It shouldn’t be necessary at this point, but given the pockets of feigned disbelief that remain abroad, it deserves repeating: The Iranians are developing nuclear weapons. Rhetorically, they continue to maintain the pretense of pursuing peaceful nuclear power, but the structure of their program belies its true nature as a weapons development effort. Their near-exclusive focus on isotopic enrichment, their construction of clandestine facilities, and their recent decision to enrich uranium to levels higher than what is necessary for commercial power plants are all signals that should remove whatever doubt remains of Iranian intentions. What Iran has achieved to date amounts to a small but growing breakout capacity. If they continue on their current pace, by mid-2010 they will have enough low-to-medium enriched uranium to produce several atomic bombs and the centrifuge capacity to bring that material to weapons readiness within a few months.
For years, the Iranians have rebuffed extensive diplomatic efforts to reach out to them. They have ignored our carrots, they have ignored our sticks, they continue to flout the U.N. and its censures. We lack the ability to levy additional sanctions against the regime. States such as China remain on the sidelines and offer no assistance to our international efforts — they may not be enthusiastic about the prospect of a nuclear Iran, but they seem to have concluded that the negatives are outweighed by the headache it would create for the West.
For all the well-deserved pessimism over diplomatic options, it still remains that the military option, air strikes, is not a pretty solution. Strikes are only a temporary fix, as the other side can always rebuild. They lend legitimacy to Iran’s attempts to hide its facilities. They make it easier for the regime to rally public support, both at home and across the region. They costs American lives and materiel. They kill civilians. For these reasons, most have relegated the option of air strikes to a last resort, a desperate endgame answer to the Morton’s fork of taking action or accepting a nuclear Iran.
This position was well justified in the past, but circumstances have changed. The primary downside risk of air strikes has been the possibility that they would bolster Iranian public opinion behind the weapons program and against the United States. But as Iran’s hard-line government intensifies its crackdown on reformers, it is becoming apparent that air strikes aren’t going to revitalize the regime. After the repression it has handed down, the Iranian government is unlikely to garner much sympathy from its citizenry. It is hard to get into the “my country, right or wrong” spirit when election-stealing thugs just snatched and tortured a friend, or shot a relative in the streets. The best time to strike is now, while the regime still has ownership of the weapons program but is poorly positioned to benefit from the blowback.
Some would cite the internal unrest in Iran as a sign that we should be patient, cross our fingers, and wait until reformers gain power. With fresh leadership, the thinking goes, Iran may prove more amenable at the negotiating table.
This may be true, but consider the enormous risk this entails. Firstly, a reformist ascension to power is a long-shot. Opposition to the government may be strong, but in the scorebooks of history, old men with guns win more often than young kids with ideas. Those who put their faith in Iran 2010 would do well to remember Hungary 1956 or Czechoslovakia 1968.
Secondly, who is to say that reformers, if they do somehow take control, would give up the weapons program? The reform movement is not inherently anti-nuclear and is unlikely to risk its newly gained office by capitulating to western demands. Furthermore, conducting strikes against the weapons program of a reformist government will have even worse political fallout than strikes against thuggish autocrats.
Lastly doing nothing does little to turn the odds in our favor, while bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities is an excellent way to provide material aid to the reformist cause without putting the pro-western albatross around its neck. It takes resources to beat down protesters and maintain the power structure. The government needs men, equipment, communications systems, a command structure, and so on, all of which are eligible targets in an airstrike. Under the guise of non-proliferation, we can cripple the regime’s ability to suppress the reform movement. This would either allow reformers to seize power wholesale, or pressure the regime to make concessions and liberalize.
And so, the advice is simple: bomb the nuclear facilities. If you aren’t sure you can penetrate far enough to destroy the facilities, bomb the entrances to the facilities, collapse them, bury the whole complex. Bomb the anti-aircraft installations and air fields; prevent them from shooting back. Bomb the communications facilities; disrupt their ability to organize a response. Bomb the conventional forces; neuter their ability to retaliate against U.S. forces in the area. Bomb any military target you feel confident you can hit without risk to civilians. And when someone asks you why you did it, tell them you are committed to a nuclear weapons free world.
Air strikes are not an option to be exercised hastily, and we need not conduct them immediately. It is certainly worth waiting until the March 7th elections in Iraq have concluded, and more broadly it may be best to wait until the regime’s popularity reaches a nadir before striking. But if we sit on our hands and let this opportunity pass, we will have wasted the single best chance we’ll have ever had of preventing a nuclear Iran.