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Nothing Is Easy

November 10, 2011

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.

Conclusion: ???

  1. November 10, 2011 7:35 pm

    “Iranian retaliation via proxies and ballistic missiles on U.S. and Israeli targets throughout the Middle East”

    Re: the proxies, right on the money. It’s not Iran’s conventional military forces I fear. If it came down to it, a shooting war involving Iran, Israel, the US, or any combination of the three wouldn’t end well for the Iranian military (though the utility of such a war is highly debatable). It’s the unconventional retaliation we should be wary of. The men not wearing uniforms or making themselves easy targets for an air strike.

    The proxies who will conduct kidnappings, assassinations, and bombings while doing their best to obscure who sent them. At what point do you respond, and with what force? Meanwhile all energy-hungry economies take a major whooping as oil prices soar and everything becomes more expensive, as you say.

    The costs of action seem fairly clear. Worst case scenario of inaction: Iran gets nukes. Realistically, what is the cost of that? I’m genuinely interested in knowing. Is there a good report or study out there that answers that question?

    • wjrue permalink
      November 11, 2011 11:46 am

      To my knowledge, there is no report or study that games out the consequences of a nuclear Iran. This is a scenario that absolutely needs to be examined in further detail.

      In my assessment, it boils down to nuclear deterrence theory. There’s a lot of people, mostly those who support a military strike I think, who feel that deterrence is no longer applicable. It doesn’t really matter what the rationale for such a position is–though I suspect it’s often borne out of cultural bias, even if that’s not what’s being stated–because the burden of proof for proving deterrence is no long applicable is on the person making that claim. On a related note, I think there’s a lot of misconceptions and misunderstanding of nuclear deterrence. I don’t know if it’s because the Soviet Union is gone and we’ve been fighting small wars for the last decade or what, but I think a lot of people (myself included) would do well to put down Galula and Trinquier and start (re)reading Allison, Schelling, Sagan, and Waltz.

  2. November 16, 2011 5:33 pm

    I would add that Iran’s determination to obtain nuclear weapons would likely increase after an attack. What could more clearly demonstrate the benefit of a nuclear deterrent than a US strike to prevent Iran from obtaining one? Given the likelihood that a strike would only delay Iran’s nuclear program, in the absence of a longer-term plan to make Iran rethink the bomb, it seems like the most direct impact of a military strike on that decision-making process would be to reassure them of their original choice.

  3. Rastus permalink
    November 21, 2011 10:08 am

    I think history speaks heaps.If someone puts a 12ga. in your gut and says ” as soon as I get a round I’m gonna put a hole in you the size of a dinner plate ” are you goin to worry about the cost of oil?Even if your surrounded by a few friends that say its doubtful he’s gonna pull the trigger , would you just shrug and say OK now worries.Not to mention the guy and his family have repeatedly said they were going to?Are gonna worry whats for dinner that evening…..for that matter are you REALLY gonna care if the economy craps around the world if he shoots?Thats the kinda scenerio I’m thinking and to be honest I wouldnt blame you if you shot the guy before he got that round. Just my opinion.


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