Iranian nukes and military force as a tool of diplomacy

The hypothetical threat of force isn't enough; for diplomacy to work on Iran, the threat of force must be real and believable. Photo: Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, January 11, 2013 ― The failure of diplomacy thus far in dealing with Iran and its nuclear program is due in no small part to the influence of experts who mistake their own revulsion to violence for an innate wisdom, which they then impart on unsuspecting minds, leading them to believe that a war with Iran will bring unbearable suffering. Though this may well be true, it is also true that for every ounce of suffering that we incur, Iran will suffer ten times that amount, and this fact alone, if employed in the service of diplomacy, can bring Tehran to adopt a more reasonable attitude.

Iran was never more compromising, never friendlier than in March 2003, when our troops were at their doorstep and an invasion seemed imminent. It was then that they offered us a deal which now, a decade later, appears incredibly generous; and it was then that they unilaterally suspended their enrichment of uranium.

It was only when a U.S. invasion began to appear more and more improbable, when the situation in Iraq dissolved in chaos and domestic support struck a dismal low that the Iranians grew bolder and began to fire up their reactors with abandon.

Those who long for a diplomatic solution do diplomacy no favors by refusing to consider a military solution. If Americans suddenly recognize the viability of the use of force, if we focus not only on what Iran can do to us, but also on what we can do to Iran, diplomacy will then receive a mighty boost.


Military options: a preemptive strike versus a massive invasion

Whenever the topic of military action is broached, the discussion immediately gravitates toward the preemptive strike. Israel applied this measure twice, against Iraq and Syria, both times with great success. It managed, not only to destroy the nuclear programs of these two countries, but to do so with nary a complaint from the victims. In the case of Iraq, Saddam Hussein was too busy invading Iran and could hardly afford a war with Israel. In Syria’s case, the nuclear program was secret, and after the attack, the whole affair was swept under the rug by both sides as if it never happened.

If only we could count on a similar reaction from the Iranians! But unlike Syria and Iraq, Iran has flaunted its nuclear program in the public square; it has turned the enrichment of uranium into a matter of national honor. If the Great Satan were to swoop down one night to destroy the pride and joy of the Iranian nation, the force of millions would push the government toward action. Any attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities will be seen as an attack on Iran itself. No preemptive strike, however stealthily and surgically carried out, will separate the Iranian government from the Iranian people. Missiles may be precision-guided, but war remains a blunt weapon.

Therefore, any military option that we consider must take into account not only the initial effect of the first strike, but the day after. How will Iran escalate the conflict? And when they escalate, how do we meet their escalation? Most commentators worry about Iran’s military retaliation. They mention such things as the reprisals of Hezbollah and Hamas or the sabotaging of the Strait of Hormuz; and from these slender indications of military prowess, they derive their fear of war. But if that is all we have to pay for destroying Iran’s nuclear program, then the price is right and we should pay it now. Iran, after all, is a sorry excuse for a military power; its military budget is a quarter of Saudi Arabia’s; and if we are led by our insidious experts to fear the riposte of this fourth-rate power, we have surely taken leave of our senses and, even worse, our courage.

But there is a riposte that we must fear, and it is not military but nuclear. What do we do if after we attack, Iran rebuilds its reactors, this time underground, and begins to enrich uranium with the overt intent to become a nuclear power? What do we do if Iran’s will remains intact, even after a preemptive strike?

Such a result would put us in a terribly uncomfortable position. The President who launched this strike will most likely have done so against the will of his own party and the warnings of expert counsel. To then fail, to be saddled with an Iran that is now openly pursuing nuclear weapons, in full defiance of our will – such a result will be considered a massive failure of the President’s foreign policy. Now only a massive invasion can bring Iran to heel, and the President has no choice but to attack; for if he does not and Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, history will blame the preemptive strike – and the man who ordered it – for causing Iran to go nuclear.

What this train of thought should demonstrate to us is not that a preemptive strike is impossible but rather that a preemptive strike alone is not enough to eliminate Iran’s will to nuclearize.  The preemptive strike cannot become a bona fide option unless it is buttressed by the option of a massive invasion, one that can overwhelm any defiant act on the part of Iran, military or nuclear. There is a world of difference between a preemptive attack that is launched “bare” and a preemptive strike in which troops stand ready, if need be, to invade with massive force. The very knowledge that such a force exists may even prevent the Iranians from retaliating at all, even after we have bombed their reactors. Indeed it is highly probable that merely the threat of a preemptive strike will bend the Iranians to our will – so long as that invasion force stands at the ready.

In 2003, such a force did stand at the ready, and never was the military option stronger than it was then, when our troops surrounded Iran from both the east and the west and Iraq had not yet dissolved into chaos. It was then that the Iranians began to show their innate friendliness and their natural modesty, approaching us on their own initiative to negotiate and, in essence, to settle all outstanding differences. But as Iraq became what it became and the military option slipped from our grasp, the Iranians submitted to the darker side of their nature. A less friendly attitude made its appearance. Goodwill gave way to a hostility, which intensified in direct proportion to our difficulties in Iraq. When we left that country for good, the Iranians responded to this gift of security by enriching uranium to 20 percent.

Ever since the insurgency in Iraq, we have not had a military option. And now, since we have left Iraq and are scheduled to leave Afghanistan, a preemptive strike is an option only in name. To build this option, we must start from the premise that the possibility of a full-scale invasion is the foundation of any military option. In order to build this possibility, our relations with Iran’s neighbors must be settled in a quick and ruthless fashion. Understandings must be reached whereby certain of them will, in the event of war, provide us with a route to invasion. If such an eventuality enters the brain of Khamenei as a probability to be considered, then we can say with truth that the military option is on the table.

With the military option, the enrichment option, and the starvation option (sanctions) all in hand, we can approach the Iranians from a position of strength. What I propose is not that we commit a certain act but rather that we turn possible acts into probable acts – that we turn options in name into options in practice.

But before we start along any path, let us be clear in our own minds about how much we are willing to sacrifice to keep Iran nuclear-free. If the assertion that “a nuclear Iran is unacceptable” is only talk, then it is dangerous talk, and we must stop it immediately and settle on the terms laid out by Iran, leaving it to the Iranians themselves to decide whether or not they will go nuclear. But if we are serious about our stated objectives and willing to risk war to achieve them, there is no use in hiding our hand. Let us be honest with the Iranians. Let us put our cards on the table – all of them – for if we do that, the hand that we reveal will surely take the pot.


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Benjamin Ra

Benjamin Ra is a recent graduate of Sciences Po Paris. He writes mainly on foreign policy and is currently residing in South Korea. 

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