Time to Attack Iran

Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option

By Mr. Kroenig is professor of government at Georgetown University and an affiliate with the Project on Managing the Atom at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He is the author of “Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons. This article published in the Council on Foreign Relations

In early October, U.S. officials accused Iranian operatives of planning to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States on American soil. Iran denied the charges, but the episode has already managed to increase tensions between Washington and Tehran. Although the Obama administration has not publicly threatened to retaliate with military force, the allegations have underscored the real and growing risk that the two sides could go to war sometime soon — particularly over Iran’s advancing nuclear program.

For several years now, starting long before this episode, American pundits and policymakers have been debating whether the United States should attack Iran and attempt to eliminate its nuclear facilities. Proponents of a strike have argued that the only thing worse than military action against Iran would be an Iran armed with nuclear weapons. Critics, meanwhile, have warned that such a raid would likely fail and, even if it succeeded, would spark a full-fledged war and a global economic crisis. They have urged the United States to rely on nonmilitary options, such as diplomacy, sanctions, and covert operations, to prevent Iran from acquiring a bomb. Fearing the costs of a bombing campaign, most critics maintain that if these other tactics fail to impede Tehran’s progress, the United States should simply learn to live with a nuclear Iran.

But skeptics of military action fail to appreciate the true danger that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to U.S. interests in the Middle East and beyond. And their grim forecasts assume that the cure would be worse than the disease — that is, that the consequences of a U.S. assault on Iran would be as bad as or worse than those of Iran achieving its nuclear ambitions. But that is a faulty assumption. The truth is that a military strike intended to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, if managed carefully, could spare the region and the world a very real threat and dramatically improve the long-term national security of the United States.


Years of international pressure have failed to halt Iran’s attempt to build a nuclear program. The Stuxnet computer worm, which attacked control systems in Iranian nuclear facilities, temporarily disrupted Tehran’s enrichment effort, but a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency this past May revealed that the targeted plants have fully recovered from the assault. And the latest IAEA findings on Iran, released in November, provided the most compelling evidence yet that the Islamic Republic has weathered sanctions and sabotage, allegedly testing nuclear triggering devices and redesigning its missiles to carry nuclear payloads. The Institute for Science and International Security, a nonprofit research institution, estimates that Iran could now produce its first nuclear weapon within six months of deciding to do so. Tehran’s plans to move sensitive nuclear operations into more secure facilities over the course of the coming year could reduce the window for effective military action even further. If Iran expels IAEA inspectors, begins enriching its stockpiles of uranium to weapons-grade levels of 90 percent, or installs advanced centrifuges at its uranium-enrichment facility in Qom, the United States must strike immediately or forfeit its last opportunity to prevent Iran from joining the nuclear club.

Some states in the region are doubting U.S. resolve to stop the program and are shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others have begun to discuss launching their own nuclear initiatives to counter a possible Iranian bomb. For those nations and the United States itself, the threat will only continue to grow as Tehran moves closer to its goal. A nuclear-armed Iran would immediately limit U.S. freedom of action in the Middle East. With atomic power behind it, Iran could threaten any U.S. political or military initiative in the Middle East with nuclear war, forcing Washington to think twice before acting in the region. Iran’s regional rivals, such as Saudi Arabia, would likely decide to acquire their own nuclear arsenals, sparking an arms race. To constrain its geopolitical rivals, Iran could choose to spur proliferation by transferring nuclear technology to its allies — other countries and terrorist groups alike. Having the bomb would give Iran greater cover for conventional aggression and coercive diplomacy, and the battles between its terrorist proxies and Israel, for example, could escalate. And Iran and Israel lack nearly all the safeguards that helped the United States and the Soviet Union avoid a nuclear exchange during the Cold War — secure second-strike capabilities, clear lines of communication, long flight times for ballistic missiles from one country to the other, and experience managing nuclear arsenals. To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war. But the volatile nuclear balance between Iran and Israel could easily spiral out of control as a crisis unfolds, resulting in a nuclear exchange between the two countries that could draw the United States in, as well.

