Stephen M. Walt

Kroenig’s case for war with Iran

Background: Last week I posted a sharply-worded critique of a forthcoming article by Matthew Kroenig in which he advocated preventive war with Iran.  Kroenig asked me for the opportunity to respond here, and his reply is posted below.  I’ll post a final rejoinder tomorrow. Matthew Kroenig writes: I would like to thank Steve Walt for ...

FarsNews/Getty Images
FarsNews/Getty Images

Background: Last week I posted a sharply-worded critique of a forthcoming article by Matthew Kroenig in which he advocated preventive war with Iran.  Kroenig asked me for the opportunity to respond here, and his reply is posted below.  I’ll post a final rejoinder tomorrow.

Matthew Kroenig writes:

I would like to thank Steve Walt for commenting on my article and for offering me this opportunity to respond to his critique.  U.S. policy on Iran’s steadily advancing nuclear program is a critically important national security issue that evokes strong passions on all sides.  Whether opponents like it or not, the military option is being seriously considered in high-level policy circles in Washington DC and outside analysts have a responsibility to fully debate the merits of this course of action in order to inform these ongoing discussions.

Let me begin by placing this debate in its proper context.  In the coming months, it is possible, perhaps even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice between putting in place a deterrence and containment regime to deal with anuclear-armed Iran or authorizing military action designed to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.  The dilemma we face is not between the status quo or conflict, but between two very different and more dangerous worlds.  The options are terrible, but, as the subtitle of my Foreign Affairs article states, my assessment is that, if forced to choose, a surgical strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities "is the least bad option."

In his blog post, Walt accuses me of following a "blue print" for advocating the use of force in which I exaggerate the threat of Iranian proliferation and downplay the risks of military action.  But, by necessity, any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force.  Any particular call for military action cannot simply be discredited, therefore, by claiming that it follows a "blueprint."  Rather, the issue comes down to an analysis of the relative merits of each option. 

Unfortunately, Walt is guilty of the exact opposite crime of which he accuses me, namely assuming that we shouldn’t worry about a nuclear-armed Iran and insinuating that the U.S. will necessarily bungle any military mission.  He also mischaracterizes my argument.

First, Walt accuses me of advocating a strike "despite no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing an actual bomb" and in violation of international law.  Putting aside for now the preponderance of evidence suggesting that Iran is determined to develop nuclear weapons, I’ll take this opportunity to clarify my argument.  I don’t argue that Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack.  Rather, I maintain that conditions might "ultimately force the United States to choose" between these unattractive options, that we should therefore begin "building global support for (military action) in advance," and strike 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." (I apologize if the cause of this misunderstanding was a lack of clarity in my original article).

Second, Walt systematically discounts the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran.  Iran currently restrains its support for terrorists and proxy groups out of fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation, butwith a nuclear counter-deterrent it could be confident that it could avoid the worst forms of retaliation, allowing it to be more aggressive.  Iran’s nuclear program would likely fuel nuclear proliferation globally as: other countries in the region seek nuclear weapons to counter Iran, Iran itself becomes a nuclear supplier at risk of transferring uranium enrichment technology to budding nuclear programs in Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere, and the teetering nonproliferation regime is further weakened.  Walt argues that we should not worry that Iran’s proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons because these additional nuclear-armed states could help us deter a nuclear-armed Iran, but anyone else would rightly dismiss the idea that a Middle Eastern arms race is somehow good for U.S. national security. 

If Iran becomes more assertive internationally, we could see an even more crisis-prone Middle East.  Walt wrongly asserts that my fear that Iran could threaten nuclear war to constrain U.S. military andpolitical freedom of action in the Middle East is a "bizarre fantasy," but let’s not forget the lessons of the Cold War.  Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis?  The United States was not a suicidal state, but we were willing to risk nuclear war to prevent the Soviet Union from forward-deploying nuclear weapons on the territory of its ally.  Similarly, a nuclear-armed Iran could threaten nuclear war in response to any U.S. initiative in the Middle East.  And, more importantly, any future crisis involving a nuclear-armed Iran could escalate, resulting in possible nuclear war between Iran and its neighbors or even Iran and the United States.  Some might argue that deterrence will work, but such a statement betrays a misunderstanding of deterrence theory.  As I explain in my forthcoming article in International Organization, in order for deterrence to work, there must be a real risk that any crisis could spin out of control and result in a nuclear exchange.  My reading of the Cold War is not that mutually assured destruction leads to stability, but that we were incredibly lucky to avoid a nuclear war.

Moreover, Walt is incorrect to claim that deterring and containing Iran would not add to U.S. defense burdens.  When the United States has imposed deterrence regimes in the past we have dedicated great economic, military, and political resources to the task.  Similarly, every serious plan for deterring and containing a nuclear-armed Iran (and for the additional steps that would be required to assure nervous allies and partners in the region) currently being proposed by think tanks in Washington calls for a massive increase in our commitments to the region. 

In short, opponents of a bombing campaign are not proponents of peace, but rather by default they are advocates for a multi-billion-dollar, decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East that will likely buy us decreased influence, a more crisis-prone region, the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries, a Middle-Eastern nuclear scare every few years, and an increased risk of nuclear war.

Third, as I explain in the article and despite Walt’s skepticism, we have a viable military option to forestall and perhaps even prevent this outcome.  It is unlikely that Iran has significant operating nuclear facilities that we do not already know about and the United States could destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities even though some are buried and hardened.  Walt attempts to poke holes in these arguments, but I support them with strong evidence.  According to open source reporting, Natanz is buried under 75 feet of earth and several meters of concrete.  The Massive Ordnance Penetrator is capable of penetrating up to 200 feet of reinforced concrete.  I will leave it up to the reader to do the math.

I was also surprised that Walt accused me of glossing over the risks of a military campaign.  As other readers of the article know, I fully engage with the many negative consequences of military action, including possible Iranian missile and terror attacks against U.S. bases, ships, and allies in the region.  I also propose, however, a mitigation strategy to help limit the damage from Iranian retaliation and the other negative consequences of a strike.  Walt calls this being overly optimistic, but I call it a necessary part of good contingency planning.  A key point is that any assessments of the likely consequences of a strike must also take into consideration the strong measures that Washington and others will take to mitigate those consequences. 

My bottom-line judgment is heavily shaped by the gravity of the various threats and time horizons.  Iran’s current asymmetric response options could potentially be painful, but the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran, such as nuclear war, would be much worse.  And while the United States and its allies would incur the costs of a strike in the weeks and months following an attack, we would be forced to confront the challenges posed by a nuclear-armed Tehran as long as Iran exists as a state and possesses nuclear weapons. This could be years, decades, or even longer.  Thus, while a bombing campaign could be more costly in the short term, it is my assessment that it would be in the long-term national interest of the country.

As I make clear in my article, there are real risks to either attempting to deter andcontain a nuclear-armed Iran, or conducting a military strike designed to prevent Iran from proliferating.  My analysis leads me to believe that bombing Iran’s key nuclear facilities and attempting to immediately de-escalate the crisis, poses less of a risk than dealing with the many threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran for years to come.  I understand that reasonable people can disagree, but in order to do so for the right reasons they must have access to the best information.  I hope that this exchange helps shed light on public discussions of this critical issue.   

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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