In the coming days and weeks, there are going to be a lot of fights about whether the Iran deal will effectively curtail Iran's ability to get a nuclear bomb. I lean toward thinking it will, but it's admittedly an open question.
But there's one benefit of the Iran nuclear deal that's undeniable: An American war with Iran is, for the time being, totally off the table.
If the talks failed, war was a scarily real possibility. A number of influential foreign policy analysts, particularly at some of the more hawkish conservative institutions in DC, have openly endorsed military action as the best possible way to prevent Iran from getting a bomb. While few politicians openly support a strike on Iran's nuclear facilities now, many have suggested that some kind of military option should be on the table if talks fail — including both President Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Advocates of bombing Iran sincerely believe it's the best possible option for dealing with a bad situation. And the position isn't totally crazy: If the Iranians are dead set on getting a bomb, it'll be hard to stop them peacefully. A nuclear-armed Iran would be a major threat to the Middle East, and the US military is easily capable of overpowering Iran's armed forces in a straight fight.
But attacking Iran would end in disaster. Surgical strikes would only set back Iran's nuclear program temporarily; destroying the country's nuclear capacity entirely would require outright war. That would kill thousands of people, destroy whatever vestiges of political stability remain in the Middle East, potentially wreak havoc on the global economy, and — barring an Iraq-style military occupation of the country — fail to permanently end Iran's nuclear program. Virtually any deal is better than that.
Why many Iran hawks believe airstrikes are the only way
In a certain sense, the case for attacking Iran is very similar to the case for making a deal with Iran. Both sides agree that a nuclear-armed Iran would be dangerous. Both argue, correctly, that simply continuing to put economic pressure on Iran and hoping it will give up its nuclear ambitions won't be enough to stop Iran's nuclear program.
Advocates of military action differ from Obama in their assessment of the Iranian regime. They believe the Iranian government is unshakably attached to its nuclear weapons program and will never abandon it willingly. Therefore, the only way to keep Iran from getting a bomb is to destroy its nuclear facilities.
In this view, Iran's leaders will never abandon their quest for nuclear weapons because nukes are essential to the revolutionary anti-Western foreign policy Iran has pursued in the Middle East.
"The Iranian regime will not abandon its 30-year project," Reuel Marc Gerecht, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, writes. "So the U.S. will face an unavoidable choice: accept a nuclear Iran or launch a pre-emptive military strike." Since the former is unacceptable, proponents of this view say, the latter is the best option.
Generally, advocates of military action against Iran propose a limited air campaign targeted at the heart of Iran's nuclear program. (A few suggest an even more ambitious campaign aimed at total regime change.) "An attack need not destroy all of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, but by breaking key links in the nuclear-fuel cycle, it could set back its program," former US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton writes.
Under this theory, the key targets would be the nuclear facilities at Fordow, Natanz, and Arak (the uranium conversion facility at Isfahan is also often referenced). Some of these, Fordow particularly, are fortified, but the US has bunker-buster bombs that are capable of doing real damage to them.
Strike advocates aren't blind to the fact that Iran could simply rebuild these facilities after any bombing campaign ended. Rather, they argue, it would be really hard for Iran to do that anytime in the near future, or Iran would simply give up on its quest for a bomb after being targeted by US airstrikes.
In fact, airstrikes would not be simple, effective, or quick
In fact, even "limited" strikes would be a massive military operation. Destroying the big enrichment facilities wouldn't cripple Iran's program, and the critical targets would be hard to find. Even if everything went perfectly, the strikes would delay Iran by perhaps four years at best — unless the US committed to open-ended war.
The first issue is that the US would need to destroy Iran's air defenses, including fighters and surface-to-air missiles, in order to ensure the bombs hit their targets and to prevent Iran from doing serious damage in response. According to Robert Farley, a professor at the University of Kentucky and an expert on air power, this "would involve long-range bombers, drones, electronic warfare, land-based fighter bombers, carrier aircraft, and submarine-launched cruise missiles."
Even the strikes against the nuclear program would need to hit a broad range of targets. Contrary to hawkish assumptions, the strikes couldn't be limited to Iran's big nuclear production facilities. The real problem, according a Rand Corporation brief by Robert J. Reardon, would be Iran's centrifuge production facilities. Simply destroying Iranian enrichment plants would not be enough to end the nuclear weapons program if Iran could just build centrifuges for new ones quickly.