These security threats would require Washington to contain Tehran. Yet deterrence would come at a heavy price. To keep the Iranian threat at bay, the United States would need to deploy naval and ground units and potentially nuclear weapons across the Middle East, keeping a large force in the area for decades to come. Alongside those troops, the United States would have to permanently deploy significant intelligence assets to monitor any attempts by Iran to transfer its nuclear technology. And it would also need to devote perhaps billions of dollars to improving its allies’ capability to defend themselves. This might include helping Israel construct submarine-launched ballistic missiles and hardened ballistic missile silos to ensure that it can maintain a secure second-strike capability. Most of all, to make containment credible, the United States would need to extend its nuclear umbrella to its partners in the region, pledging to defend them with military force should Iran launch an attack.

In other words, to contain a nuclear Iran, the United States would need to make a substantial investment of political and military capital to the Middle East in the midst of an economic crisis and at a time when it is attempting to shift its forces out of the region. Deterrence would come with enormous economic and geopolitical costs and would have to remain in place as long as Iran remained hostile to U.S. interests, which could mean decades or longer. Given the instability of the region, this effort might still fail, resulting in a war far more costly and destructive than the one that critics of a preemptive strike on Iran now hope to avoid.


A nuclear Iran would impose a huge burden on the United States. But that does not necessarily mean that Washington should resort to military means. In deciding whether it should, the first question to answer is if an attack on Iran’s nuclear program could even work. Doubters point out that the United States might not know the location of Iran’s key facilities. Given Tehran’s previous attempts to hide the construction of such stations, most notably the uranium-enrichment facilities in Natanz and Qom, it is possible that the regime already possesses nuclear assets that a bombing campaign might miss, which would leave Iran’s program damaged but alive.

This scenario is possible, but not likely; indeed, such fears are probably overblown. U.S. intelligence agencies, the IAEA, and opposition groups within Iran have provided timely warning of Tehran’s nuclear activities in the past — exposing, for example, Iran’s secret construction at Natanz and Qom before those facilities ever became operational. Thus, although Tehran might again attempt to build clandestine facilities, Washington has a very good chance of catching it before they go online. And given the amount of time it takes to construct and activate a nuclear facility, the scarcity of Iran’s resources, and its failure to hide the facilities in Natanz and Qom successfully, it is unlikely that Tehran has any significant operational nuclear facilities still unknown to Western intelligence agencies.

Even if the United States managed to identify all of Iran’s nuclear plants, however, actually destroying them could prove enormously difficult. Critics of a U.S. assault argue that Iran’s nuclear facilities are dispersed across the country, buried deep underground and hardened against attack, and ringed with air defenses, making a raid complex and dangerous. In addition, they claim that Iran has purposefully placed its nuclear facilities near civilian populations, which would almost certainly come under fire in a U.S. raid, potentially leading to hundreds, if not thousands, of deaths.

These obstacles, however, would not prevent the United States from disabling or demolishing Iran’s known nuclear facilities. A preventive operation would need to target the uranium-conversion plant at Isfahan, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and various centrifuge-manufacturing sites near Natanz and Tehran, all of which are located aboveground and are highly vulnerable to air strikes. It would also have to hit the Natanz facility, which, although it is buried under reinforced concrete and ringed by air defenses, would not survive an attack from the U.S. military’s new bunker-busting bomb, the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete. The plant in Qom is built into the side of a mountain and thus represents a more challenging target. But the facility is not yet operational and still contains little nuclear equipment, so if the United States acted quickly, it would not need to destroy it.

Washington would also be able to limit civilian casualties in any campaign. Iran built its most critical nuclear plants, such as the one in Natanz, away from heavily populated areas. For those less important facilities that exist near civilian centers, such as the centrifuge-manufacturing sites, U.S. precision-guided missiles could pinpoint specific buildings while leaving their surroundings unscathed. The United States could reduce the collateral damage even further by striking at night or simply leaving those less important plants off its target list at little cost to the overall success of the mission. Although Iran would undoubtedly publicize any human suffering in the wake of a military action, the majority of the victims would be the military personnel, engineers, scientists, and technicians working at the facilities.


