Nothing Is Easy
Earlier this week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released their long awaited report on Iran’s nuclear activities. The IAEA releases a progress report four times a year or so, but this one was highly anticipated because it was the first one released after last month’s failed plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States. Shortly after that well-executed plan came to light, reports started surfacing that the Obama administration was pushing the IAEA to include additional data pointing to the nefarious nature of Iran’s nuclear program in order to increase the pressure on Tehran.
Predictably, the drums of war started warming up last week and really got into a nice rhythm after the report was leaked on Tuesday. Now, I actually think that debating the utility of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is a good thing. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with healthy debate of all our options, right? It’s when we don’t have those debates that we tend to get ourselves into trouble (See Iraq 2002-2003).
But lost in all the noise surrounding the debate over the military option is the need, before undertaking an action of this magnitude, to conduct a simple — but thorough — cost-benefit analysis of military action. I say this because most of the arguments advocating the military option seem to have skipped this exercise.
Below is what I see as the major costs and benefits of a military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. This isn’t a thorough analysis and I don’t have a monopoly on, well, anything — feel free to contribute additional thoughts in the comments and I’ll plug them in.
Note: This is an oversimplified game meant to highlight the major considerations of the decision makers. There are a host of assumptions built into the game (or possibly left out). There was a nice discussion about the logic of nuclear deterrence and how it works in practice between myself, Dan Trombly, Ray Pritchett, and Robert Farley on twitter today. That’s a separate, albeit related, issue that warrants a separate post.
- Unify Iranian society around a regime that does not enjoy widespread legitimacy
- Think about what happened here on 9/11. Rally.Around.The.Flag.
- World economic impact as the cost of oil goes up
- Iran would likely attempt to close, albeit temporarily, the Strait of Hormuz. Even if they didn’t, however, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to assume that the oil futures market is going to react negatively regardless.
- Iranian retaliation via proxies and ballistic missiles on U.S. and Israeli targets throughout the Middle East
- The U.S. has a plethora of targets elsewhere in the region that could be attacked via IRG Qods Force, proxies (Hezbollah), ballistic missiles, and IRGCN boats in the Persian Gulf.
- Delay nuclear weapons program by X years
- Given the total number of nuclear sites and the protection afforded some of them, it is highly unlikely we could destroy the program. We would degrade and delay it, but what is to stop Iran from rebuilding it, absent wholesale regime change.