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How Do You Solve a Problem Like Iran?

Should the U.S. attack now? Israel sure shouldn’t.

Marc Tracy
March 02, 2012
Iranian President Ahmadinejad last month.(Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
Iranian President Ahmadinejad last month.(Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

After Jonathan Tepperman, the managing editor of Foreign Affairs and the moderator of last night’s debate, “Time to Attack Iran?” made his introductions but before either panelist, Colin H. Kahl and Matthew Kroenig, two former Obama Administration Pentagon officials, got to speak, came the first and only interruption. A woman in the front started chanting, “They’re both for an attack, now or later.” As she was escorted out, my friend leaned over and whispered with a grin, “She read the articles.”

It was a good point. Kahl’s article, titled “Not Time to Attack Iran,” reserves force as “a last resort”—it pointedly does not eliminate it and accepts as a premise that the United States should work to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. So, it’s true that one point of view went unrepresented: that we should allow Iran to get the bomb, manage the situation, and count on the same logic that prevented nuclear exchanges during the Cold War and prevents them over Kashmir and the Taiwan Strait to prevail here (Bruce Riedel took such a view, and told me recently that he stands by it). But the woman’s statement also pointed to the fact that Kroenig, who argued it is “Time to Attack Iran,” had the tougher side of the debate. We are not now currently attacking Iran; Kroenig is arguing for a change in policy. The burden was on him to demonstrate that attacking Iran now is better than waiting and, at the very least, attacking when it is more clear that attacking at all is the correct thing to do. Kahl argued for more information and patience, and it was up to Kroenig to argue that less uncertainty is not worth delay. To my mind, anyway, he failed. I came away more convinced than before that there is a minimal threat and great potential advantages for the United States to bide its time and, as Kahl put it at one point, “let the process play out.” (As for Israel? More on it later, but suffice to say it certainly should hold its fire for now.)

Kahl was essentially Kroenig’s boss at the Pentagon, and, as Kroenig put it, “he’ll be voting on my tenure next year.” Kroenig published his article in the January/February Foreign Affairs, and Kahl replied in March/April’s. Given that Kahl has only just left government, one wonders if he was asked to respond by his old colleagues—certainly his view seems to map closely onto the administration’s.

For those of you seething at my opposition to attacking Iran on the grounds that the mullahs simply can’t be trusted with nuclear bombs, period, know that Kroenig, who wants to strike now, disagrees with you. He rejected the notion that Iran would launch a “suicidal” first strike against Israel or the United States. “I think Iran is rational,” he declared. That said, he did argue, “A nuclear-armed Iran would pose a grave threat to international peace and security.” He believes retaliation for a surgical strike would be minimal. He raised the specter of missiles able to hit the East Coast within five years of weaponization. When—and if—weaponization is coming turns out to be crucial, though.

“Colin has to argue a nuclear Iran is better than a strike,” Kroenig concluded, “or that a diplomatic solution is just around the corner.”

Spoiler alert! Kahl argued neither, but rather presented that as a false choice. It comes down to time and weaponization. Kahl argued that, if Iran decided to produce a weapon tomorrow, it would take six months to make enough highly enriched uranium; one year after that to produce a testable weapon; and several more years after that to produce a good weapon. Kroenig later disputed parts of this time frame: In particular, he argued that by the end of the year, as more centrifuges come online, those six months will shrink to as little as a month (Kahl said this was absurd) and that a usable weapon could come more rapidly, too—they’re not, he said, going to wait for the “gold-plated option.” But even Kroenig agreed that because we have international inspectors at all declared facilities, we would know the second the Supreme Leader made the decision to build a weapon (and if they have advanced facilities we don’t know about, then the ones we do know about and would be bombing are almost meaningless). And finally—here’s the thing—the Supreme Leader hasn’t made that decision yet.

Kahl said there is reason to believe a diplomatic solution could be available: Iran is losing friends and gaining sanctions almost by the day, and the sanctions are really tightening the economy. This is why, if waiting is hardest part, it’s also the wisest play.

And where Kroenig minimized the downsides to attacking, Kahl emphasized them. “War is not a clean, calibrated exercise,” he said. “It is a messy, dangerous, violent affair.” He added, “We would win, but it would be extremely violent.” And because the nuclear program is the “crown jewel of the Iranian regime,” an attack on it would be interpreted as a move for regime change, with commensurate retaliation. “They don’t trust us,” Kahl noted, “they don’t like us, they have no way of communicating with us.” And if we attacked, he argued, Iran likely would reconstitute its program—probably as quickly and secretly as possible (it’s what Iraq did after Israel bombed Osirak)—and we would be stuck where we are now, with containment, except worse. “We need to take a breath,” Kahl said.