The fact that the United States can likely set back or destroy Iran’s nuclear program does not necessarily mean that it should. Such an attack could have potentially devastating consequences — for international security, the global economy, and Iranian domestic politics — all of which need to be accounted for.

To begin with, critics note, U.S. military action could easily spark a full-blown war. Iran might retaliate against U.S. troops or allies, launching missiles at military installations or civilian populations in the Gulf or perhaps even Europe. It could activate its proxies abroad, stirring sectarian tensions in Iraq, disrupting the Arab Spring, and ordering terrorist attacks against Israel and the United States. This could draw Israel or other states into the fighting and compel the United States to escalate the conflict in response. Powerful allies of Iran, including China and Russia, may attempt to economically and diplomatically isolate the United States. In the midst of such spiraling violence, neither side may see a clear path out of the battle, resulting in a long-lasting, devastating war, whose impact may critically damage the United States’ standing in the Muslim world.

Those wary of a U.S. strike also point out that Iran could retaliate by attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow access point to the Persian Gulf through which roughly 20 percent of the world’s oil supply travels. And even if Iran did not threaten the strait, speculators, fearing possible supply disruptions, would bid up the price of oil, possibly triggering a wider economic crisis at an already fragile moment.

None of these outcomes is predetermined, however; indeed, the United States could do much to mitigate them. Tehran would certainly feel like it needed to respond to a U.S. attack, in order to reestablish deterrence and save face domestically. But it would also likely seek to calibrate its actions to avoid starting a conflict that could lead to the destruction of its military or the regime itself. In all likelihood, the Iranian leadership would resort to its worst forms of retaliation, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching missiles at southern Europe, only if it felt that its very existence was threatened. A targeted U.S. operation need not threaten Tehran in such a fundamental way.

To make sure it doesn’t and to reassure the Iranian regime, the United States could first make clear that it is interested only in destroying Iran’s nuclear program, not in overthrowing the government. It could then identify certain forms of retaliation to which it would respond with devastating military action, such as attempting to close the Strait of Hormuz, conducting massive and sustained attacks on Gulf states and U.S. troops or ships, or launching terrorist attacks in the United States itself. Washington would then need to clearly articulate these “redlines” to Tehran during and after the attack to ensure that the message was not lost in battle. And it would need to accept the fact that it would have to absorb Iranian responses that fell short of these redlines without escalating the conflict. This might include accepting token missile strikes against U.S. bases and ships in the region — several salvos over the course of a few days that soon taper off — or the harassment of commercial and U.S. naval vessels. To avoid the kind of casualties that could compel the White House to escalate the struggle, the United States would need to evacuate nonessential personnel from U.S. bases within range of Iranian missiles and ensure that its troops were safely in bunkers before Iran launched its response. Washington might also need to allow for stepped-up support to Iran’s proxies in Afghanistan and Iraq and missile and terrorist attacks against Israel. In doing so, it could induce Iran to follow the path of Iraq and Syria, both of which refrained from starting a war after Israel struck their nuclear reactors in 1981 and 2007, respectively.

Even if Tehran did cross Washington’s redlines, the United States could still manage the confrontation. At the outset of any such violation, it could target the Iranian weapons that it finds most threatening to prevent Tehran from deploying them. To de-escalate the situation quickly and prevent a wider regional war, the United States could also secure the agreement of its allies to avoid responding to an Iranian attack. This would keep other armies, particularly the Israel Defense Forces, out of the fray. Israel should prove willing to accept such an arrangement in exchange for a U.S. promise to eliminate the Iranian nuclear threat. Indeed, it struck a similar agreement with the United States during the Gulf War, when it refrained from responding to the launching of Scud missiles by Saddam Hussein.

Finally, the U.S. government could blunt the economic consequences of a strike. For example, it could offset any disruption of oil supplies by opening its Strategic Petroleum Reserve and quietly encouraging some Gulf states to increase their production in the run-up to the attack. Given that many oil-producing nations in the region, especially Saudi Arabia, have urged the United States to attack Iran, they would likely cooperate.

