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Is it Time to Attack Iran?

I have already blogged on Matthew Kroening’s compelling article in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs: “Time to Attack Iran.” Now the Foreign Affairs website has posted two thought-provoking responses.

One, by Colin Kahl, who recently left the Defense Department as a senior official, argues the case against striking Iran. Or, to be exact, he argues that “given the high costs and inherent uncertainties of a strike, the United States should not rush to use force until all other options have been exhausted and the Iranian threat is not just growing but imminent”—a point that even most advocates of military action would not, I suspect, disagree with.

The other response, by Jamie Fly of the Foreign Policy Initiative and Gary Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute, argues the case for more ambitious attacks designed not only to stop the Iranian nuclear program but to overthrow the regime.

In the end, I am not fully persuaded by either response, but both have good points to make—especially about the difficulty of controlling the aftermath of airstrikes on nuclear installations. We should never enter another conflict based, as we did in Iraq, on best-case scenarios; we must prepare for the worst that could happen as well as the best. Kroening suggests it should be possible to keep the conflict from escalating, while both Kahl and Fly/Schmitt suggest escalation will be hard to avert. The difference is that while Kahl uses this as a reason to avoid airstrikes altogether, Fly/Schmitt suggest this is all the more reason to strike Iranian regime targets hard so as to make retaliation less likely and less effective.

I’m with Kroening here: I think it would make sense to keep any airstrike strictly limited at first, reserving the right to escalate should the Iranians respond with attacks on us or our allies. I also agree with Kahl there is no need to rush into airstrikes—yet. But time is growing short, and we must be careful not to let Iran pass certain redlines that will allow it to field functional nukes in short order.