war, Kroenig has a lot of work to do.

Kroenig also misunderstands my comment about the possibility that an Iranian bomb might prompt others countries in the region to go nuclear. Contrary to what he writes, I did not say "we should not worry that Iran's proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons."  Rather, my point was that if there were proliferation beyond Iran, it would give other states in the neighborhood the ability to deter Iran and make it impossible for Tehran to wield the coercive leverage that Kroenig (not me) thinks it would gain by building a bomb.  To be clear: I think it would be better if Iran and its neighbors stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold.  But unlike Kroenig, I'm not prepared to panic and start a major war at the possibility that they won't.

I remain baffled by Kroenig's belief that crossing the nuclear threshold would give Iran a credible capacity to push the United States around by making nuclear threats.  He repeats his claim that a "nuclear-armed Iran could threaten nuclear war in response to any U.S. initiative in the Middle East," but he fails to explain why such actions would work.  Iran's leaders could make whatever threats they wished, of course, but the salient question is whether we would have to take those threats seriously.  Does Kroenig think Iran could veto a new U.S. initiative to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace, or to organize a new regional peace conference, by threatening to rain warheads down upon us?  Does he believe Iran could credibly threaten to attack us if we wanted to conduct a military exercise with a key regional ally, or if the Pentagon decided to redeploy forces somewhere in the area, or if Washington launched a new initiative to promote democracy and human rights in the region? 

I repeat my original point: if it would be that easy for a nuclear-armed Iran to coerce the United States into doing things it does not want to do, then why haven't other nuclear powers been able to do that to us in the past?  By Kroenig's logic, the Soviet Union should have had a field day pushing us around during the Cold War.  But that did not happen; in fact, the Soviets never even tried to use their huge nuclear arsenal to coerce us.  The reason, of course, is that Soviet threats would not have been credible because any attempt to carry them out would have led to national suicide.  The same logic applies to Iran.  We know it, and so do they, which is why this familiar bogeyman should not be taken seriously.

Kroenig's claim that failure to strike soon will force the United States to invest vast sums on a "containment and deterrence regime" is equally unconvincing.  He says "when the United States has imposed deterrence regimes in the past we have dedicated great economic, military, and political resources to the task."  Yes, but that was because the United States was seeking to contain and deter theUSSR, a major power rival with substantial industrial capacity, a large andpowerful mass army, some significant allies, and (eventually) a vast nuclear arsenal of its own.  Iran is a minor power by comparison, and will never be in the same league as the Soviet Union was.

Even more importantly, Kroenig seems to have forgotten that the United States already has a significant military presence in the Gulf region, and additional forces allocated to intervening there when necessary.  These forces, and the security ties that they support, long predate Iran's nuclear program, and given Iran's modest conventional capabilities, they provide the necessary ingredients for a successful containment regime for the foreseeable future. I might add that Kroenig never identifies the exorbitant additional measures that he believes would be necessary if we fail to strike soon. In short, even if Iran does get nuclear weapons someday, there is little need to augment our existing force structure or alter our alliance relationships in any meaningful way.  And by the way: the fact that a few unnamed Washington think tanks are in favor of "massive increases in our commitments to the region" doesn't mean that this is a sound idea, because think tanks inside the Beltway often propose dubious ideas, as we learned in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Kroenig actually goes so far as to make the foolish argument that "opponents of a bombing campaign are not proponents of peace, but rather by default they are advocates of a multibillion dollar, decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East."  (Readers with good memories will recall that this same argument was used to explain why we could not contain SaddamHussein in perpetuity, but had to overthrow him instead).  But this charge makes sense only if you believe that attacking Iran would lead us to end our "decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East."  Does Kroenig think whacking Iran would enable the United States to withdraw completely from the region, terminate our security partnerships with Israel, Jordan, and assorted Persian Gulf states, and disband the Rapid Deployment Force?  I doubt it.  Moreover, if we do attack Iran, we could easily find ourselves in a protracted conflict that would make the Middle East a more dangerous and unstable region.  This would neither be good for the United States nor enable us to reduce our security commitments there.