Washington could also reduce the political fallout of military action by building global support for it in advance. Many countries may still criticize the United States for using force, but some — the Arab states in particular — would privately thank Washington for eliminating the Iranian threat. By building such a consensus in the lead-up to an attack and taking the outlined steps to mitigate it once it began, the United States could avoid an international crisis and limit the scope of the conflict.


Critics have another objection: even if the United States managed to eliminate Iran’s nuclear facilities and mitigate the consequences, the effects might not last long. Sure enough, there is no guarantee that an assault would deter Iran from attempting to rebuild its plants; it may even harden Iran’s resolve to acquire nuclear technology as a means of retaliating or protecting itself in the future. The United States might not have the wherewithal or the political capital to launch another raid, forcing it to rely on the same ineffective tools that it now uses to restrain Iran’s nuclear drive. If that happens, U.S. action will have only delayed the inevitable.

Yet according to the IAEA, Iran already appears fully committed to developing a nuclear weapons program and needs no further motivation from the United States. And it will not be able to simply resume its progress after its entire nuclear infrastructure is reduced to rubble. Indeed, such a devastating offensive could well force Iran to quit the nuclear game altogether, as Iraq did after its nuclear program was destroyed in the Gulf War and as Syria did after the 2007 Israeli strike. And even if Iran did try to reconstitute its nuclear program, it would be forced to contend with continued international pressure, greater difficulty in securing necessary nuclear materials on the international market, and the lurking possibility of subsequent attacks. Military action could, therefore, delay Iran’s nuclear program by anywhere from a few years to a decade, and perhaps even indefinitely.

Skeptics might still counter that at best a strike would only buy time. But time is a valuable commodity. Countries often hope to delay worst-case scenarios as far into the future as possible in the hope that this might eliminate the threat altogether. Those countries whose nuclear facilities have been attacked — most recently Iraq and Syria — have proved unwilling or unable to restart their programs. Thus, what appears to be only a temporary setback to Iran could eventually become a game changer.

Yet another argument against military action against Iran is that it would embolden the hard-liners within Iran’s government, helping them rally the population around the regime and eliminate any remaining reformists. This critique ignores the fact that the hard-liners are already firmly in control. The ruling regime has become so extreme that it has sidelined even those leaders once considered to be right-wingers, such as former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, for their perceived softness. And Rafsanjani or the former presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi would likely continue the nuclear program if he assumed power. An attack might actually create more openings for dissidents in the long term (after temporarily uniting Iran behind Ayatollah Ali Khamenei), giving them grounds for criticizing a government that invited disaster. Even if a strike would strengthen Iran’s hard-liners, the United States must not prioritize the outcomes of Iran’s domestic political tussles over its vital national security interest in preventing Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.


Attacking Iran is hardly an attractive prospect. But the United States can anticipate and reduce many of the feared consequences of such an attack. If it does so successfully, it can remove the incentive for other nations in the region to start their own atomic programs and, more broadly, strengthen global nonproliferation by demonstrating that it will use military force to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons. It can also head off a possible Israeli operation against Iran, which, given Israel’s limited capability to mitigate a potential battle and inflict lasting damage, would likely result in far more devastating consequences and carry a far lower probability of success than a U.S. attack. Finally, a carefully managed U.S. attack would prove less risky than the prospect of containing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic — a costly, decades-long proposition that would likely still result in grave national security threats. Indeed, attempting to manage a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a terrible option but the worst.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq winding down and the United States facing economic hardship at home, Americans have little appetite for further strife. Yet Iran’s rapid nuclear development will ultimately force the United States to choose between a conventional conflict and a possible nuclear war. Faced with that decision, the United States should conduct a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, absorb an inevitable round of retaliation, and then seek to quickly de-escalate the crisis. Addressing the threat now will spare the United States from confronting a far more dangerous situation in the future. (CFR)

February 14, 2012 | 22 Comments »

