Matthew Kroenig, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who formerly served as a special adviser on Iran policy in the Defense Department, has an excellent article in Foreign Affairs on why a U.S. attack on Iran is the least bad of the available options. Kroenig lays out a detailed argument for why military action is feasible, why it’s preferable to a nuclear Iran and what the U.S. could do to minimize the inevitable fallout, and I sincerely hope Washington policy makers are reading it.
But there’s another argument that’s worth adding to Kroenig’s list: the relative track records of military versus nonmilitary efforts to stop nuclear proliferation.
In an article in the New York Times last week, another former U.S. official intimately involved in nuclear policy — Robert Gallucci, who served as chief negotiator with North Korea during President Bill Clinton’s administration — criticized the Bush administration for not taking a hard line on Pyongyang’s transfer of nuclear technology to Damascus. Syria, he noted dryly, might well have nuclear weapons today “had it not been for Israel’s version of a nonproliferation policy — aerial bombardment of the site.” And while Gallucci didn’t mention it, the same is true of Iraq.
In fact, Syria and Iraq are the only two countries where military action has ever been tried to halt a nuclear program. And so far, both are nuke-free. Moreover, in both cases, military action spared the world a nightmare. The current unrest in Syria would create a real danger of terrorist groups obtaining nuclear materiel had Israel not destroyed Syria’s reactor in 2007. And by bombing Iraq’s reactor in 1981, Israel made it possible for a U.S.-led coalition to go to war to reverse Iraq’s 1990 invasion of Kuwait – an invasion that, had it gone unchecked, would have destabilized the entire vital oil-producing Gulf region, but which the world would have had to swallow had Iraq had nukes by then.
By contrast, consider the track record in places where military action wasn’t tried, like Pakistan and North Korea. Both not only have the bomb, but have merrily proliferated ever since to some of the world’s worst regimes. And in Pakistan’s case, there’s the added fear that radical Islamists will someday take over the unstable country, along with its nukes.
In fact, nonmilitary sanctions have never persuaded any country to abandon a nuclear program: The few countries that have scrapped such programs did so not in response to sanctions, but to domestic developments (regime change in South Africa) or to fear of military action (Libya after the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003).
So far, the same is proving true in Iran, where years of nonmilitary sanctions have slowed its nuclear development, but have utterly failed to halt it, or to alter its leaders’ determination to pursue it. That confronts America with a stark choice: stick to nonmilitary methods that have never succeeded in the past until Iran becomes the next North Korea, or switch to military methods, which have worked in the past.
For if history is any guide, there is no third option.