As the Republican primary process wraps up and the contest between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama begins in earnest, we will likely hear a great deal about the fundamental differences between the two candidates’ opinions on a wide range of issues. These differing stances are obviously important, but much less attention will be devoted to an equally crucial position which they share—the view that, if all other options fail, the United States should use force to ensure that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. While the slightest hint of bipartisanship is usually a welcome respite from the bitter polarization that now characterizes our nation’s politics, in this case, both sides are united in error: Any military operation with a real chance of preventing Iran from becoming a nuclear power would impose costs far in excess of any benefit it might achieve.
In order to establish this conclusion, we need to first dispel some widespread illusions about the types of military operations that could actually forestall the development of an Iranian bomb. Most advocates of military action tend to assume that it would take the form of targeted airstrikes on the country’s major nuclear facilities. While many questions have been raised about the technical feasibility of such bombings, even a successful air attack could not prevent Iran from going nuclear if all other options had failed. To see why, assume—as most observers seem to—that the country’s rulers want a nuclear weapon for one of two reasons: Either they are rationally self-interested and thus worried about the risks posed by the many nuclear states in their region and the large numbers of our troops on their borders, or they are anti-Semitic fundamentalist zealots who want to use that capability against Israel and America.
If the former is the case, then a bombing would presumably deter the Iranian regime from continuing to pursue a weapon since its leaders would fear further strikes. However, if they respond to incentives in this way, then our vast nuclear arsenal would presumably prevent them from using any weapons they did acquire to threaten our interests; consequently, there would be no need for a strike. Many supporters of military action ground their defenses of it in the latter view, claiming that the rulers’ religious zeal renders deterrence inoperative. However, the same zeal would presumably lead them to redouble their efforts to obtain a weapon in response to an assault by one of their most hated enemies. Furthermore, military attacks of any kind tend to make a nation’s population identify more strongly with its government, so most Iranians would likely become even more supportive of the regime’s nuclear program (which is already quite popular).
Therefore, if all other options have truly failed, any military effort with a real chance at preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon could not stop at destroying that country’s nuclear facilities; it would also need to dismantle the regime that would otherwise rebuild them. This would, of course, require a full-scale ground invasion of Iran that could involve several months of combat, as well as a military occupation, in order to rebuild the country and ensure that the regime we left behind would not have nuclear aspirations. It seems unlikely that an army still recovering from extended conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would be up to such a task, and both of those wars suggest that Americans are not especially good at running other countries. Yet again invading a nation which hadn’t attacked us would also impose immense diplomatic costs, both regionally and internationally. In light of these considerations, we would be wiser to respond to the failure of negotiations and sanctions by trying to develop a workable form of containment.
Some might argue that even these costs are worth bearing because a nuclear Iran would pose a uniquely deadly threat to the United States. They would likely claim that even if most major Iranian political leaders could be deterred, a major branch of the country’s security services, the Revolutionary Guards Corps, would still effectively operate as a terrorist organization. The somewhat chaotic and haphazard structure of the Iranian state would make it easy for the Guards to get access to nuclear weapons, which they could use themselves or distribute to the regime’s wide network of terrorist proxies.
However, the United States in fact tolerates (albeit uneasily) a nuclear state with more or less the same features: Pakistan. The Pakistani military has long employed terrorist organizations against India, and important figures within it sympathize with their ideological aims; furthermore, the Pakistani state is at least as dysfunctional as the Iranian one, having suffered three coups during its sixty-five years of existence. But while Pakistan presents a variety of thorny problems, no serious person thinks we could improve the situation by invading and occupying it. So, it is past time that both presidential candidates realized that war with Iran would be just as futile.
Ajay Ravichandran is a fourth-year in the College majoring in philosophy.