Elbridge Colby and Austin Long have a piece up on The National Interest on why we should not attack Iran to prevent it from attaining nuclear capabilities. Working from a realist paradigm, they use numerous historical examples to argue that preemptive bombing a) would not stop Iran’s nuclear program in the long run, b) would cause the regime to double down on attaining nuclear capability, and c) would rally the Iranian populace behind the mullahs, thus making regime change hard to accomplish, if not impossible. I’ll leave analysis of Iran itself to my better informed colleagues, but I’d offer a few notes of caution on the historical evidence they employ.
While it’s true that bombing North Vietnam, Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, and the like did not alone result in regime change or the loss of support for fascist/authoritarian regimes, there are two ways the Iran case is different. The first is that none of those regimes had experienced significant popular unrest prior to hostilities with the United States; Iran, on the other hand, has been convulsed by street protests and uprisings. The legitimacy of the mullahs is far more tenuous than was that of Ho Chih Minh or Adolf Hitler. Thus, a bombing campaign might indeed give hope to anti-mullah forces and result in wider protests. Secondly, the U.S. bombed Vietnam et. al. when we had been at war with them for years, and thus the population was already either organized to support their governments or emotionally on a wartime patriotic footing. An Iranian policy that brings war to the country through bombing may rightly be viewed by Iranians as the cause of the problem, and not a reason to further support the regime.
More pertinently, Colby and Long argue that strategic bombing in the past did not cause enemy governments to give up their plans or sue for peace. That is true in the case of Saddam Hussein, the North Vietnamese, and the like. Yet, again, those bombing campaigns were not preemptive or preventive and instead were part of a total war policy in an extended time of combat.
The question today is whether suffering preemptive strikes, and not committing to a prolonged wartime national-mobilization-type effort, might stop Iran’s program both operationally and politically. In general, I agree with Colby and Long that it likely wouldn’t, but the truth is, we simply don’t know. In 1936, Hitler had issued orders to withdraw German troops if France had intervened to oppose remilitarization of the Rhineland, and it is equally uncertain whether Soviet Russia and China would have supported North Korea’s invasion of the South in 1950 if Washington had made absolutely clear that the South was inside the U.S.’s Asian defense perimeter.
Containment is Colby and Long’s preferred solution for dealing with Iran, nuclear or otherwise. As they note, it will be difficult and costly. The problem is that, once Tehran has the bomb, it may be impossible. The types of demands they may make, the arms race their possession of the bomb may spark, and the willingness of United States to risk a nuclear exchange by not altering its interests and commitments are all simply unknown. Given our unwillingness to seriously challenge North Korea for its proliferation and aggression against the South once it had a nuclear device, I’m less sanguine than Colby or Long that we will be willing to hold the line.