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Sliding Toward the Guns of August with Iran

I worry that we are sliding toward a “Guns of August” scenario over Tehran’s nuclear program. I worry that rhetoric and potential policy choices may bring about the very outcome we seek to avoid and unleash unforeseen and uncontrollable forces.

Stoking this concern is the fact that despite a lack of intelligence suggesting Iran is moving toward weaponization, the chorus of those calling for direct military strikes to interdict such is sounding off with increasing frequency and volume. With this, once again, comes the risk that ex ante policy objectives may be getting ahead of both intelligence and strategy.

I recognize that at this moment in time, this may be epiphenomenal — more a function of our election cycle than a deliberative evaluation of national security policy. Nonetheless, there exists the danger that others (including Iran and Israel) may interpret the machinations of our domestic politics as signals of intent and act “as if” such represent actual policy.

To be clear, nuclear weapons proliferation represents a grave danger. A danger made acute in the case of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Yet, I doubt that direct attacks against Iran’s nuclear program could keep Tehran from acquiring the bomb. Not because of an ideological or normative objection to the use of force, but because I remain skeptical of the practical ability of direct military strikes to achieve their stated objective.

Therefore, I would earnestly like to hear the argument of those who believe that direct military strikes (i.e. an air or missile campaign aimed at Iran’s nuclear infrastructure) could prevent Ahmadinejad’s acquisition of a nuclear bomb. I respectfully ask proponents of direct military action to explain to me the sequence of events by which such a campaign could realistically prevent a nuclear armed Iran.

While I am not asking for “scheme of maneuver” level detail — I am asking for a contextual causal argument that goes beyond “an airstrike would degrade their capabilities by destroying key equipment (including centrifuges) and killing key personal (including scientists and technicians).”

In short, I would like proponents of a military strike against Iran to explain how an airstrike would work against a dispersed and hardened set of targets. How many sorties would be needed? What weapons platforms would be used? How would battle damage assessments be collected? What is the necessary level of damage that must be inflicted — and how would such be judged?

With compelling answers to the above, I could be persuaded. There is, however, one additional question I would pose. Even if the strikes accomplish their immediate goal of crippling Iran’s nuclear weapon — how do we avoid a Pyrrhic victory?

Ninety-eight years ago, Western policy-makers bungled their way into World War I. With an unfounded belief in quick and decisive warfare stemming from an over-reliance on offensive power, the leaders of both the Central and Allied Powers set in motion policies based more on fears of what might happen rather than empirical evidence of what was happening.

As the war erupted, they failed to consider how recent technological changes might affect the nature of war or how the political consequences of the war might generate unintended consequences. In the final days before World War I, little was done to introduce a strategic pause during which leaders could examine the degree of alignment that existed between national objectives and national strategy.

Ultimately, the Guns of August 1914 set in motion the events that would define 20th century geopolitics — two World Wars, a Bolshevik revolution with the resultant emergence of the Soviet Union, and a Cold War.

The Guns of August 2012 could foster increased regional instability with dire political and economic consequences, unleash an age of cyber warfare, and provide the distraction al-Qaeda and its franchises need to reconstitute themselves.

Make no mistake, the world becomes more complex and more dangerous if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons. Slow and weak, the existing political and economic sanctions are imperfect tools. Failing a clear causal argument that the military option can produce the desired outcome, however, their shortcoming may be their strength — for they introduce a pause during which we can evaluate the degree to which our grand strategy aligns with our national objectives.

Dr. Joseph R. Clark is a policy analyst at The George Washington University Homeland Security Policy InstituteRead More