Zachary Keck

Attacking Iran is Still a Fool’s Errand

The arguments for a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities are as unconvincing as ever.

Zachary Keck
Attacking Iran is Still a Fool’s Errand
Credit: Office of Iran’s President

In what can sometimes feel like the stagnant academic fields of nuclear proliferation and strategic studies, Georgetown University Professor Matthew Kroenig has emerged as one of the most interesting and dynamic scholars in recent memories. Besides quickly compiling an impressive list of scholarly publications, Kroenig has further distinguished himself (in my book at least) by making important policy contributions to U.S. counterterrorism policy when he worked at the Defense Department, as well as regularly using his scholarly expertise to contribute to policy debates.

That being said, I’ve found some of his policy articles — though by no means all of them — considerably less impressive than his academic work. None more so than a widely discussed piece he published in Foreign Affairs in early 2012, making the case for a U.S. attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. As it turns out, Kroenig has recently published an updated version of the article, arguing that the U.S. will still likely have to attack Iran despite the progress in negotiations (Colin Kahl, who responded to Kroenig’s first piece, has also updated his response).

In some ways, Kroenig’s case for why the U.S. should attack Iran is consistent with his academic work on nuclear non-proliferation. Although professing that a “truly comprehensive diplomatic settlement between Iran and the West is still the best possible outcome,” Kroenig goes on to argue that the only acceptable diplomatic solution would be one in which Iran was left with no enrichment capabilities whatsoever. That’s because, according to Kroenig, any deal that allows Iran to enrich even to 5 percent levels would make it far too easy for Iran to quickly acquire the bomb in the future, something Kroenig believes Iranian leaders will decide to do without question. Since Iran would never accept any deal that precludes it from enriching even to 5 percent levels, Kroenig calculates that the prospects for reaching a worthwhile deal with Iran are dim. As a result, the U.S. should be ready to attack, and is likely to have to do so at some point.

This is broadly consistent with Kroenig’s only book to date, Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, which is a most read. The major conclusion of the book is that states provide nuclear assistance to other states primarily for strategic — not economic — reasons. However, in making this case, Kroenig breaks with most recent nuclear proliferation scholars in focusing on the “supply-side” of the proliferation question — that is, the technological barriers to building a nuclear weapon — rather than the political factors that lead states to decide to pursue or forgo trying to build one (demand-side factors). Thus, he contends that states that receive important nuclear assistance from nuclear weapon states are substantially more likely to become nuclear weapon states themselves.

The focus on the supply-side proliferation factors is a much needed change in light of the growing number of states that have tried and failed to build a nuclear weapon. That being said, while technological factors need to be considered, nuclear proliferation is still primarily a political decision made on the basis of political factors. Yet, in his argument for why a deal with Iran will never work, Kroenig implicitly dismisses political factors as wholly irrelevant.

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Thus, he argues that even in an environment characterized by a U.S.-Iran rapprochement, and no matter how many years or decades go by, the current Iranian regime would still covertly develop a nuclear bomb. It’s never explained why Iranian leaders would give up the considerable benefits they’d gain from such a strategic environment by developing a nuclear arsenal. Nor does Kroenig explain for what purposes they would develop the nuclear bomb.

Ignoring all political factors to focus on the technological barriers to the bomb also explains why Kroenig believes, mistakenly in my opinion, that attacking Iran would make a nuclear-armed Iran less likely. To be sure, there would be limited technological benefits to be gained from attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities. As Kroenig noted in his initial article on why the U.S. should attack Iran, for all the attention Stuxnet received, Iran quickly recovered the lost centrifuges. In this article, Kroenig contends that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities would “set Iran’s nuclear program back a number of years, at a minimum.”

Although history suggests it would set Iran’s nuclear program back a number of a years at a maximum, even if Kroenig is correct in his assessment, attacking Iran would still make a nuclear-armed Iran more likely because of the political factors. As Kroenig himself notes, the Iranian regime currently looks strong in terms of its staying power. An attack on the country by the U.S. would make it virtually unthinkable that the Islamic Republic will fall from power in the foreseeable future. Instead, it would greatly increase domestic support for the regime itself, as well as the nuclear program. Many Iranians who currently only support peaceful nuclear activities would immediately become leading proponents of acquiring the bomb. In this atmosphere, the regime would be able to mobilize more domestic resources to oblige their wishes.

Meanwhile, the international situation for Iran would greatly improve. The current sanctions regime against Iran would evaporate overnight, also vastly increasing the resources Iran could devote to its nuclear program. Furthermore, many non-Western former colonies would likely publicly pledge to help rebuild Iran’s nuclear program. Crucially, Iranian leaders would no longer be stuck with the thorny issue of how to renege on its past pledge that its nuclear program is solely for peaceful purposes. Who outside of the U.S. or the larger Western world would blame Iranian leaders for acquiring the weapons it so clearly needs to protect itself from foreign aggression? Certainly not India, Brazil, South Africa, Russia or China.

In such an atmosphere, the only way the U.S. could prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon would be by attacking it every two or three years indefinitely (what Israel calls a “mowing the grass” policy). The political, economic and military costs of doing so would be enormous. The first victim would be the Asia pivot, which could be rightly declared officially dead. Eventually, intelligence failures or American fatigue (such as in the wake of a huge economic crisis, natural disaster or because of the increasing international costs) would prevent the U.S. from destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities on time. As a result, an Iran with a strong desire for revenge would now have a nuclear deterrent.

Other aspects of Kroenig’s Iran commentary are at odds with his academic publications. For example, Kroenig’s case for attacking Iran is predicated on the notion that a nuclear-armed Iran is fundamentally unacceptable to U.S. interests. Yet, Kroenig’s own recent scholarship suggests a nuclear-armed Iran would not matter much. Specifically, one of his most recent (and most path-breaking) academic studies concluded that nuclear superiority substantially bolstered a state’s ability to prevail in international crises. Thus, Kroenig contends that one of the key factors in the outcome of the Cuban Missile Crisis was the fact that at the time the U.S. could attack the Soviet Union with at least hundreds of nuclear weapons, while only a few Soviet warheads could reach the U.S. homeland.

But if this is the case, then a nuclear-armed Iran is surely not going to fundamentally alter many realities on the ground. After all, even if Iran acquires a nuclear weapon, its arsenal will inevitably be many times smaller than that of the United States. Moreover, it will be decades before Iran is capable of deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States. Meanwhile, for as long as a nuclear Iran exists, the U.S. will always field a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying Iran as a viable nation state. Indeed, while Iran is a huge country (about the size of Western Europe) its population is highly concentrated in a few major cities.

It’s possible that Kroenig’s main concern with Iran acquiring nuclear weapons is that it would set off a nuclear arms race in the already volatile Middle East. But this notion runs contrary to the historical record and his focus on the importance of technological factors for explaining nuclear non-proliferation. Iran’s Arab neighbors would almost certainly require two decades or more to build their own nuclear weapons (some contend that Pakistan would give Saudi Arabia a bomb but this case falls apart quickly when one considers that Islamabad has overwhelming strategic incentives to not do so, as well as nothing to gain from doing so.)