Recent reports that the United States and Israeli militaries are weighing a possible strike against Iranian nuclear facilities have raised the stakes in Iran's effort to build a nuclear program. But a US or Israeli attack on Iran would be extremely destabilizing and counterproductive to America's war on terrorism.
Iran has said it will not back down in its desire to build a nuclear capability. This has led to a growing sentiment among some US and Israeli officials that a limited military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities may be inevitable. It has also led to tit-for-tat military tests. Iran has test-fired several types of missiles in a show of force, and the US is preparing to test a 700-ton bomb designed to penetrate bunkers - perhaps like those housing Iranian nuclear facilities.
US and Israeli officials have acknowledged in private that the military option may be inevitable for these reasons:
• German, British, and French diplomatic efforts are failing to persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program. Iran is advancing its uranium enrichment program and has established facilities for the manufacture and testing of centrifuges, a pilot enrichment facility designed for 1,000 centrifuges, and an underground facility intended to house up to 50,000 centrifuges.
• Delay will make it harder to successfully conduct an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. The nuclear facility in Natanz has been buried under more than 15 meters (16.4 yards) of reinforced concrete and soil. There is evidence that the same kind of hardening is taking place at other facilities.
• The US and Israel could blunt any Iranian effort to retaliate. Iran might respond with military force, directly or indirectly through proxy organizations such as Hizbullah. Iran might also try to close the Strait of Hormuz to boost oil prices. But Israel and the US could respond conventionally and unconventionally to an attack from Hizbullah or other Iranian proxies. In addition, the US could deploy sufficient military assets to disrupt and deter any effort to block the strait.
Consequently, the US and Israel have developed plans for a limited strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. An attack could take at least three forms: an airstrike from US or Israeli aircraft; an attack from surface-to-surface missiles; and an attack from surface ships or submarines in the Mediterranean or Arabian Sea.
However, the arguments in favor of an attack rest on faulty logic, because a successful attack would be hard to pull off. Officials from several Western intelligence agencies have said they don't know where all the nuclear facilities are located. And the Iranian targets are also not clustered together as they were in Iraq in 1981 when that nation's nuclear reactor was attacked by Israel, but now are dispersed throughout Iran and partially hardened.
In addition, diplomatic pressure and economic sanctions could still push Iran to agree to indefinitely relinquish its right to enrich uranium in return for guaranteed supply from an offshore source, such as Russia. A possible alternative might be the delayed limited enrichment option. The international community would explicitly accept that Iran could produce peaceful nuclear energy. In return, Iran would agree to delay commencement of its enrichment program, major limitations on its initial size and scope, and a highly intrusive inspections regime.
In the final analysis, the most significant cost of an attack would not be a result of Iranian military or economic retaliation. It would be a worsening of US relations with Muslim nations that would severely impact America's global war on terrorism.
The reaction to the cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad starkly illustrates the speed and explosiveness of anti-Western and anti-American sentiment among Muslim populations in the Middle East, Asia, and North Africa. In several countries, such as Afghanistan, jihadists took advantage of the situation to stir up crowds, incite violence against Westerners, and recruit members. An attack against Iran would create another opportunity to accomplish these objectives.
Anti-Americanism is already high in the Arab world, according to opinion polls conducted by Zogby International. In Egypt and Saudi Arabia, two major allies of the US, 85 and 89 percent of the populations respectively view the US unfavorably. More than 60 percent of those from Morocco, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon also view the US unfavorably.
Iran's foreign policy behavior and nuclear program are deeply troubling. But a preemptive attack against Iran today would go against US political and strategic interests in the Middle East. As US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld recently noted, the US is faring poorly in its effort to counter ideological support for terrorism. If America is serious about countering this support and winning hearts and minds in the Middle East, it needs to continue pursuing policies that encourage support rather than further hostility, in the region.
• Seth G. Jones is a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and adjunct professor in the security studies program at Georgetown University.