Truman National Security Project

Will Military Action Be Necessary To Stop Iran’s Nuclear Program?

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By Christopher Miller | 12.5.12
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At times America has hesitated to act when it should or could have. Earlier action against Iran could have halted their nuclear program, as in the case of Israel’s strikes against Syria’s and Iraq’s nascent nuclear programs. Decisive action could have prevented genocide in Sudan or the proliferation of nuclear technology to Pakistan and North Korea. Many question if we have hesitated too long to act in Syria, against spreading Islamism in Africa or in closer conflicts such as the cartel wars in Mexico. However, U.S. interventions in the Gulf War, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya were swift, clearly defined and decisive.

At times over the last few decades it has been hard to answer the question of what America seeks to achieve in the world. Our overarching national security goal should be to secure American victory. It may seem a semantic point at first, but there is a major difference in thought between protecting America and its interests and pushing America and its interests forward. It is the difference between reaching acceptable compromises to live with our foes or defeating our opponents finally and decisively.

Many Western countries are guilty of drawing lines in the sand and when the line is crossed they just draw a new one. Israel has been drawing red lines regarding Iran’s nuclear program and stepping back every time. Some have recently argued the U.S. should draw a line alongside them. It arguably erodes credibility to characterise certain conditions as ‘unacceptable’ and then accept them. However, the important point is not that we should fight when our line is crossed, but that we should be more considered about when and where we draw them.

There is just as much danger in pushing your chips forward too early, or not pushing forward enough of them, as there is in hesitating too long. Iraq and Afghanistan are illustrations of this point. Iraq was a war commenced on false pretences which never had clearly defined goals and drew focus away from Afghanistan, a war which could have been won in the beginning but was allowed to drift into today’s stalemate. Both of these conflicts suffered from insufficient troop numbers, divided focus, and unclear goals.

It is for these reasons that America should be hesitant to draw red lines when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program now. We should not allow sabre rattling and rhetoric to draw us into a fight before we are ready or before it is necessary. The propaganda spiral moved America to war in Iraq with the argument we couldn’t afford to wait. Had we waited and asked more questions it may have become clear how unnecessary it was and how profligate it became. Once the propaganda cycle has begun in earnest, it becomes very hard to back away from the precipice. We should not be in a rush to reach this point of no return. It may pull us into a third conflict before we have ended or recovered from the other two.

And that would indeed be a great tragedy. A truly nuclear armed Iranian military presents a greater national security threat to the United States than Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden ever did. If or when that point is reached, we should be rested and ready to devote our full strength and attention to confronting it. The spectre of a nuclear armed Iran is not just a straw man. Iran and the U.S. and its allies have been fighting proxy wars in the Middle East for 30 years. Iran is already directly and indirectly responsible for the death of thousands of Americans and our allies in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and in acts of terror elsewhere. Those who portray Iran as an innocent victim of U.S. or Western aggression simply defending itself or being made a target because they challenge our hegemony are wrong.

The truth is that Iran is much further from this point than often portrayed. There are disagreements as to the amount of fissile material Iran has and America and its allies have already scored big hits against their refinement capability using the embargo and the Stuxnet virus. But refinement is only a part of the process. Nuclear warheads require a delivery vehicle with a complex guidance capability — an intercontinental ballistic missile system. Though this technology is easier to master and obtain than nuclear technology on the market, it can be effectively curtailed by embargo. Iran has not had much success with its missile tests.

But waiting to act should not be understood as hesitancy to act decisively. It is a strategic pause we should take advantage of to plan and prepare to confront this threat when or if it becomes necessary. If the Iranian regime is indeed set upon obtaining nuclear weapons and draw indisputably closer to reaching that point, we will have to confront them decisively and eliminate the capability. They have not reached that point. We should use the period between now and then to take our troops out of combat elsewhere and prepare for this more necessary fight if it comes. If it comes, it may likely be a tougher fight than any we’ve faced in the Middle East yet and an opportunity to show we have learned from our strategic and planning mistakes in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is still the possibility it will not be necessary and a diplomatic solution may be reached. It should always remain preferable to us to confront and dissolve these conflicts without a fight. Taking the time to do so is not a sign of weakness, but of strategic caution and, in any case, gives us a strategic pause. We should not rush to failure. In any case, we have the upper hand in the conflict from the outset and should not be in a hurry. When tens or maybe hundreds of thousands of lives are in the balance, the nick of time will do. The time to militarily confront Iran may come. Now is not that time.

Chris Miller is a Truman Security Fellow. This article originally appeared in PolicyMic.