Numerous conservatives have pointed to Israel’s preemptive strike in 1981 against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility as a model for what should be done vis-a-vis Iran. That attack is seen as basically crushing Iraq’s nuclear efforts and has led some neoconservatives to posit: why can’t we just do that in Iran?
I think the Israel Osirak attack is an illustrative example. There, Israel was able to crush Iraq’s nuclear program in one focused strike, but nearly 20 years later, the US still attacked Iraq on the grounds that it had to stop a nuclear program that didn’t exist.
This I think demonstrates the inanity of even thinking about listening to conservatives on Iran. Assuming that the right is correct and that Iran is completely determined to develop a nuclear weapon and that its nuclear program is as far along and is insidious as the right claim, then it is also safe to assume that Iran has taken actions to protect their program, such as burying the program in a vast network of hardened tunnels, as the New York Times confirmed recently. The right’s reaction to the New York Times report was instructive. Instead of it demonstrating the impracticality of bombing Iran’s nuclear program, John Bolton insisted that it was reason to launch an attack as soon as possible.
However, in launching an attack on Iran’s nuclear program there will be no way to tell if that attack has been successful, since we will have almost no idea if the buried nuclear facilities have been damaged. Furthermore, we won’t know if there are other facilities that we’ve missed, since we don’t know where all the facilities are. This is the known unknown problem, as Rumsfeld would say. There is a distinct possibility that in any attack we will not hit all the relevant nuclear targets – precisely because they are buried in a vast series of covert tunnels.
While the right often concedes these points, the nevertheless argue that an attack will at least “set Iran back” in its efforts to develop a nuclear program. While an attack might “set Iran back,” the problem though is that there is probably no way of knowing how much they are set back, if it all. In other words, even if an attack is completely successful in hitting and destroying Iran’s nuclear program – we won’t know it.
The day after any attack on Iran, there will be immediate calls for more military action, as Iran still might have a fully capable and operational nuclear program. The only way to be sure that Iran isn’t developing a nuclear program, it will be argued, is to launch an invasion that results in the change of regime.
So when the right talks about taking out Iran’s nuclear program, they in are really not talking about surgical strikes, they are talking about regime change. And that in effect would likely mean a full blown invasion involving thousands of American troops on the streets of Tehran.