Five Reasons Why Obama Will Bomb Iran
Yesterday we detailed five reasons why it's unlikely that the Obama administration will take military action against Iran's nuclear program. While that remains (in my view) where the smart money would lie, the case is far from open-and-shut, and there are five reasons why the administration would prove me wrong and opt to use military force against the Islamic Republic:
1. Goodbye Global Zero: One of the Obama administration's more ambitious schemes is to rid the world of nuclear weapons. Such a goal is certainly not advanced by allowing yet another state to join the nuclear roster. And it wouldn't just be Iran. Once it became clear that Tehran had crossed the nuclear threshold, a cascade of proliferation could wash over the Middle East as states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt scrambled for their own nuclear deterrent. To prevent such an outcome, the U.S. would be forced to extend its own "nuclear umbrella" over the region - an act that would reinforce the utility of nuclear weapons and fatally undermine the administration's case for abolishing them.
2. A Belief That Iran Is Irrational (or Dysfunctional): During the Cold War, the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction kept the U.S. and the Soviet Union from triggering World War III. Both sides properly understood that a nuclear exchange would be suicidal, and neither side was interested in such a fiery death. Would Iran's theocratic regime be bound by the same Earthly fears and restraint? While Iran's leadership has never behaved in a manner that could be accurately characterized as suicidal, the image of the un-deterrable Islamist suicide bomber has been seared into America's consciousness since 9/11. President Obama may not want to take the chance.
Even if the upper reaches of the clerical leadership could be counted on to stay rational, there's a second concern: that more radical elements in Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps may seize control of one or more nuclear weapons and take matters into their own hands. Such rogue, or at least independently-minded, operatives are thought to be behind the alleged plot to assassinate a Saudi diplomat on U.S. soil.
3. An Iranian Bomb Threatens Israel: No states rank as high in Washington's esteem as the state of Israel and, with the exception of oil, safeguarding the Jewish state against its rivals has been a guiding light of U.S. Middle East policy for decades now. Despite the charge of being insufficiently attentive to Tel Aviv's needs and wants, the Obama administration has diligently worked to solidify Israel's military edge over its rivals.
An Iranian nuclear bomb wouldn't quite level the playing field, but it would sharply alter it, and not in Israel's favor. A nuclear-armed Iran would not have to lob its newfound nuke at Israel to pose an intolerable threat. Secured behind a nuclear weapon, Iran could step up its support for anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. As an extension of the U.S. commitment to Israel's security, the Obama administration might conclude that only a war could restore the balance of power in favor of Israel.
Relatedly, Washington might strike because it believes Israel would get to Iran first. While Israel retains a superior military by regional standards, mounting a sustained aerial campaign against Iran's nuclear targets would still be a daunting task. Any Israeli strike might not, on its own, be enough to deal a crushing blow to Iran's nuclear ambitions. America's superior military assets, however, would improve the odds.
4. Iran's Terrorist Ties: While the exposure of the recent plot by members of the Iranian Qods force to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. reads more like a slapstick comedy than grave security threat, it did underscore a danger - Iran's extensive ties to terrorist organizations. Fusing a nuclear weapon with a terrorist operative has long been Washington's worst nightmare, and if any nation were to attempt such a pairing it would be Iran, the world's foremost state sponsor of terrorism.
Fear that Iran would use a terrorist proxy to deliver a crude nuclear weapon against a target in Israel or even the U.S. were certainly heightened by the foiled assassination plot. Such an attack would be almost impossible to defend against and very difficult to deter - absent clear and unimpeachable evidence of Iranian culpability, it would be hard for the U.S. to muster the will to launch a nuclear counter-attack. The administration may conclude that living with such potential danger isn't worth the risk.
Then there's the history. Iran has used militant proxies to bloody the U.S. in the Middle East dating back to President Reagan's disastrous intervention in Lebanon in 1983. The bloodshed continues to this day as Iranian weapons and money have helped forces hostile to America's presence in Iraq and Afghanistan fight U.S. troops. As Muammar Gaddafi learned, Washington has a very long memory when it comes to this kind of thing, and the Obama administration might relish the chance to see Khamenei dragged out of his own drainage ditch.
5. An Iranian Bomb Threatens American Hegemony: Ever since President Carter declared the Middle East a vital U.S. interest, American primacy in the region has been a key plank in Washington's foreign policy. Sustaining a dominant position in the Middle East would be infinitely more difficult (though not impossible) once an Iranian bomb enters the equation. Large military bases, such as the ones housing the Navy's Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, would be instantly vulnerable to attack. An Iranian bomb would also deter the U.S. from attacking Iran, potentially freeing them to exert their own hegemonic influence in the region.
The U.S. could respond to an Iranian nuclear capability by moving military assets "off-shore" beyond Iran's easy reach, but that could potentially make Iran's neighbors more vulnerable, and more receptive to Iranian influence once their American protector is over the horizon. An Iranian bomb would also deal a lethal blow to Washington's self-image as the leader of the world. Having declared an Iranian bomb "unacceptable" it would be a humiliating climb-down for the U.S. to, in fact, accept it. As the U.S. has learned painfully in Afghanistan, saving face (more specifically, saving the face of the policymakers and bureaucrats) is often seen as the ultimate "national interest."