Curiously, of all the military options that are actually available against Iran, perhaps the single most impractical one is the only one that commentators ever seem to consider: a campaign of airstrikes sufficiently powerful to destroy most of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure but not sufficiently powerful to eliminate its capacity and willingness to retaliate and reconstitute the nuclear program. That option maximizes both short-term and long-term risks, and it is no surprise that the establishment readily rejects any tangible prospect of it.
Moreover, as an initial use of force, a major campaign of airstrikes against Iran’s nuclear program is open to an even more serious objection: It might be widely seen as lacking a compelling political justification, given Iran’s strategy of proceeding always in small, incremental steps. Think of it this way. Let’s assume that we all agree that there is some red line that Iran must not cross on pain of being subjected to painful airstrikes against its nuclear program. Just because we agree on that general proposition doesn’t mean that we could ever reach agreement on where the red line is exactly. And in fact, the only thing standing between Iran and nuclear weapons now is a field of incremental steps; most of the major strategic red lines are behind us.
Therefore, the decision to use airstrikes in order to destroy
Iran’s nuclear program, if it ever comes, will likely not have the benefit of a major provocation on Iran’s part. Now take a step back and consider the ways in which democratic governments typically decide to use military force. Unlike the kingdoms of old, logical calculations of raison d’état
are almost unknown in the military exertions of democratic governments. This is actually a major and perhaps fatal vulnerability of the democratic order. Given the pacifistic leanings of most peoples, using force without a major military provocation from the enemy is usually politically impossible for democratic governments, a fact that the Nazis exploited to devastating effect during the 1930s, as they advanced toward a war of conquest by incremental nonviolent steps.
The elements of a smart diplomatic strategy (including military options) will seek to match Iran’s clever strategy of small steps with small steps of our own. At the “small” end of the “coercive diplomacy” spectrum there are the naval demonstrations and covert operations that are happening already. Between these activities and the “big” end of the spectrum, many military options could serve to enhance the crucial negotiating leverage in our diplomatic strategy.
The key thing is to remember that threat of military force is a lever that can be used right now, in ways big and small, in order to dissuade Iran’s nuclear advance. Iran may certainly retaliate and chose to escalate in response to any use of military force. However, the more Iran still has to lose after any initial use of force against it, the more it will tend to fear the risks of escalation. Conversely, the less it has to lose and the more humiliated it feels, the more it will be tempted to retaliate with the capabilities still at its disposal. That counsels in favor of eliminating the remaining capabilities through strategic strikes targeted at the regime’s very viability.