It’s Not Your Father’s Preemption
Yet another op-ed on Iran, this one by Amos Yadlin, one of the Israeli pilots who knocked out Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, and reviving the argument that Israel has it right in its preemption doctrine. Osirak worked; Iran cannot be allowed to get nukes, and an Osirak-style strike will impose a profitable delay, with manageable costs.
Yadlin holds up Osirak as a success, because “What matters more is the campaign after the attack,” he writes.
When we were briefed before the Osirak raid, we were told that a successful mission would delay the Iraqi nuclear program for only three to five years. But history told a different story. After the Osirak attack and the destruction of the Syrian reactor in 2007, the Iraqi and Syrian nuclear programs were never fully resumed. This could be the outcome in Iran, too, if military action is followed by tough sanctions, stricter international inspections and an embargo on the sale of nuclear components to Tehran. Iran, like Iraq and Syria before it, will have to recognize that the precedent for military action has been set, and can be repeated.
This is all fantasy.
To begin with, the Israeli strike actually caused an acceleration of a nuclear program; far from scaring Saddam off nukes, the attack, as one source puts it, “triggered Iraq’s determined pursuit of nuclear weapons.” So much so that what we found in 1991 after the Gulf War—an Iraqi program just a couple of years from a bomb—scared some U.S. officials into a decade of anti-Saddam activism.
Saddam did eventually mothball his nuclear program, but the risk of further strikes was not, as far as we know, the primary motive: It was, according to testimony of his former cronies in the Iraqi regime, a desire to get out from under sanctions, then re-start the nuclear work. By 2000 the sanctions regime Yadlin hopes to re-create was indeed crumbling, and Saddam was looking ahead to the day when he could call forth the nuclear scientists he’d put into semi-retirement to begin serious weapons work once again. Meantime one would assume that, post-1981 and post-2003, if it were possible to send the message that “the precedent for military action has been set,” that message would have been delivered by now. If toppling Saddam won’t create lasting deterrence, a single precision strike won’t, either.
So there are plenty of arguments that Osirak did not have the long-term effects suggested for it. One wide-ranging recent study concludes that “The attack had mixed effects: it triggered a covert nuclear weapons program that did not previously exist, while necessitating a more difficult and time consuming technical route to developing nuclear weapons. Notwithstanding gross inefficiencies in the ensuing program, a decade later Iraq stood on the threshold of a nuclear weapons capability. This case suggests that preventive attacks can increase the long-term proliferation risk posed by the targeted state.”
So an obvious question that must be fully and finally answered is the following: Can we live with an Iranian nuclear program under any definition likely to be acceptable to Tehran? Because if we cannot, even a strike will only set the stage for endless, and ultimately failed, containment.
And yet the choice becomes murkier when we admit, as Amitai Etzioni has recently argued, that Iran tends to compromise when faced with a clear threat—a clear cost of not compromising. He writes in a post at The National Interest that “Nothing is more likely to bring Iran to the negotiating table, not to win time but for a true give-and-take, than if the United States and its allies seem willing to make good on their repeated declarations that all options are on the table—that is, if serious preparations for a military strike take place.”
Which suggests: Bring events to the brink of a strike, and force Tehran into an acceptable bargain. This has a chance of working, if by “working” we mean generating an unsatisfactory short-term compromise that puts off the reckoning to a later time. But it’s risky—we can’t march to the edge of war without a danger of escalation. And having staked so much on “no nukes” in Iran, any compromise will need to involve a severe walk-back by Tehran, which is not likely.
But the bigger issue is the long-term, and that’s where the “scare them into submission” approach falls apart. How long can we keep it up? How many brinks of war are we willing to play at? The week after a coercion-induced deal, success will depend on holding Iran to any deal it makes, which just lands us right back into endless negotiating.
Yadlin is right about one thing: A strike is the beginning of an endless process of enforcement, threats, world-wide negotiations, and ultimately more strikes. The question is whether it is likely to succeed; and the answer would appear to be no, unless we are prepared to launch ourselves into an endless quasi-war with Iran—a situation that Tehran could wildly escalate, beyond our political capacity for tolerance, at any point of its choosing, to force an ultimate showdown.
Yet another reason to find a mechanism for subtly altering our goals and finding reasonable way out before we have gone too far down that road. There could be useful, very hard-line alternatives as part of a deal strategy: For example, Washington makes a new extended deterrence pledge to countries in the region that any Iranian nuclear strikes will be considered acts against global norms, and met with the full force of US retaliation; and any Iranian nuclear proliferation—the spreading of its stuff—would be cause for instant military action.
Critics will ask why Tehran would believe us, after we’ve spent years saying “all options are on the table to prevent them from getting the bomb” and then we back off. It’s a good question, and a dilemma that gets more painful by the week, the more we appear to wrap our policy around a singular endgame: To prevent their nukes, we will attack.