What to Ask Before the Next War

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second from right, prays at the campus of Tehran University on Friday.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, second from right, prays at the campus of Tehran University on Friday. (By Vahid Salemi -- Associated Press)
By Paul R. Pillar
Sunday, February 4, 2007

Imagine that the famously flawed intelligence judgments about Iraq's programs to develop unconventional weapons had been correct. What difference would that have made to the American effort in Iraq?

The Bush administration would have had fewer rhetorical difficulties in defending its decision to go to war, even though any discoveries of weapons programs would have confirmed nothing about the use to which Saddam Hussein might someday have put such weapons or whether Iraq would eventually have acquired nuclear weapons.

But the war itself would be the same agonizing ordeal. An insurgency driven by motives having nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction and little to do with Hussein would still be going on.

Iraq's sectarian divisions and intolerant political culture would still have pushed it into civil war. Iraq would still have become the latest and biggest jihad, winning recruits and donors for al-Qaeda and boosting the militant Islamic movement worldwide. And the United States would still be suffering the same drain of blood and treasure in Iraq and most of the same damage to its global standing and relationships.

This thought experiment highlights how problems with the policy process (or, rather, the lack of a process) that led the United States into the Iraq quagmire went beyond the administration's manipulation of intelligence on weapons programs and terrorist relationships. The administration so successfully shaped the policy question around its chosen selling points involving these two issues that what passed for a national debate gave little attention to important questions about the likely nature and consequences of a war. The debate was largely reduced to contemplating the terms of a pseudo-syllogism: Hussein has weapons of mass destruction; Hussein supports terrorism; therefore, we must use force to remove Hussein.

Now, an accelerating debate about Iran and its nuclear program shows signs of the same dangerous reductionism. Some argue for an airstrike against Iranian nuclear facilities sooner rather than later. Whether the Bush administration will act on such advice in the next two years is uncertain, but it is taking confrontational steps, including augmenting forces in the Persian Gulf and raiding an Iranian consulate, that increase the chance of heightened tension escalating into a military clash.

A long argument over many barely addressed issues would be needed to get from a belief that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons to a conclusion that a military strike, or even policies that increase the risk of U.S.-Iranian hostilities, is advisable. One issue is the uncertainty of the intelligence about Iran's nuclear program, although this is getting some discussion thanks to the recriminations about the intelligence on Iraq.

Other questions that need answering include:

What would be the urgency of taking forceful action, given that the announced estimate is that Iran is still several years from acquiring a nuclear weapon?

How malleable (and how well-defined) are Tehran's intentions, and what changes in Washington's policy might lead Tehran to abandon a weapons program? Even if Tehran's intentions do not change, what other options would impede or slow its nuclear program? If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, how would that change its behavior and affect U.S. interests? In particular, why would deterrence, which has kept nuclear peace with other adversaries, not work with Iran?

The likely hardening, concealment and dispersal of Iran's nuclear facilities raise questions about the impact any military strike would have on the program. How much would Iran's nuclear efforts be set back, especially given that bombs are not very good at destroying knowledge and expertise? Would the Iranian response be appreciably different from that of Iraq after Israel bombed its nuclear reactor in 1981 (Iraq redoubled its nuclear efforts while turning to different methods for producing fissile material)?

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