Should America attack Iranian nuclear sites? A recent exchange sponsored by Foreign Affairs highlights three options.
Matthew Kroenig argues that we should attack Iran now. He recently served as Special Adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Defense for defense strategy and policy on Iran. Here is his argument:
- Deterrence has failed to halt Iran’s nuclear program. Some scientists estimate that Iran could produce its first nuclear weapon within six months of choosing to do so. If action is not taken soon, it will be too late.
- Some states in the region are already shifting their allegiances to Tehran. Others are discussing their own nuclear initiatives to counter Iran.
- A nuclear Iran could threaten our interests in the Middle East for decades to come, requiring a very costly military deployment in the region. We would also need to extend our nuclear umbrella to our allies while strengthening their ability to defend themselves.
- We have identified Iran’s key nuclear assets and can destroy them with surgical strikes while minimizing civilian casualties.
- If we do not attack, Israel will. Their forces are less likely to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity, however, while their aggression is more likely to provoke war in the region.
Kroenig believes that Muslim nations such as Saudi Arabia would criticize us publicly but thank us privately. We could respond decisively to Iran’s proxies if they escalate attacks against Israel or our bases and citizens. And we could prevent Iran from closing the Strait of Hormuz.
Military action would not strengthen Iran’s hard-line leaders, since they are already in control of the nation. But strikes could persuade them not to restart their nuclear program; Israel’s attack on Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 had this effect. Kroenig concludes that we must choose between conventional conflict today and possible nuclear war in the future. As painful as strikes would be, they would prevent a far more dangerous situation from escalating.
A second view is that attacking Iran would only make a bad situation worse. Two critics allege that military strikes would not stop Iran’s program. Kroenig cites Israel’s destruction of Iraq’s reactor, but we now know that Saddam Hussein responded by expanding his program covertly. We should treat a nuclear Iran as we do North Korea—contain without provoking further conflict.
Another critic argues that Iran is years away from building nuclear bombs and claims that we would have enough advance warning to respond if needed. However, an attack now would provoke Iran to withdraw from the IAEA, making it harder for inspectors to track future development.
Another argument against Kroenig’s thesis is that military attacks would need to bomb sites that are currently operating under IAEA safeguards. In this view, such action would violate international law and isolate America in the global community while provoking generations of jihadists to attack our military and civilians.
There’s a third option: military action that would not only end Iran’s nuclear program but also topple its hard-line leaders, deterring future nuclear ambitions. In this view, we should not attack until both objectives can be realized.
This discussion demonstrates the continued relevance of “Just War” theory. Each of its seven requirements is part of the current debate:
- Just cause—a defensive war fought only to resist aggression. Has Iran attacked us or our allies? Will they?
- Just intent—fought to secure justice, not for revenge, conquest, or money. Is this conflict about oil?
- Last resort—all other attempts to resolve the conflict have clearly failed. Is this true?
- Legitimate authority—military force authorized by the proper governmental powers. If we don’t attack, will Israel?
- Limited goals—achievable, seeking a just peace. Can there be peace without regime change?
- Proportionality—the good gained must justify the harm done. Will strikes today prevent future war or cause it?
- Noncombatant immunity—civilians protected as far as possible. How many innocents will die?
This essay is intended to describe the debate, not decide it. However, Jesus’ edict seems a relevant conclusion: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:44-45). Have you prayed for spiritual awakening in Iran today?