After analyzing in yesterday’s column the threat that Hezbollah, armed with unconventional weapons, presents to Israel, it’s time to turn to Iran. The facts are well known: Iran is engaged in a longstanding proxy war with Israel, it has executed direct terrorist attacks against Israelis, and genocidal rhetoric emanates regularly from Tehran. An Iranian regime that talks openly about “wiping Israel off the map” can be either bluffing or serious. Can Israel afford to hope they’re bluffing?
Israel cannot. And neither can we. Iran is an avowed enemy of the United States — killing our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, supporting our enemies around the globe, and vowing “death to the Great Satan.” Israel on its own (though with U.S. financing and technology, if not troops) has more or less managed the plague of terrorism and the recurring threats to its territory. But the Iranian threat is global, and so it looms large for the U.S. as well.
An Iranian nuclear bomb would be a geopolitical game-changer, immediately jeopardizing American security and interests, empowering our enemies around the globe, elevating the cause of radical Islam, creating an Islamic nuclear-arms race, and threatening the very existence of our ally Israel.
Recent independent reports — seconded by Israeli officials – put Iran at least 80 percent of the way toward having enough weapons-grade nuclear material for a bomb. Sanctions haven’t deterred the Iranians from pursuing a nuclear weapon, nor have toothless international resolutions. The Israeli officials we met with underscored the cold fact that the Iranians will not change their behavior until they believe the U.S. — not Israel — will act to prevent them. The middle of 2003 was the only time the Iranians stopped their centrifuges, for fear they would be next in the American crosshairs after Afghanistan and Iraq. As the dust settled, they began again.
Nobody — not in Israel or the United States — wants a military solution to the Iranian nuclear problem. This obviously includes President Obama. However, the Obama administration’s equivocal and tepid stand on the option for military action has emboldened the regime in Tehran to continue full speed ahead. Until the Iranians believe the U.S. is serious about using military means if necessary, they will not stop. This means that only tough talk of military action, alongside even stronger sanctions, can prevent a military confrontation and a nuclear Iran. I know the president, in anti–George W. Bush fashion, doesn’t like tough talk, but any hope for an enduring peace requires it. And he can’t just produce the rhetoric; the Iranians need to believe he means it.
If diplomatic efforts fail, both Israeli officials and American military leaders are clear-eyed about what an attack on Iranian missile sites would mean. With U.S. involvement, a combination of bombing and missile strikes would be apt to destroy the Iranian nuclear program or at the very least set it back a decade. Ground troops would not be needed and should not be used.
However, if Israeli forces acted alone, they would probably need a combination of air and ground power (the Iranian program is far more robust than previous Iraqi and Syrian programs). Israeli bombs alone could only slow the Iranians; Israeli troops might then need to destroy the sites directly. Israel Defense Force leaders would accept troop deployment, if necessary, but this would be a messy prospect bound to prolong the initial phase of military operations and intensify Iranian responses.
Either scenario, bombs or troops, would result in a violent onslaught against Israel and Israel’s soft targets around the world. Rockets would rain down (Iron Dome would intercept many), proxy groups could attack on all fronts, and suicide bombers would hit Western targets. Israeli officials believe that such an onslaught could be absorbed, and that removing the Iranian threat is worth the risk.
If America is involved in the military strike (and even if we’re not), we should expect similar attacks on our troops in Afghanistan, foreign embassies, American tourist destinations, and even by sleeper cells in our country. Moreover, Iran would try to hit our wallets, leveraging its membership in OPEC to maximize the economic consequences of military action against Iran. All of this is would be terrible and tough; nobody looks forward to the fallout of military action, especially those who fully understand the horrors of war. But these temporary and tragic consequences would pale in comparison with a permanently empowered radical Iran. Once they have the nuclear trump card, they may be willing to call any bluff.
Winston Churchill reportedly said, “Americans can always be counted on to do the right thing, after they have exhausted all other possibilities.” It is still possible to talk tough to Tehran, tighten the noose even further, and prevent military action. But time is running out. If talk and sanctions aren’t enough, I hope America can be counted on to do the right thing—for our sake, Israel’s sake, and the sake of enduring peace in our time.
— Pete Hegseth is the CEO of Concerned Veterans for America and Army veteran of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Guantanamo Bay.