Stephen M. Walt

Why attacking Iran is still a bad idea

Background:  Matthew Kroenig has written a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, advocating a preventive war against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  I criticized his arguments in a previous post, and Kroenig offered this defense in response.  Here is my rejoinder. Matthew Kroenig’s defense of his Foreign Affairs article calling for launching a preventive ...

IIPA via Getty Images
IIPA via Getty Images

Background:  Matthew Kroenig has written a provocative article in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, advocating a preventive war against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  I criticized his arguments in a previous post, and Kroenig offered this defense in response.  Here is my rejoinder.

Matthew Kroenig’s defense of his Foreign Affairs article calling for launching a preventive war against Iran does little to strengthen his case.  He provides no additional evidence to explain why war is necessary; nor does he remedy the gaps and inconsistencies in his original analysis.  Given that he’s now had two swings at the same pitch, one may safely conclude that there is no good case for attacking Iran.

It is clear from the beginning of Kroenig’s response that he misunderstood the central point of my critique.  I accused him of employing the "classic blueprint" for justifying a preventive war, whereby one exaggerates the dangers of inaction, overstates the benefits of war, and understates the costs and risks of employing force.  Kroenig responds by pointing out that "any decision to use force rests on the judgment that the costs of not using force outweigh the costs of using force," and he seems to think that this was the feature of his analysis to which I objected.  Not so: my objection was to the one-sided way in which he conducted his assessment. 

As I noted in my original post, Kroenig assumes that Iran’s leaders are firmly committed to obtaining a nuclear weapon (as opposed to a latent capability), even though U.S. intelligence agencies still reject this conclusion.  He provides no hard evidence demonstrating that the 2007 and 2011 National Intelligence Estimates on Iran are wrong.  Furthermore, he assumes that a nuclear-armed Iran would unleash a series of fearsome consequences, even though we have no theory that explains how Iran could use its nuclear weapons for offensive purposes, and no examples of other nuclear-armed states doing so successfully in the past.  He also assumes that rejecting the war option will force the United States to maintain a costly and dangerous "containment and deterrence regime" for decades.�� In short, when considering the "no-war" scenario, he consistently employs worst-case analysis. 

When making the case for how a war against Iran will succeed, however, he switches to "best-case" assumptions about the short-term consequences, the dangers of escalation, and the long-term benefits, even though each of his forecasts is wide open to challenge.  My point was not that Kroenig failed to discuss the costs and benefits of using or not using force; it was that if he had adopted a similar standard on both sides of the equation, his conclusion that war was the "least bad" option would fall apart.

Kroenig’s piece in Foreign Affairs is entitled "Time to Attack Iran." However, he says in his response to me that he doesn’t think "Washington should immediately launch a bolt-from-the-blue attack."  Indeed, he now appears to concede that Iran might not be developing nuclear weapons and that we should wait to see if it takes certain measures (expels inspectors, enriches uranium to weapons grade levels, installs advanced centrifuges, etc.) before unleashing the dogs of war.  But these arguments contradict both his title and his original argument, which is that preventive war is the least bad option and now is the time to do it.  We are thus left wondering: is Iran developing nuclear weapons or not ?  And if Kroenig isn’t sure, is it really "Time to Attack?" 

Kroenig tells us that "in the coming months, it is possible, even likely, that a U.S. President will be forced to make a gut-wrenching choice" between containment or military action (my emphasis), and he recommends we "begin building global support for (military action) in advance."  As I’ve noted before, the danger here is that if you keep repeating that preventive war against Iran is necessary, people gradually become comfortable with the idea and assume that it is going to occur eventually.  In fact, if we beat the war drums for months but don’t attack, you can be confident that people like Kroenig will then arguethat U.S. credibility is on the line and we have to strike, lest those dangerous Iranians conclude we are paper tigers.

As in his original article, Kroenig’s image of Iran is simplistic and contradictory. He portrays it as a highly capable and dangerously ambitious power, whose support for terrorism and proxy groups is supposedly restrained only by "fear of U.S. or Israeli retaliation."  But he never describes Iran’s actual capabilities (which are quite modest) or explains why the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests is grave enough to warrant rolling the iron dice of war.  Nor does he discuss Iranian threat perceptions, internal politics, or foreign policy strategy (including how its policies have evolved over time), or consider the possibility that some of its activities (including its support for some extremist groups) are an asymmetric response to past U.S. efforts to isolate and marginalize it.   Instead, his portrait of Iran is conveniently contradictory: as Paul Pillar puts it, for Kroenig "the same regime that if not attacked can be expected to do all sorts of highly aggressive things . . . turns into a calm paragon of caution, respectful of U.S. ‘redlines’ once the United States starts waging war against it."  If "knowing one’s enemy" is a prerequisite for going to war, Kroenig has a lot of work to do.

Kroenig also misunderstands my comment about the possibility that an Iranian bomb might prompt others countries in the region to go nuclear. Contrary to what he writes, I did not say "we should not worry that Iran’s proliferation will cause other states in the region to acquire nuclear weapons."  Rather, my point was that if there were proliferation beyond Iran, it would give other states in the neighborhood the ability to deter Iran and make it impossible for Tehran to wield the coercive leverage that Kroenig (not me) thinks it would gain by building a bomb.  To be clear: I think it would be better if Iran and its neighbors stayed on this side of the nuclear threshold.  But unlike Kroenig, I’m not prepared to panic and start a major war at the possibility that they won’t.