Kahl also said: “I think regime change in Iran would be awesome, but I don’t know how to do it.”

The discussion continued. At one point, Kahl did muse on the prospect of living with a nuclear Iran, cleverly citing Kroenig’s own research—Kroenig is a proliferation specialist—which has found that nuclear powers tend to avoid direct confrontations and that in battles between two nuclear powers, the more conventionally powerful one tends to make its opponent blink first without an exchange. Israel and certainly the United States will be militarily superior to Iran in the foreseeable future even should Iran get the bomb. Kroenig parried, though, with a reference to the cost of deterrence: “Deterrence and containment,” he pointed out, “would be us threatening to trade New York for Riyadh.”

Kahl was left open to the question: What would make him want to attack? He refused to get boxed in, but he acknowledged that kicking out international inspectors would be a pretty big deal for him. “I think a nuclear Iran is a dangerous outcome,” he insisted.

Perhaps surprisingly, he added: “That’s another thing we disagree on, by the way. If you’re going to go after them in a military strike, it should not be surgical, you should knock them to the floor.”

And Kahl went on the offensive, even though, as I noted, all he needed to do was to prove the time was not right. He said the time was wrong: There is now a debate in Iran, he reported, over whether to develop a weapon or, alternatively, to maintain merely a “virtual program”—one with the capability of weaponizing—or even to negotiate a purely peaceful program. “The one thing that would settle the debate,” Kahl said, “would be to get attacked.” (Hence, perhaps, the preference for knocking them to the floor.)

What about a nuclear-free zone in the region? Such a thing would certainly prove awkward for a certain undeclared nuclear power nearby, but it would, nonetheless, prevent an Iranian bomb. A nonstarter, sighed Kroenig. Something to aspire to, but not doable in the near future.

We know Kroenig’s preferred solution. What’s Kahl’s? While he isn’t as optimistic about diplomacy as Kroenig demanded he be, he does think a deal exists: Iran stops enriching uranium to 20 percent, ships their already-enriched uranium out of the country, and freezes the activation of centrifuges at the underground Fordo facility near Qom; the West gives them a bunch of things, including the elements of a peaceful program, and promises no further sanctions. Such a deal, he said, is “conceivable.”

Later on, an audience member brought up the elephant in the room: the other country that might attack Iran.

Well, should it?

“This is something Matt and I are going to agree on,” Kahl said. “If anyone should take action against Iran, it’s the United States, preferably with a large coalition.” Israel shouldn’t. Got that? Israel shouldn’t. Its bombs will not be as effective as one would like; in particular, Israel almost certainly will fail to damage the heavily fortified Fordo site anywhere nearly as effectively as U.S. bunker-busters would. And the United States would still face many of the same negative consequences: “The Big Satan will get blamed for everything the Little Satan does,” Kahl quipped.

This seems like a good place to close the Iran debate—and would be even if we weren’t a daily magazine of Jewish life and culture. The logic is overwhelmingly in favor of not attacking now. That is, unless you are an Israeli leader who does not trust the United States to attack if Iran crosses true red lines: say, if it should kick out inspectors or approach weaponization—the sorts of things that might persuade people like me that a strike might be a good idea.

There are various ways to parcel out the blame for this crucial lack of trust between the Israeli and U.S. leaderships. And you could argue that some of the bellicose rhetoric and warnings from Israel have served a positive purpose in bringing the international community onboard about tougher sanctions. But what seems dangerous is the effort to use domestic politics to box President Obama in. Kahl noted that while Kroenig suggests only limited U.S. response, should Iran lash out following a U.S. strike, these are “precisely the types of retaliation that a president couldn’t turn the other cheek to in the midst of a heated presidential campaign,” especially when his opponents are going all in on warlike talk. Kahl argued that the effort of some senators to basically bar containment as a U.S. policy is “irresponsible. I worry that the Iranians will perceive there’s nothing they can do” other than develop a weapon.

Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu meet face-to-face at the White House Monday. I don’t know what it is countries offer other countries to get them to do certain things, and I don’t know what it is one world leader says to another to convince him to trust him. But if Obama pulls this off—convinces Netanyahu that even if he is re-elected in November Israel need not fear Iran’s becoming nuclear, but that as of right now an attack is just objectively not prudent—it might count as the most consequential and greatest moment of his presidency. And we may never know about it.

Time to Attack Iran [Foreign Affairs]
Not Time to Attack Iran [Foreign Affairs]
Earlier: No Second Iraq

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.