Quite a number of international specialists claim that our best option is to learn to live with and contain a nuclear Iran. Even if the United States found such an option acceptable, Israel is unlikely to do so. If the Holocaust taught the Jews anything, it is that, if someone says he is going to kill you, it is best to take him at his word. As Iran has a long record of threatening Israel with fiery annihilation, only a foolhardy Israeli government would allow it the wherewithal to do so without at least taking a stab at ending the threat.
Even apart from the threat to Israel, a nuclear-armed Iran would be a catastrophe. At the very least, with the nuclear genie out of the bottle, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt would go nuclear at speed, and there is no guarantee it would end there. No one can much look forward to an era in which the nations of the most volatile region of the world were armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons.
It should be recognized that an American or Israeli strike at the Iranian nuclear program is not without risk. Iran could attack oil facilities in the region, launch a global terror campaign, close, at least temporarily, the Straits of Hormuz, and make life more difficult for our soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, after weighing the risks, I believe the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran is incalculably worse.
Can America destroy Iran’s nuclear program? The answer is an unequivocal yes. This may come as a surprise, since we have so often heard the opposite. For instance, many commentators claim that Iran’s program is so distributed that we cannot take it out in a single strike. So what? First, even a distributed program will have a relatively small number of crucial nodes. If those are taken out, the entire Iranian program will grind to a halt. More importantly, why are we limited to a single strike?
Another common objection is that the most important facilities are buried so deep as to make them impervious to bombing. Even if this is true, which is unlikely, of what use is a facility without power and buried under a few hundred yards of rubble and loose earth?
The most commonly used excuse for non-action, however, is that an American military strike would only cause the Iranians to redouble their efforts. Really? In any case, is there some rule against our blowing up their “redoubled” program a year or two from now? Is there not a point where even the Iranians will tire of seeing hundred-billion-dollar investments repeatedly turned into rubbish?
Moreover, there is recent evidence that the United States would not have to go it alone on such a strike. Last week the Pentagon announced that it was sending 4,900 JDAM bombs to the United Arab Emirates. These precision bunker-busting bombs are ideally suited for striking at Iran’s nuclear facilities. The UAE has also recently taken delivery of 80 F-16 E/F Block 60 aircraft. These are the most advanced F-16s in the world and nearly a match for America’s new F-35s. Still, it would take 60 attacks by each of the UAE’s F-16s to use up 4,900 bombs. One assumes that many of these bombs can be easily transferred for use by American aircraft in the region.
If the United States does make the decision to attack Iran, such a strike must be overwhelming. If we targeted only Iranian nuclear facilities, we would leave ourselves open to the Iranian counterstrikes mentioned above. To limit the chances Iran will be able to do serious damage to the West, any U.S. assault must be aimed at Iran’s command-and-control centers, power stations, airbases, and missile sites, as well as the nation’s murderous leadership. And this is the short list. In all likelihood, an attack on Iran would probably have to be a prolonged air assault over many days or weeks. If we, instead, leave the job of striking Iran to the Israelis alone, there is no doubt they could destroy the Iranian nuclear program, or at least set it back years. Israel, however, is incapable of launching the kind of sustained attack that could limit Iran’s ability to strike back.
The military option against Iran is fraught with danger, but doing nothing is more so. Last week’s IAEA report makes it clear that the decision cannot be postponed for much longer.
— Jim Lacey is professor of strategic studies at the Marine Corps War College. He is the author of the recently released The First Clash and Keep from All Thoughtful Men. The opinions presented here are entirely his own and do not represent those of the Department of Defense or any of its members.