In a characteristically awkward public appearance in 2007, Sen. John McCain sang a parody of the Beach Boys’ Barbara Ann that probably made Kenneth Waltz’s ears bleed, not to mention anyone who likes good music. These days it’s not difficult to find accomplished political commentators arguing for airstrikes, and it is certainly not difficult if one listens to G.O.P. critiques of the defeatist-in-chief, Barack Obama. Surprisingly, however, I’m not all that disturbed by these observations.
Now, anyone who’s ever had a discussion about Iran’s nuclear program with me probably knows that I’m not exactly the Fireman Ed of airstrikes but I’m also not convinced that airstrikes would have the devastating consequences that many proponents of a more diplomatic approach often fear. It doesn’t make much sense to launch a targeted airstrike against Iran’s nuclear facilities at this time but I’m hesitant to accept that doing so would severely damage US security interests. There’s a simple reason: because the US is so much more powerful than Iran, there’s nothing the Ayatollahs could do to strike back at us in a meaningful way.
I should also be clear that I’m talking about the effects of an airstrike strictly from a security perspective. I do not consider the arguments of international law advocates whose roadmap to a stable and secure world inspire about as much fear as this barking Maltese.
The arguments against bombing Iran usually take one of several forms. First, it is argued that bombing Iran’s facilities, especially if not sufficiently debilitating, will only lead Iran to double down and strive that much harder to go nuclear. This may be true, but that does not make it more likely that Iran will use its nuclear weapon against the United States or one of its regional allies. A threat to launch a nuclear weapon would only be credible under the direst of circumstances for Iran (i.e. the impending collapse of its regime in an IOF-style intervention). Airstrikes of any kind are unlikely to be perceived as life-threatening to the Islamic Republic.
Second, it is argued that Iran would retaliate with a vengeance. In reality, the U.S. and its allies would enjoy escalation dominance across all theaters which means that any Iranian threats to retaliate would be overwhelmed by superior U.S. conventional forces, particularly if Iran were to carry out exercises in the Persian Gulf. In Newtonian terms, any Iranian action would be met with an equal and opposite more severe reaction.
Third, it is argued that U.S. and liaison intelligence gathering is incapable of ascertaining the precise whereabouts of the most important Iranian nuclear facilities. In actuality, the important Iranian facilities are easy to find even in open source. It is quite likely that at higher levels of classification, the U.S. and Israel in fact know a great deal more about the geography and fortification of Iran’s key nuclear sites.
In essence, an air strike against Iran would do limited damage to U.S. security interests; however, I still think it’s a dumb idea. To paraphrase St. Paul, airstrikes against Iran are permissible–but not necessarily beneficial. And as a side note, it’s probably not a good idea to listen to John McCain when it comes to foreign policy (or surf rock covers).