A Cure Worse than the Disease

Reuel Marc Gerecht provides a provocative analysis of the Iran problem that continues to bedevil U.S. foreign policy. Iran would be at or near the top of a list of countries Americans would least like to see have nuclear weapons, and the reason for apprehension has deepened dramatically in the past year with the emergence of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Ultimately, though, Gerecht’s policy prescription—preventive military action to eliminate (or more accurately, to delay) Tehran’s nuclear program—is a classic case of a cure that is worse than the disease.

It is somewhat surprising (and gratifying) that Gerecht distances himself from the favorite panacea of other neoconservatives—somehow orchestrating an overthrow of the clerical regime without an extensive U.S. military role. Unfortunately, he attributes the limitations of that approach to the alleged lack of enthusiasm for pro-democracy covert operations on the part of the CIA and other government agencies rather than to the inherent impracticality of the scheme. Enthusiastic proponents of regime change, such as Gerecht’s colleague at the American Enterprise Institute Michael Ledeen, have no such doubts. According to them, there is so much Iranian public opposition to the mullahs that a U.S. propaganda offensive combined with financial and logistical assistance to prospective insurgents would be sufficient to topple the regime.

Such a thesis might seem more plausible if we had not heard similar arguments in the years leading up to the Iraq war. Those arguments were quietly buried when the time for action arrived. Saddam Hussein’s overthrow was carried out by a massive application of U.S. military power. If the United States adopts a strategy of regime change in Iran, it is likely that an even greater military effort would be required.

Gerecht’s strategy of preemptive air strikes against Iran’s nuclear installations may be more practical than the chimera of easy regime change, but it is also more dangerous. Proponents of preventive military action typically cite the successful Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 as a model. There are numerous problems with that approach, however. Osirak was one easily identified, above-ground site. There are numerous nuclear-related sites in Iran–many of which are in or near major population centers, maximizing the probable number of civilian casualties in an attack. Indeed, thousands of innocent Iranians would perish in U.S. air strikes.

Moreover, there is no certainty that we have identified all of the relevant targets. There could be many other covert facilities, since Tehran has had nearly three decades to pursue its nuclear activities. Worst of all, some of the installations may be in reinforced, underground locations. Taking out such sites with conventional weapons would be problematic at best. Although some ultra-hawkish types have mused about using nuclear “bunker busters” for the required strikes, crossing the nuclear threshold is a momentous step that could come back to haunt the United States in multiple ways.

Even launching conventional strikes would be extremely dangerous. At the very least, Tehran would be tempted to cause even more trouble than it is already doing for U.S. and British occupation forces in Iraq. The infiltration of a few thousand dedicated Revolutionary Guards could accomplish that goal. The Iranian regime would also be tempted to unleash its terrorist ally, Hezbollah, on American targets throughout the Middle East. And there is always the risk that an attacked and humiliated Iran might do something incredibly rash, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz or launching attacks against Israel, triggering a massive regional crisis.

Finally, there is the probable impact on the rest of the Muslim world. If the United States attacks yet another Muslim country (which would make three in the last five years), there will not be a Muslim from Morocco to Malaysia who will not believe that Washington is out to destroy their culture and religion. America’s troubles with the Islamic world do not yet constitute a war of civilizations, but Gerecht’s strategy could well produce that result. The military option is one that no rational U.S. policymaker should consider.

Gerecht is correct that the current round of diplomacy led by the EU-3, and now finally joined by the United States, will probably not produce a solution to the nuclear problem. The most discussed alternative, UN-mandated economic sanctions, holds out little prospect of success either. Even if Russia and China ultimately go along with meaningful sanctions (and that is not likely), sanctions have a dismal historical record when it comes to getting regimes to abandon high-priority policies. And acquiring a nuclear arsenal appears to be a high-priority policy for Tehran. That leaves two other options.

The first is to accept a nuclear-armed Iran and rely on a policy of containment and deterrence. Gerecht is skeptical of that approach, but it is a policy that has a good track record.

Admittedly, the presence of Ahmadinejad makes the deterrence option more nerve-wracking. It is worth remembering, though, that Iran’s political system is fairly diffuse, and Ahmadinejad is only one actor among many. Indeed, despite his lofty title of president, he had to submit several candidates before he induced the parliament to approve his nominee for oil minister. Iran, under Ahmadinejad, is not a tightly centralized system like Germany under Hitler and the Soviet Union under Stalin where one man’s decision could plunge the nation into war.

