In the wake of the alleged plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to Washington, the predictable chorus of right-wingers has come forward to promote one of their favourite causes: the idea of an attack on Iran. Not surprisingly, the idea of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities features highly in all of this. Many of those who have been calling for such an attack for some time see the alleged assassination plot as the perfect excuse to attack now.
At a recent Congressional hearing, such neo-con notables as Ruel Marc Gerecht of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies baldly stated, “you don’t want to run away from that war, you want to run towards it.”
Though many, such as the Congressional Committee’s Chair, Rep. Peter King (R-NY), said that the alleged assassination plot “was an act of war” on Iran’s part, the U.S. has yet to make available its evidence concerning the plot. It was certainly unlike anything we have seen from the Iranians for several years. (See my Ottawa Citizen op-ed on this topic.)
Amid all of this craziness, the Belfer Centre at Harvard has done a considerable service by compiling a policy brief with a series of links to various articles and policy papers which explore the question of what an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would likely accomplish. Called “Attacks On Nuclear Infrastructure: Opening Pandora’s Box?”, the brief provides a welcome antidote to those who are trying to sell the notion that an attack on Iran would somehow resolve anything. Indeed, the conclusion of those who compiled the site is this:
Despite the intuitive appeal of attacking states’ nuclear infrastructure to curb proliferation, the empirical record gives reason for caution. On the one hand, targeted attacks can slow progress toward acquiring nuclear weapons. For states in the early stages of nuclear research, an attack can make the prospect of developing nuclear weapons seem too costly and too difficult. On the other hand, an attack on a state with a more robust infrastructure could accelerate its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Unless strikes are accompanied by actions designed to address the security concerns of the targeted states, the long-term effects may prove counterproductive. Such attacks may not only speed the targeted state’s efforts to produce nuclear weapons, but also create a false sense of security in the outside world.
Put simply, the evidence that attacks on the nuclear infrastructure of suspected proliferators have the intended impact over the longer term is highly questionable. In the case of Israel’s attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, one of the articles on the site concludes that, “[r]ecent evidence confirms that the Osirak reactor was intended not to produce plutonium for a weapons program, but rather to develop know-how that would be necessary if Iraq acquired an unsafeguarded reactor better suited for large-scale production of plutonium. Israel’s attack triggered a far more focused and determined Iraqi effort to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Had Saddam not made the mistake of invading Kuwait, thereby triggering the first U.S. war with Iraq, he may have succeeded in developing a nuclear weapon, and the Israeli attack on Osirak may have helped to push him along that path.
The idea of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear sites has, as the Harvard site acknowledges, an “intuitive appeal”; but few experts regard it as ultimately likely to be helpful. The former Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, put the case best in a statement at Columbia University in April of 2010: “Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome,” Mullen said. “In an area that’s so unstable right now, we just don’t need more of that.”