The bottom line is that the United States is going to remain committed to defending its interests in the Persian Gulf--whether we go to war with Iran or not--and the price tag for doing so is likely to be roughly similar whether Iran has nuclear weapons or not.  It is therefore disingenuous for Kroenig to suggest that the opponents of war are advocating a costly long-term commitment to the region but the proponents of preventive war are trying to save money and reduce our defense burdens. 

Kroenig says he is surprised by my charge that he glossed over the risks of a military campaign.  In response, he says that he "fully engaged" with the many negative consequences of an attack and "proposed a mitigation strategy" for each one.  But identifying downsides and "proposing" some mitigating countermeasures is insufficient: one has to explain in considerable detail how they would work and think seriously about the various ways that this best case might go wrong.

Let's assume, however, that all goes according to plan and we knock out virtually all of Iran's nuclear facilities.  As Kroenig acknowledges in his Foreign Affairs article, even a completely successful war would not end Iran's capability to build nuclear weapons once and for all.  We would merely have bought ourselves a few years, because the Iranians--who would probably be mad as hornets--would surely set out to build nuclear weapons in a secure location to deter the United States from attacking their homeland again. All of this is to say that we cannot prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them badly enough, and attacking them in the immediate future is likely to make them want those weapons even more.  Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, after all, which is why Israel, the United States, and several other countries have nuclear arsenals today and no intention of getting rid of them anytime soon.

Finally, it is striking that Kroenig's response does not engage the legal or moral implications that I raised in my original critique.  It appears that he remains untroubled by the fact that many innocent people will die and many more will be wounded if the United States follows his advice to launch a major bombing campaign against Iran. He seems equally at ease with the ideathat the United States would be launching an unprovoked war of aggression, which would be in clear violation of international law.  And still people wonder: "why do they hate us?" 

IIPA via Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

Kroenig's case for war with Iran

Background: Last week I posted a sharply-worded critique of a forthcoming article by Matthew Kroenig in which he advocated preventive war with Iran.  Kroenig asked me for the opportunity to respond here, and his reply is posted below.  I'll post a final rejoinder tomorrow.

Matthew Kroenig writes:

I would like to thank Steve Walt for commenting on my article and for offering me this opportunity to respond to his critique.  U.S. policy on Iran's steadily advancing nuclear program is a critically important national security issue that evokes strong passions on all sides.  Whether opponents like it or not, the military option is being seriously considered in high-level policy circles in Washington DC and outside analysts have a responsibility to fully debate the merits of this course of action in order to inform these ongoing discussions.

Let me begin by placing this debate in its proper context.  In the coming months, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice between putting in place a deterrence and containment regime to deal with anuclear-armed Iran or authorizing military action designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  The dilemma we face is not between the status quo or conflict, but between two very different and more dangerous worlds.  The options are terrible, but, as the subtitle of my Foreign Affairs article states, my assessment is that, if forced to choose, a surgical strike on Iran's nuclear facilities "is the least bad option."

In his blog post, Walt accuses me of following a "blue print" for advocating the use of force in which I exaggerate the threat of Iranian proliferation and downplay the risks of military action.  But, by necessity, any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force.  Any particular call for military action cannot simply be discredited, therefore, by claiming that it follows a "blueprint."  Rather, the issue comes down to an analysis of the relative merits of each option. 

Unfortunately, Walt is guilty of the exact opposite crime of which he accuses me, namely assuming that we shouldn't worry about a nuclear-armed Iran and insinuating that the U.S. will necessarily bungle any military mission.  He also mischaracterizes my argument.

First, Walt accuses me of advocating a strike "despite no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb" and in violation of international law.  Putting aside for now the preponderance of evidence suggesting that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons, I'll take this opportunity to clarify my argument.  I don't argue that Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack.  Rather, I maintain that conditions might "ultimately force the United States to choose" between these unattractive options, that we should therefore begin "building global support for (military action) in advance," and strike if Iran "expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom." (I apologize if the cause of this misunderstanding was a lack of clarity in my original article).

