The only proper way to approach a strategic analysis of military options against Iran is to ask what we can do to dissuade Iran. That perspective allows us to see that our range of military options is quite broad, and that, for an initial use of force, the risks of escalation are lowest toward the two extremes, and highest in the middle, right where strikes against Iran’s nuclear program would be located. This argues for minimal uses of force at the outset, far short of strikes against its nuclear program. Then, if full airstrikes against its nuclear program are finally needed, the risks of Iranian retaliation (and reconstitution of the program) will have to be systematically minimized; that will argue for a more strategic campaign to decapitate and incapacitate the regime itself.
There is the very real danger that bringing military action into the mix of dissuasive sanctions will diminish the hard-fought unity among the Western capitals now arrayed against Iran. One key is to ensure that differences on long-range policy not be deferred in the interests of current unity (as so disastrously happened in the months before the Iraq War). Such issues must be addressed and resolved now, while there is still time for deliberation. Our governments must try to plan for the scenario that now seems most likely, namely that Iran will force us to choose between military action and a nuclear-armed Iran.
Public opinion will loom large in any consideration of military options. Will our peoples back limited military options beyond the ones currently in use? Where will public opinion go if Iran escalates? The only effective way to attenuate these political risks is to fight for general acceptance of the principle that Iran’s nuclear program is a threat to the peace of the world, and that as a matter of self-defense, any means that prove necessary for convincing Iran to abandon it are justified and legitimate. It is vital to make clear that this right of self-defense has already been triggered
by Iran’s reckless bid for nuclear weapons, and needs no further provocation.
All of the courses open to us are risky. But let’s not lose sight of the terrifying risk of Iran’s attaining nuclear weapons. The mullahs would be immeasurably empowered, their worst ambitions powerfully encouraged. The nonproliferation regime could soon be in full collapse. We might soon be facing the very real danger of losing whole urban centers to nuclear terrorism without necessarily being able to identify those responsible.
As Iran brings us nearer to a final choice between military conflict and a nuclear-armed Iran, we must take a much more sober approach to a basic question few have asked: What can we do to dissuade Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons? The manifold risks of escalation point to more limited, immediate, and incremental measures than most in the Washington establishment have in mind when they discuss “the military option” for destroying Iran’s program.
Military options may remain on the table when diplomacy fails. But they are most valuable when they can help diplomacy to succeed.
— Mario Loyola is former counsel for foreign and defense policy at the U.S. Senate Republican Policy Committee. This article is based partly on his 2009 report, “Finding Equilibrium on Iran,” in The Journal of International Security Affairs.