The experience of dealing with Stalin is pertinent in another way. The United States has successfully deterred other repugnant and bizarre regimes. Stalin was a genocidal psychopath, yet he was never so reckless as to attack a nuclear-armed America or even U.S. allies in Western Europe.

Washington’s experience with China in the 1960s and early 1970s is perhaps even more pertinent. China became a nuclear power under Mao Zedong, a leader who exceeded even Stalin’s record of genocide. His publicly enunciated views on nuclear warfare also were alarming in the extreme. His boast that China could outlast the United States in a nuclear war of attrition so disturbed the other communist giant, the USSR, that Soviet leaders hastened to assure their American counterparts that such thinking in no way reflected the Kremlin’s views.

China also emerged as a nuclear power on the eve of the Cultural Revolution. China during that orgy of fanaticism makes today’s Iran look like a normal, even sedate, country. U.S. policymakers were understandably very uneasy about China joining the ranks of nuclear-weapons states. Yet they rejected the advice of those inside and outside government who advocated military action to take out Beijing’s nuclear program. Given the constructive changes that have taken place in China, and the important relationship that has grown up between Washington and Beijing in the past three decades, history has vindicated a policy of restraint.

A similar policy of caution and deterrence may also pay off with Iran. It is not an easy or comfortable course to advocate, but it is more realistic and less dangerous than launching another preventive war.

Containment and deterrence is not the optimal strategy, however. We should make a serious diplomatic effort to get Iran to give up its quest for nuclear weapons–and that means going substantially beyond the scope of the current EU-3-led negotiations. Washington should propose a grand bargain to Tehran. That means giving an assurance that the United States will not use force against Iran the way we did against such nonnuclear adversaries as Serbia and Iraq. It also means offering restored diplomatic relations and normal economic relations. In return, Iran would be required to open its nuclear program to unfettered international inspections to guarantee that the program is used solely for peaceful power-generation purposes.

It is possible that Tehran would spurn a proposed grand bargain, since the Iranian political elite seems divided about whether to seek a rapprochement with the United States. Indeed, Iran may be unalterably determined to join the global nuclear weapons club. But we will never know for certain unless we make the offer.

If Iran turns down the proposal, Washington’s fall-back position should be to rely on deterrence. The one thing we should not do is start yet another war.


Ted Galen Carpenter is vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Cognitive Dissonance: The State of America’s Iran Policy by Reuel Marc Gerecht

    In this month’s lead essay, American Enterprise Institute resident fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht argues that American and European diplomacy aimed at derailing the Iranian clerical regime’s quest for nuclear weapons is, for various reasons, bound to fail. Gerecht maintains that we are then left to with two unattractive alternatives. “Is it better to preventively bomb the clerics’ nuclear facilities, or allow the mullahs to have nuclear weapons?” he asks. Arguing that the latter option “would empower its worst enemies in Tehran and spiritually invigorate all Muslim radicals who live on American weakness,” Gerecht advises the former: a policy of preemptively bombing Iran’s nuclear sites.

Response Essays

  • We Have the Right Policy Now and Better Options for the Future by Anthony H. Cordesman

    In his reply to Reuel Marc Gerecht’s lead essay, Anthony H. Cordesman, Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, argues the U.S. must exhaust all its diplomatic options before taking military action against Iran, especially given the shaky situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any case, Cordesman argues, airstrikes are unlikely to be succeed in stopping the Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Further, Iran already has lethal chemical and biological capacities, and the ability to strike back seriously in a variety of ways. If a strike becomes necessary after the exhaustion of non-military options, it would be better to wait until the targets are clearer. Containment and deterrence, Cordesman maintains, may be a more effective approach.

  • Before Bombing: A Three-Year Plan for Iran by Edward N. Luttwak

    Center for Strategic and International Studies senior advisor Edward N. Luttwak argues that if diplomatic efforts fail, “the United States must be ready to bomb the buildings that are likely to house critical processes and equipment.” This can be a single quick strike, and need not destroy all the many Iranian facilities, Luttwak argues, because “the purpose is not to solve the problem presented by Iran or even its nuclear program, but only to delay the acquisition of nuclear weapons as long as possible, in the hopes that a better regime comes along.” The Iranians can get nukes no sooner than three years, though, so within that time the U.S. should concentrate on weakening the Iranian regime through non-military punitive measures. Furthemore, Luttwak maintains that Iran could fragment along national lines. “There are at least 20 million Azeris in Western Iran who are increasingly determined to assert their nationality,” Luttwak say, and U.S. policy aimed at weakening Iran should support them.

The Conversation