Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran
September 15, 2012
Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel has been perfectly clear. He wants the United States to go to war with Iran on Israel’s behalf, or, failing that, to define exactly when and how we would start our third war in the Middle East since 2001. President Obama has received these blandishments with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.
Mr Netanyahu is correct in his apparent assumption that the US can do a much better job of destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities than Israel can do alone. However, his unconcealed pressure on the president of the United States during the final stages of an election is a power play without precedent. The small ally tail does occasionally attempt to wag the American dog, but seldom so blatantly.
But, Mr. Netanyahu’s objectives and tactics aside, the real question is whether the United States or anyone else should go to war with Iran over its nuclear program. What would the benefits be? What would be the costs?
Those issue have been addressed dispassionately and authoritatively by a bipartisan study that appeared last week. Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran is a 57-page study produced by the Iran Project, a non-governmental organization that seeks to improve official contacts between the United States and Iranian governments. I have benefited from attending a number of their research and analysis sessions, though I played no role in the production of this paper.
The study was endorsed by a star-studded group of more than thirty former senior U.S. officials with generations of experience in the national security realm. They include well-know Republicans and Democrats, including former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as senior military officers with extensive experience in the Persian Gulf region, ambassadors and State Department officials, members of Congress and others.
The study recognizes that a number of benefits could potentially be realized by an effective use of military force against Iran. A concentrated strike could damage Iran’s capability to enrich uranium, degrade Iran’s military capacity, demonstrate US credibility and resolve, and potentially deter nuclear proliferation more generally.
However, unlike most papers advocating for or against the use of military force, this study then proceeds to balance carefully the perceived gains against the anticipated costs. The authors do not draw any conclusions or make any recommendations, but anyone who reads this paper with the attention it deserves cannot help but be impressed by the gravity and supreme danger of a decision to initiate military action.
In addition to Iran’s likely direct and indirect retaliation against the United States and Israel, a military strike would probably result in a breakdown of hard won international solidarity against Iran’s nuclear program. An attack on a Muslim nation could enhance the recruiting ability of radical Islamist groups and further damage US credibility globally. It would likely rally the Iranian population behind its current hard-line leadership and, perversely, increase Iran’s motivation to build a bomb. Iran might also withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and end all cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), leaving the international community with greatly reduced knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program.
Military conflict in the Gulf would certainly result in global political and economic instability, including disruptions in energy supply and security. In addition to costing the U.S. economy hundreds of billions of dollars yearly, a sustained conflict would boost the price of oil and further disrupt an already fragile world economy.
The study provides a considered answer to some of the most important questions concerning Iran’s nuclear program.
Has Iran taken a decision to build a nuclear weapon?
United States intelligence officials believe that no decision to develop a nuclear weapon has been made by Iran’s Supreme Leader… .Given extensive monitoring and surveillance of Iranian activities, signs of an Iranian decision to build a nuclear weapon would likely be detected.
If they took such a decision, how long would it take to make a bomb?
Given Iran’s current centrifuge capacity and stockpiles of enriched uranium, and the technical challenges entailed in fashioning even a crude, testable nuclear device, conservative estimates suggest that it would take Iran a year or more to build a military grade weapon, once the decision was made to do so. At least two years or more would be required to create a nuclear warhead that is reliably deliverable by a missile.
What if Iran is cheating?
U.S. intelligence officials have expressed confidence that Iran has not yet built any new, undeclared nuclear facilities and that there is a good—but not perfect—chance that new clandestine enrichment facilities could be detected on a timely basis.
What are our options if Iran does decide to proceed toward building a nuclear weapon?
Given the time required for Iran to progress from the decision to weaponize to possession of a reliable, deliverable weapon, the United States would have an opportunity to develop international support for multilateral action against Iran, including further sanctions, additional negotiations, and the use of military force.
Could it all be done from the air?
If the U.S. decided to seek a more ambitious objective, such as regime change in Iran or undermining Iran’s influence in the region, then an even greater commitment of force would be required to occupy all or part of the country. Given Iran’s large size and population, and the strength of Iranian nationalism, we estimate that the occupation of Iran would require a commitment of resources and personnel greater than what the U.S. has expended over the past 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
This study is a compendium of the best information available on this sensitive issue, presented in a clear and readable style by people who know what they are talking about.