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22 Comments / 22 Comments

  1. As an informed person on military subjects, in fact a former Senior-Fellow Engineer working then in the US Military Avionics Programs, and familiar with the subterfuges associated with that, I would like to read your basis to decide that Israel cannot on its own make decisions of self defense.
    I propose that Israel, w/o being incumbered by the US inimical present administration and the less than reliable Jewish community there could have done that for decades, but played too much attention to US internal interests.
    It is true that the US, on its own misguided actions, has come to be bankrupt, but that is not to say that others have to die so you people can survive your follies. That is not in the cards.
    Iran must be defeated not negotiated with while they develop nuclear weapons first directed at us.
    The troops and stations set up by the US so far appear to be protecting Iran, not otherwise.
    That is unwise in the extreme, then again, lack of wisdom is not a scarce commodity in the US.
    Iran’s intents are clear and woe to anyone standing in the way to the required addressing.
    We know that our dangers are great, but others must seriously consider theirs as well…

  2. After almost 15 years debating whether to bomb or not to bomb, I think the subject has been thorougly discussed enough. I can safely say the issue is well beyond the depth of most of us. ON TO THE NEXT TOPIC.

  3. Israel on its own cannot strike Iran. And America, which can certainly do so is very reluctant to get burnt again. The American public is too concerned with domestic economic woes to get sidetracked into another war. After more than a decade of frustrating wars one can understand that mindset.

  4. Attacking Iran is the best of options alongside offense on Palestine. With Barak Obama in presidency, the Jihad headquarters have been moved to whitehouse from Tora Bora caves in Afghan. While the sharia damnation is spreading the world like a contagion, there seems to be no options but to wipe “troublesome of islam” with harsh hands. If Israel takes initiative, we know that there is one country in this world where the righteous are still alive and with changing power equations in India, India would be supporting Israel given Hindu Party at power unlike those congress junk who support palestine and opposed sanctions on Iran. Those voices are not Hindu Voices, they are tyrants, and viruses inflicting india now. Go for a strike God be with you, every true Hindu and true Christian will be with you.

  5. Arnold and Jerry, get this:

    US gets Barak to backtrack and deny Iran has reached nuclear point of no-return

    When you attack Iran, it might not be such a bad idea to pack your Defense Minister into the first warhead. What is with Barak? This is the guy who, when he was PM, tried to give away just about all Yesha to the PA. Fortunately for Israel, the Arabs turned him down. Now he seems to be trying to convince the world that the Iranian tiger has no teeth, and is really a tame pussycat!

    You know, I have an idiot President in Barry Obama. Fortunately for the US, though, we don’t have the C a n adians and M e xicans (I know how to spell; my censors just seem to hate it when I type in country names) firing rockets at us every day, and threatening to wipe us off the map with nuclear weapons. I think your leaders in Israel are perhaps a little more enlightened than my own; but I wouldn’t want to trade places with you.

    God help Israel

  6. @Stewart P: May I respectfully ask what you will write if Iran successfully develops nuclear arms?

    May I respectfully ask what the consequences of nuclear weapons would be in the hands of the Iranian?

    May I respectfully ask whether Iranian WMD would adversely affect Israel?

    May I respectfully ask whether you would be willing to share personally in the consequences of Iranian possession of WMD or have you built a bomb-proof shelter for yourself and those you hold dear.

  7. Lion:


    May I respectfully ask- just where do you bomb in Iran? And with what-nukes and/ or conventional? What about the fragile world economy? Oh yes before I forget, what about the possible violent repercussions? And even if there is a successful strike, do you honestly believe that will finally end the problem? Oh there is still the question of the highly exposed U.S. troops in Afghanistan Thousands of very vulnerable American contractors (estim 15,000) in Iraq and the still simmering, but far from finished- WAR ON TERRORISM.

  8. Agreed.
    I find beyond comprehension how peoples and governments tip toe through the tulips with such monsters. Have they not proven what are they willing to do and have done against hummanity already? Is their oil more importand that the lives of tens of millions? (don’t answer that)._
    Have we forgotten 9/11? The Madrid train, Bali, dozens of buses including school buses? Night clubs, wedding halls? etc.
    Are we that washed out?
    They mean what they say. They are mass murderers believers on a CULT of DEATH and that is proven even on how the destroy each other in Assad land. etc.
    Iran must be at all costs prevented from having nuclear weapons.