Second, Walt systematically discounts the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.  Iran currently restrains its support for terrorists and proxy groups out of fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation, butwith a nuclear counter-deterrent it could be confident that it could avoid the worst forms of retaliation, allowing it to be more aggressive.  Iran's nuclear program would likely fuel nuclear proliferation globally as: other countries in the region seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran, Iran itself becomes a nuclear supplier at risk of transferring uranium enrichment technology to budding nuclear programs in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and the teetering nonproliferation regime is further weakened.  Walt argues that we should not worry that Iran's proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons because these additional nuclear-armed states could help us deter a nuclear-armed Iran, but anyone else would rightly dismiss the idea that a Middle Eastern arms race is somehow good for U.S. national security. 

If Iran becomes more assertive internationally, we could see an even more crisis-prone Middle East.  Walt wrongly asserts that my fear that Iran could threaten nuclear war to constrain U.S. military andpolitical freedom of action in the Middle East is a "bizarre fantasy," but let's not forget the lessons of the Cold War.  Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?  The United States was not a suicidal state, but we were willing to risk nuclear war to prevent the Soviet Union from forward-deploying nuclear weapons on the territory of its ally.  Similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten nuclear war in response to any U.S. initiative in the Middle East.  And, more importantly, any future crisis involving a nuclear-armed Iran could escalate, resulting in possible nuclear war between Iran and its neighbors or even Iran and the United States.  Some might argue that deterrence will work, but such a statement betrays a misunderstanding of deterrence theory.  As I explain in my forthcoming article in International Organization, in order for deterrence to work, there must be a real risk that any crisis could spin out of control and result in a nuclear exchange.  My reading of the Cold War is not that mutually assured destruction leads to stability, but that we were incredibly lucky to avoid a nuclear war.

Moreover, Walt is incorrect to claim that deterring and containing Iran would not add to U.S. defense burdens.  When the United States has imposed deterrence regimes in the past we have dedicated great economic, military, and political resources to the task.  Similarly, every serious plan for deterring and containing a nuclear-armed Iran (and for the additional steps that would be required to assure nervous allies and partners in the region) currently being proposed by think tanks in Washington calls for a massive increase in our commitments to the region. 

In short, opponents of a bombing campaign are not proponents of peace, but rather by default they are advocates for a multi-billion-dollar, decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East that will likely buy us decreased influence, a more crisis-prone region, the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries, a Middle-Eastern nuclear scare every few years, and an increased risk of nuclear war.

Third, as I explain in the article and despite Walt's skepticism, we have a viable military option to forestall and perhaps even prevent this outcome.  It is unlikely that Iran has significant operating nuclear facilities that we do not already know about and the United States could destroy Iran's nuclear facilities even though some are buried and hardened.  Walt attempts to poke holes in these arguments, but I support them with strong evidence.  According to open source reporting, Natanz is buried under 75 feet of earth and several meters of concrete.  The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete.  I will leave it up to the reader to do the math.

I was also surprised that Walt accused me of glossing over the risks of a military campaign.  As other readers of the article know, I fully engage with the many negative consequences of military action, including possible Iranian missile and terror attacks against U.S. bases, ships, and allies in the region.  I also propose, however, a mitigation strategy to help limit the damage from Iranian retaliation and the other negative consequences of a strike.  Walt calls this being overly optimistic, but I call it a necessary part of good contingency planning.  A key point is that any assessments of the likely consequences of a strike must also take into consideration the strong measures that Washington and others will take to mitigate those consequences. 

My bottom-line judgment is heavily shaped by the gravity of the various threats and time horizons.  Iran's current asymmetric response options could potentially be painful, but the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, such as nuclear war, would be much worse.  And while the United States and its allies would incur the costs of a strike in the weeks and months following an attack, we would be forced to confront the challenges posed by a nuclear-armed Tehran as long as Iran exists as a state and possesses nuclear weapons. This could be years, decades, or even longer.  Thus, while a bombing campaign could be more costly in the short term, it is my assessment that it would be in the long-term national interest of the country.

As I make clear in my article, there are real risks to either attempting to deter andcontain a nuclear-armed Iran, or conducting a military strike designed to prevent Iran from proliferating.  My analysis leads me to believe that bombing Iran's key nuclear facilities and attempting to immediately de-escalate the crisis, poses less of a risk than dealing with the many threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran for years to come.  I understand that reasonable people can disagree, but in order to do so for the right reasons they must have access to the best information.  I hope that this exchange helps shed light on public discussions of this critical issue.   

FarsNews/Getty Images