Preemptive Strikes Will Not Disarm Iran

In 1981, Israel bombed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor when it believed Saddam Hussein was close to producing a nuclear bomb. Growing concern about advances in Iran’s nuclear capabilities has fanned speculation that Israel could launch an attack against key Iranian facilities, as it did against Osirak. Unilateralists have pointed to this strike as an example of successful preemptive disarmament. While the destruction of Osirak may have slowed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear program, it by no means stopped it. In fact, in destroying Osirak, Israel accelerated weapons proliferation and helped destabilize the Middle East.

The destruction of Osirak encouraged Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries to accelerate the development of less conspicuous weapons of mass destruction (WMD), such as chemical weapons, and develop long-range ballistic missiles capable of reaching Israel. These weapons were used extensively in the 1980-88 Iraq-Iran War. During the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq launched 93 Scud missiles at Israel and U.S. troops stationed in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Twenty-eight American soldiers died from a single Iraqi Scud missile attack.

The Osirak experience also appears to have taught Iran that security is about spreading risks. Unlike Iraq, Iran’s nuclear facilities are not concentrated in one place. According to "In all, there are perhaps two dozen suspected nuclear facilities in Iran. … [A]ir strikes on Iran would vastly exceed the scope of the 1981 Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear center in Iraq, and would more resemble the opening days of the 2003 air campaign against Iraq."

The destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities will not end or even curtail its quest for nuclear weapons. Such an assault could justifiably lead to Tehran withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and working with North Korea on building a bomb. This would not be the first time Iran has turned to North Korea for help: during the Iraq-Iran War, Pyongyang was Iran’s principle supplier of ballistic missile technology, and analysts say Iran’s 900-mile Shahab-3 missile is based on North Korea’s No Dong missile.

Attacking Iran would hurt our “rebuilding” efforts in Iraq and further strain U.S. relations with key allies. Destroying Iran’s nuclear facilities requires Israel to have access to U.S.-controlled Iraqi air space. Allowing Israeli planes to fly over Iraq in order to attack Iran would trigger outrage in the Islamic world. Rival Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain (headquarters for the U.S. 5th Fleet) would close ranks against U.S. interests.

Unilateral aggression against Iran would expose an egregious double standard that’s been confounding disarmament in the Middle East for more than two decades. Disarming Iran by force says in effect that Iran (and all other Middle Eastern states) must not be allowed a nuclear capability, but Israel’s undeclared and internationally uninspected arsenal is permissible. And declaring Iranian leaders to be irrational and incapable of understanding a nuclear threat doesn’t justify the double standard. It was Saddam Hussein’s threat to use chemical weapons against Iranian cities in 1988 that got Iranian leaders to negotiate the ending of the war. Saddam made similar threats against Israel during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but he did not send chemically loaded missiles to Tel Aviv for fear of nuclear retaliation. Deterrence does work against "rogue states."

Attacking Iran doesn’t make good economic sense, either. Iran is OPEC’s second-largest oil producer and holds 10% of the world’s proven oil reserves. It also has the world’s second largest natural gas reserves (after Russia). Oil and gas prices have recently soared in response to rising global demand and heightened security concerns in the Middle East. Iran is unlikely to maintain its current level of oil production in the face of a massive military assault. The loss of just a fraction of Iranian oil production through collateral damage, sabotage, or economic embargo could trigger a severe global recession.

If Iran is indeed developing nuclear weapons, we can thank our disarmament policy in Iraq: open your country to weapons inspectors and get invaded. The invasion of Iraq seriously undermined the credibility of disarmament. Scott Ritter, former chief UN weapons inspector, notes that "the issue of Iraqi WMD, and the entire concept of disarmament, has become a public joke." The message from Iraq and North Korea to Iran and other countries? The way to escape Saddam Hussein’s fate is to get a nuclear bomb quickly, before the United States finds out about it.

One of the main problems with preemptive disarmament is that it is carried out not by experts, but by governments with political agendas beyond simple arms control. Accordingly, disarmament under the aegis of a government is bound to reflect the biases and prejudices therein. Without neutral and comprehensive weapons inspections, governments are left to cook up their own dossiers, exaggerate threats, and/ or rely on questionable intelligence sources.

Given Iraq’s level of technology in 1981, it could not have built a nuclear weapon without considerable technical assistance from abroad. Even Israel, a country known for its technical prowess, did not develop its nuclear capability in isolation: the Osirak plant was constructed by the French, who had built an identical plant for Israel. The dependency on foreign technology suggests that disarmament that targets critical equipment and components can be successful. Indeed, the UN weapons inspections regimes of the 1990s, not "Operation Iraqi Freedom," are responsible for disarming Iraq.

Raiding Iran’s nuclear facilities will have the unintended consequence of accelerating proliferation and further destabilizing the Middle East. Iran has signed an important accord opening its nuclear facilities to international inspections. That breakthrough was the result of months of European-led negotiations. An Israeli (or American) attack would undermine these promising diplomatic efforts and represent a continuation of the failed policy of unilateral disarmament.