But in order to destroy the centrifuge production facilities, the US would have to find them — which would likely prove difficult. "These facilities are not under IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] safeguards, and identifying and locating them would require good intelligence and involve significant uncertainty. Sites that have been identified, or ones that were known in the past, have typically been small, easily concealed from reconnaissance satellites, and located in densely populated urban areas," Reardon writes. "Failure to destroy these sites would allow the Iranians to rebuild their enrichment program, because the machines could be manufactured relatively quickly."
If the first round of strikes didn't destroy every target, the US might need to return again and again. It would require the US to "continue a sustained campaign over a period of time and re-strike after an initial battle damage assessment [if] it is found that further strike sorties are required," defense analysts Anthony Cordesman and Abdullah Toukan write in a comprehensive 2012 Center for Strategic and International Studies report.
And even that probably wouldn't get it all. "Depending on the forces allocated and duration of air strikes, it is unlikely that an air campaign alone could alone terminate Iran’s program," Cordesman and Toukan argue.
They're not alone in that conclusion. A blue-ribbon panel at the Wilson Center, after reviewing the military studies on the issue, concluded that even if extended military strikes were carried out "to near perfection," the best case scenario is still only a four-year delay in Iran's progress toward a nuclear weapon.
Ultimately, the only way military force could stop Iran from going nuclear is if the US committed to a more or less indefinite war. "To fulfill the stated objective of ensuring that Iran never acquires a nuclear bomb," the Wilson Center report finds, "the U.S. would need to conduct a significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years."
The consequences would be disastrous
Even limited strikes against Iran would have the potential to spark a broader conflict. The consequences of that, especially in today's Middle East, would be disastrous. Iran has the power to make an unstable Middle East even worse: It could directly target and kill Americans in the region, exacerbate a number of the region's festering conflicts, and potentially threaten the global oil supply — and thus the global economy.
US military leadership has worried, Politico's Michael Crowley reports, that Iranian proxy militias could decide to attack American troops in Iraq if talks fell apart. It's difficult to imagine Iran staying its hand in the event of an outright US attack. While the US is particularly exposed in Iraq, it has people and assets across much of the region; Iran, too, has proxies across the Middle East.
Iran could also attack oil infrastructure or blockade the Straits of Hormuz, a critical oil shipping route, which would have tremendous effects.
"Iran can use a mix of mines, submarines, submersibles, drones, anti‐ship missiles, small craft, and assault forces anywhere in the Gulf region to threaten the flow of oil exports," Cordesman and Toukan write. "Any major disruption affects the entire economy of Asia and all world oil prices — regardless of where oil is produced. It can lead to panic and hoarding on a global basis."
If the US strikes Iran, the anti-Iran coalition will collapse
Airstrikes could destroy what has been a key constraint on Iran's nuclear program: the system of international inspections and sanctions that are currently in place. The deal would relax those sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing to limits on its nuclear program and stringent inspections to ensure compliance. A strike could collapse them without any of those benefits.
European and particularly Asian countries have given the US strategy much of its force by helping to isolate and sanction Iran; that is what compelled Iran to negotiate and agree to make concessions in the first place. If the US attacked Iran, the international community would surely be appalled and abandon its support for sanctioning and isolating Iran, leaving the country wealthier and in a stronger diplomatic position. And that's just the start.
"U.S. relations with Russia have gone sufficiently south, and the U.S. attack against Iran itself would be sufficiently destabilizing, that we can almost surely expect Russia to militarily support Iran in the form of aircraft and air defense systems," Farley writes.
"Moreover, if Russia opens up the Iranian defense market, we can expect China to follow. The sanctions regime cannot survive a U.S. attack on Iran."
That would cripple any serious attempt to prevent Iran from rebuilding its nuclear program. "To prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program after a strike, the United States would have to be prepared to encircle an even more hostile adversary with a costly containment regime — much like the 12-year effort to bottle up Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War — and be prepared to re-attack at a moment’s notice," Georgetown University's Colin Kahl told Congress in 2012 testimony.
"In the absence of clear evidence that Iran was dashing for a bomb," Kahl testified, "a US strike risks shattering international consensus, making postwar containment more difficult to implement. And with inspectors gone, it would be much harder to detect and prevent Iran’s clandestine rebuilding efforts."
Striking Iran, then, wouldn't be a "several-day" endeavor, as Sen. Tom Cotton, one of Congress's leading hawks, has suggested. It wouldn't stop Iran's nuclear program unless the United States committed to more or less permanent war with Iran, if even then. And it would likely have devastating consequences for the US and its allies.
But the hawks do get one thing right: A nuclear-armed or nuclear-threshold Iran also would be very dangerous. The conclusion is pretty obvious: We better hope the deal succeeds.