Why It's Militarily Impossible to Halt Iran's Nuclear Pursuits

With Iran on the precipice of achieving nuclear capability, pre-emptive military action — either by the U.S. or Israel — has gained considerable support on this forum and elsewhere in the political zeitgeist.

However, the use of force by Israel or one of its allies would not only likely be ineffective against an entrenched network of Iranian nuclear sites, it would also potentially further destabilize a region that may soon have another nuclear power rattling its saber.

For the past 30 years, Iran’s nuclear program has been plagued by the efforts of the United Nations, the U.S., and its allies — most notably Israel — to retard or cease its efforts at enriching uranium and acquiring the means to build a nuclear weapon. A myriad of strategies — including economic sanctions, computer viruses, and targeted killings of Iranian nuclear scientists — have succeeded in slowing down the program and alienating the Iranian regime, but little to avert a nuclear Iran. 

A pre-emptive American or Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear sites would only further escalate tensions without having any effect on Iran's program. The impetus for an attack, however, is that inaction on the part of Israel does nothing to protect against the existential threat posed by a nuclear Iran, even if that action is purely symbolic. Unlike Israel's raids on Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007, an effective military option would require more than one strike; instead, an estimated 1,000 sorties or more would be needed to effectively disable or dismantle the Iranian program, a campaign far outside the capabilities of the Israeli Air Force and one that, if undertaken, would inevitably require overwhelming U.S. assistance.

And in the end, there is no guarantee that even the most aggressive campaign would erradicate Iran's nuclear program; at best, it would be delayed by a few years.

Sanctions have proven largely ineffective at both slowing the Iranian program and weakening the regime's will to continue its pursuits, but they may be the only way to coerce Iran to abandon its current course. In order to mount a more effective sanctions regime, significant embargoes would need to be enacted by Iran's trade partners — particularly the UAE, Germany, Japan, India and China — who import a large amount of Iranian oil. Iran's oil economy is its pressure point, and the West will need to find a way to squeeze it if it wants to get Iran to a negotiating table. Otherwise, Iran will continue to find ways around restrictions in order to keep its economy afloat, albeit barely. 

Another solution is to ramp up covert and clandestine operations against Iran's nuclear human capital and infrastructure. Industrial sabotage has proven itself useful in slowing Iran's crawl to nuclear capability. Nuclear science and the skills needed to design these devices are the specialty of a very small segment of humanity, and depriving Iran of that talent — or turning those individuals into American intelligence assets — would present opportunities to dismantle the program from within.

The problem of a nuclear Iran is one with no obvious or easy solution, and to claim otherwise would be an attempt to over-simplify a nuanced and complex issue. Leaders, policymakers, and pundits should exercise restraint instead of enthusiastically advocating a military solution towards Iran, if for no other reason than because it: A) Won't work; B) Isn't politically viable in a post-Iraq War world; C) Will result in unnecessary loss of life on all sides; and D) Displays a disturbingly casual disregard for the consequences of deploying the U.S. military. Additionally, we should consider the impetus for the Iranian program in the first place; nuclear weapons represent power, prestige, and an effective deterrent from foreign aggression. With all five members of the UN Security Council and many of the world's top economies also being nuclear powers, it isn't hard to see the appeal of becoming a nuclear state. For Iran, the destruction of Israel probably runs a close second to achieving the same strategic capability as the world's superpowers.

Photo CreditDavid Newberger

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Doug Scott

Doug Scott lives and works in Arlington, VA.

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