  9. Re Stanley: Well reasoned, Stanley. But incomplete. By your reasoning, an Iranian attack on Israel would be much more effective than an Israeli attack on Iran, just what Rafsanjani said. Getting all those Jews in one place (Israel) makes it much easier to rid the world of them.

    Actually, with sanctions in place against Iran, an Israeli attack on Iran would be very effective. The knowledge exists, but the money will not be available for reconstruction of Iranian nuclear facilities. Moreover, the overwhelming need for “revenge” by the Iranians will be so strong as to cause the world to look away as its leaders are eliminated. I am sure that Thailand, India, Georgia, etc. will not be sorry if there is regime change in Iran. Believe you me, Hamas’ Haniyah is much more rational than his predecessors after experiencing Cast Lead personally.

  10. The negatives for an attack heavily outweigh the positives. For the fact is there is no way to really guage the effectiveness of a strike. Too many targets and the only way to possibly and only possibly ensure success is to totally destroy the country with its people. And who really wants that aside from the yokel whose name starts with a Y? He knows of whom I am referring..

  11. In which way that “offends” you Batya Casper?
    We live, work in the defense of the State and people and soldier in Eretz Israel, maybe you can let us know your stand on that?
    We are eager.
    Iran intends on the record to erase us from life and you take “offense” on plans to pre empt that.
    WOW! That far gone?

  12. Thank you Ted Belman for such a well considered, clearly stated outline of a nightmarish situation. As you say, the American public have no appetite for another war, and whereas I take strong offense at the first of Shmuel Halevi’s posts (above,) neither does Israel. War like any other operation, is never good; sometimes there is no alternative. Better now than later – or never – or when we are still living in a bad neighborhood, but with the wrong gang wielding the nukes.
    Batya Casper

  13. Iran’s nuclear program related facilities are hardened but the rest of Iran is not.
    Without their government people, power stations, water plants, oil refineries, government structures, military bases, ports, airports, aircraft, ships, trains, communications, bridges and roads, etc. I would guess reaching the nuclear centers would be made easier…

  14. At best the US admnistration will make a mock petard and boom show and no effect. Smoke and mirrors galore. CNN night news stuff for election purposes.
    In the other hand Israelis, being as a rule unfit to lead the Jewish nation following a JEWISH national interests line, will not do much more than what they have done for the last 25 years since Iran started the nuclear drive.
    The money trail says that the israeli leadershi…p has decided that they can make much more money for themselves if Iran is allowed to have nukes than if they smash the program.
    Huge numbers of new generals and colonels will be “needed” to defend us over and over again of course while betraying us all. Billions will be pumped into “defensive military systems”. etc.
    THE MONEY is on a nuclear armed Iran.

  15. Being a military guy, I know that there is never a good war; however this may be the closest thing to being one. War with Iran, along with Hizbollah and Hamas, is inevitable, the question is when.

  16. A very thorough analysis but with one critical flaw. The writer may be assuming that Obama is a real American rather than one with a Muslim agenda. Considering his entire record one cannot have any confidence that he really wants to stop Iran from getting nukes.
    Also, the U.S. has deliberately kept the world enslaved to oil when we could have had alternatives decades ago. See http://www.byronwine.com and http://www.energysuppression.com.
    And since Jimmy Carter betrayed the Shah of Iran the U.S. failed to stop them when doing so would have been far easier.
    The present crisis has a ‘made in the U.S.’ label and is causing Israel to face an existential threat.

  17. A well written article with point by point explanation of why a strike against the Iranian nuclear facilities is the least bad option. Yet it completely skips one of the key arguments in favor of the strike – that the doctrine of mutually assured destruction which worked well during the Cold War will not work with Iran. The author writes: “To be sure, a nuclear-armed Iran would not intentionally launch a suicidal nuclear war.” How can the author be so sure when scholars of Islam like Bernard Lewis and Raphael Israeli and former CIA spy Reza Kahlili who spent years among the Revolutionary Guards think exactly the opposite? MAD is Dead http://www.madisdead.blogspot.com