I remain baffled by Kroenig’s belief that crossing the nuclear threshold would give Iran a credible capacity to push the United States around by making nuclear threats.  He repeats his claim that a "nuclear-armed Iran could threaten nuclear war in response to any U.S. initiative in the Middle East," but he fails to explain why such actions would work.  Iran’s leaders could make whatever threats they wished, of course, but the salient question is whether we would have to take those threats seriously.  Does Kroenig think Iran could veto a new U.S. initiative to mediate Israeli-Palestinian peace, or to organize a new regional peace conference, by threatening to rain warheads down upon us?  Does he believe Iran could credibly threaten to attack us if we wanted to conduct a military exercise with a key regional ally, or if the Pentagon decided to redeploy forces somewhere in the area, or if Washington launched a new initiative to promote democracy and human rights in the region? 

I repeat my original point: if it would be that easy for a nuclear-armed Iran to coerce the United States into doing things it does not want to do, then why haven’t other nuclear powers been able to do that to us in the past?  By Kroenig’s logic, the Soviet Union should have had a field day pushing us around during the Cold War.  But that did not happen; in fact, the Soviets never even tried to use their huge nuclear arsenal to coerce us.  The reason, of course, is that Soviet threats would not have been credible because any attempt to carry them out would have led to national suicide.  The same logic applies to Iran.  We know it, and so do they, which is why this familiar bogeyman should not be taken seriously.

Kroenig’s claim that failure to strike soon will force the United States to invest vast sums on a "containment and deterrence regime" is equally unconvincing.  He says "when the United States has imposed deterrence regimes in the past we have dedicated great economic, military, and political resources to the task."  Yes, but that was because the United States was seeking to contain and deter theUSSR, a major power rival with substantial industrial capacity, a large andpowerful mass army, some significant allies, and (eventually) a vast nuclear arsenal of its own.  Iran is a minor power by comparison, and will never be in the same league as the Soviet Union was.

Even more importantly, Kroenig seems to have forgotten that the United States already has a significant military presence in the Gulf region, and additional forces allocated to intervening there when necessary.  These forces, and the security ties that they support, long predate Iran’s nuclear program, and given Iran’s modest conventional capabilities, they provide the necessary ingredients for a successful containment regime for the foreseeable future. I might add that Kroenig never identifies the exorbitant additional measures that he believes would be necessary if we fail to strike soon. In short, even if Iran does get nuclear weapons someday, there is little need to augment our existing force structure or alter our alliance relationships in any meaningful way.  And by the way: the fact that a few unnamed Washington think tanks are in favor of "massive increases in our commitments to the region" doesn’t mean that this is a sound idea, because think tanks inside the Beltway often propose dubious ideas, as we learned in the run-up to the Iraq war.

Kroenig actually goes so far as to make the foolish argument that "opponents of a bombing campaign are not proponents of peace, but rather by default they are advocates of a multibillion dollar, decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East."  (Readers with good memories will recall that this same argument was used to explain why we could not contain SaddamHussein in perpetuity, but had to overthrow him instead).  But this charge makes sense only if you believe that attacking Iran would lead us to end our "decades-long U.S. commitment to the security of the Middle East."  Does Kroenig think whacking Iran would enable the United States to withdraw completely from the region, terminate our security partnerships with Israel, Jordan, and assorted Persian Gulf states, and disband the Rapid Deployment Force?  I doubt it.  Moreover, if we do attack Iran, we could easily find ourselves in a protracted conflict that would make the Middle East a more dangerous and unstable region.  This would neither be good for the United States nor enable us to reduce our security commitments there.

The bottom line is that the United States is going to remain committed to defending its interests in the Persian Gulf–whether we go to war with Iran or not–and the price tag for doing so is likely to be roughly similar whether Iran has nuclear weapons or not.  It is therefore disingenuous for Kroenig to suggest that the opponents of war are advocating a costly long-term commitment to the region but the proponents of preventive war are trying to save money and reduce our defense burdens. 

Kroenig says he is surprised by my charge that he glossed over the risks of a military campaign.  In response, he says that he "fully engaged" with the many negative consequences of an attack and "proposed a mitigation strategy" for each one.  But identifying downsides and "proposing" some mitigating countermeasures is insufficient: one has to explain in considerable detail how they would work and think seriously about the various ways that this best case might go wrong.

Let’s assume, however, that all goes according to plan and we knock out virtually all of Iran’s nuclear facilities.  As Kroenig acknowledges in his Foreign Affairs article, even a completely successful war would not end Iran’s capability to build nuclear weapons once and for all.  We would merely have bought ourselves a few years, because the Iranians–who would probably be mad as hornets–would surely set out to build nuclear weapons in a secure location to deter the United States from attacking their homeland again. All of this is to say that we cannot prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons if it wants them badly enough, and attacking them in the immediate future is likely to make them want those weapons even more.  Nuclear weapons are the ultimate deterrent, after all, which is why Israel, the United States, and several other countries have nuclear arsenals today and no intention of getting rid of them anytime soon.

Finally, it is striking that Kroenig’s response does not engage the legal or moral implications that I raised in my original critique.  It appears that he remains untroubled by the fact that many innocent people will die and many more will be wounded if the United States follows his advice to launch a major bombing campaign against Iran. He seems equally at ease with the ideathat the United States would be launching an unprovoked war of aggression, which would be in clear violation of international law.  And still people wonder: "why do they hate us?" 

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

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