I am trying, and failing, to follow the logic of this “news analysis” (read: editorial) by New York Times reporter William Broad in the Sunday paper. In it, he argues, citing “a surprising number of scholars and military and arms-control experts” (six by my count), that “a strike could actually lead to Iran’s speeding up its efforts, ensuring the realization of a bomb and hastening its arrival.” Therefore, he suggests, an Israeli or American attack on Iran would result in the very thing we most want to avoid: a nuclear Iran.
But wait: Is there any reason to think that, absent a strike, Iran won’t get nuclear weapons anyway? In fact, all the evidence suggests that, despite all of the international opprobrium and sanctions Iran has suffered, it remains hell-bent on acquiring a nuclear weapon and could well be past the point of no return by next spring. Is Broad actually arguing that Iran will get a nuke sooner if the U.S. or Israeli attack its nuclear installations? That seems unlikely. While experts debate how long a strike will set back the Iranian program, I have never heard anyone suggest that air strikes would have no effect at all on Iran’s ability to manufacture nukes.
Not even Broad makes such an indefensible claim, although that would have to be the case for the logic of his article to hold together. The most he can say with any degree of plausibility is that, in the wake of air strikes, Iran may well redouble its efforts to rebuild its nuclear capacity. That may very well be true, although the record of the only two air strikes ever taken against nascent nuclear facilities–Israel’s attack on an Iraqi reactor in 1981 and on a Syrian reactor in 2007–does not support Broad’s assertion. Neither Iraq nor Syria has come close to acquiring a nuclear weapon after those attacks. Iraq was still not there even a decade later when it fought the U.S. and its allies in the Gulf War. Granted, Iran’s facilities are more dispersed, advanced, and hardened than those in Syria and, therefore, harder to take out, but Iran too would suffer a serious setback if its installations were bombed. By contrast North Korea, which was not bombed (even though the Clinton administration seriously debated doing so), acquired nuclear weapons. So did Pakistan, which also wasn’t bombed. Those are all examples that Broad, however, omits from his unconvincing editorial.
It is true that no air strikes could eradicate the Iranian nuclear program forever, but it remains a matter of speculation what Iran would do in the wake of such strikes. It may well try to restart the nuclear program–or maybe it would figure there was no point because of the probability of another round of air strikes. The air strikes might also cause the Iranian people to rally around the regime as Broad suggests–or they may undermine the aura of the regime’s invincibility that the rulers count upon to cow the ruled. No one knows. The only thing we do know is that if we do nothing the odds are very high that Iran will go nuclear. That, to my mind, is the worst-case scenario.