"Go ahead--hit me."
That's what the Iranian regime is saying to the United States.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claims his scientists have enriched a batch of uranium to 20% radioactivity, well past the level needed for electricity production, but closer to the 90% level required for warheads. He boasted that his country should now be considered a “nuclear state."
Nations bent on nuclear breakout do not usually issue progress reports. They move stealthily, until they are ready to detonate a finished weapon. That’s what India did in the 1970s, Pakistan in the 1990s, North Korea in the 2000s. By contrast, the Iran nuclear program issues press releases like a second-place political campaign. Why? Two possible answers:
- The Iranian nuclear program is not going very well. Lacking an actual completed weapon, the Iranian mullahs may seek to gain some of the political benefits of weaponizing by boasting and bragging. Watch out for us! We're coming! Any minute now! Getting closer!
- Might the regime be deliberately provoking a foreign strike? The regime is desperately unpopular. It had to rig the 2009 elections, it is buffeted by protests--thousands more in the streets this past week--the economy careens from crisis to crisis. The regime may hope that a foreign air raid will rally a disaffected population.
Whatever the reason, the regime's blatant goading does suggest that military caution is warranted.
Here are some of the questions that military planners would have to consider: Do we know the location of all Iranian nuclear facilities? How much bombing will it require to destroy all important sites? If sites are underground and hardened by concrete, will the bombers have to keep pounding for two, three or more days? What kind of civilian casualties should we expect?
Iran has all kinds of capacity to retaliate: firing missiles at oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, for example, or launching terror strikes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and possibly even the Caribbean, with assets pre-positioned in Venezuela, Iran's new Western Hemisphere ally. Should the strike target those capacities in advance? Should air strikes target Iranian naval and military bases as well as nuclear facilities?
More seriously: Can air power alone deal with the potential for Iranian retaliation? Or will naval and ground forces have to be deployed too?
And if the West does strike Iranian ground forces, will air power alone do the job? Remember that NATO fought an air war against Serbia in 1999. Serbia is a much weaker country than Iran, and it did not even try to retaliate. Yet the war lasted 10 weeks and involved over 1,000 aircraft and 38,000 combat missions. As the bombing continued, and Serbia did not accede to NATO demands, policy-makers began to plan for an overland invasion.
Granted: NATO’s war aims against Serbia were ambitious. It was not enough just to smash up Serbian facilities--NATO wished to compel Serbia to withdraw its forces from Kosovo. On the other hand, a conflict with Iran could easily expand in the same way. The West might start with the limited goal of destroying nuclear facilities. By the end of the first days of operations, however, the West might well have to continue fighting to compel Iran to cease terrorism in Iraq or Afghanistan or to quit shooting missiles at oil tankers in the Persian Gulf.
All in all: We have to assume that any war with Iran would be a big war, possibly involving land and naval forces in multiple theatres from the Persian Gulf to Afghanistan.
We'd have to assume, too, that the price of oil would spike--and that U.S. government spending, already at record levels, would surge even higher. Would a war drive interest rates higher? In tandem with the oil shock, how would higher rates weigh upon a recessionary world economy?
But maybe the most important question to consider is: What effect would air strikes have upon Iranian public opinion? The ideal outcome for Iran is a regime change brought about by the Iranian people themselves. Many Iran experts claim that the Iranian population is the most pro-Western in the Muslim world. Would an air war alienate them?
The difficulty of military operations raises the question: Where are the "crippling sanctions" promised by the Obama administration almost a year ago? Iran imports more than half its gasoline. Ending those imports would bloodlessly squeeze the Iranian economy, embarrassing the government and strengthening government protests.
Gasoline sanctions, not war, are the true alternative to the present do-nothing policy. When do they start?
David Frum is a resident fellow at AEI.