April 14, 2006

April 14, 2006 | Commentary on Middle East

If it comes to force in Iran...

Though undesirable, military action may become necessary. Now is the time to prepare.

Iran wants nukes. Months of diplomatic efforts to dissuade the anti-American mullahs from their quest have yielded one muted and toothless United Nations resolution, and zero concessions.

Iran's intransigence, capped by this week's thumb-in-the-eye announcement that the nation has started enriching uranium, forces realists to consider alternatives to diplomacy. Common wisdom holds that there are no good military options. Here, common wisdom is right.

But just because military options are not attractive does not mean they should be ruled out. Though we are not there, the time may come when Iran's determination to play with nuclear fire makes bad options look better and better.

The military options at America's disposal range from the "merely" troubling, difficult and expensive, to the truly horrifying.

Option 1: Surgical attacks. The least unattractive option, it would be hard to pull off. Israel's quick-strike destruction of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility 25 years ago cannot be replicated in Iran. The mullahs have dispersed, hardened and hidden nuclear installations and facilities throughout the country. Putting them out of commission would require a sustained and widespread campaign of air and missile strikes. Some locations would likely require American boots on the ground. Not an impossible task, but not quick and easy - or clean.

Option 2: Invasion. An even messier option, this would look something like the invasion of Iraq, only a bit tougher. Ultimately, Iran's military would be defeated. But U.S. military forces would be strained severely - a situation that would continue throughout an unpredictable and costly occupation. With unfinished business in Iraq and other critical commitments - such as defending South Korea, watching the Taiwan Strait, and supporting homeland security - this option hinges on America's willingness to commit to real and sustained increases in defense spending in the years ahead.

Option 3: Nuke 'em. The "rubble don't make trouble" approach is the least viable. Absent a clear, present and immediate threat of nuclear attack, Americans instinctively recoil from the thought of overthrowing even the maddest tyrant if the price tag includes millions of innocent dead.

Fortunately, additional defense-related options exist. Though they may not keep Iran from building a bomb, they can help make the neighborhood safer.

For starters, we can beef up the Proliferation Security Initiative, a multinational effort to break up networks trying to spread weapons of mass destruction technologies and materials to terrorists and other bad actors. The initiative has succeeded in interdicting shipments of dangerous materials, and it's our best hope of stopping delivery of a covert nuclear weapon.

Continued success on this front requires that we keep one step ahead of the bad guys, by beefing up intelligence assets and modernizing our Coast Guard and naval forces.

We also need to get serious about Theater Missile Defense. We're already working with friends and allies to establish a mix of air-, land- and sea-based defenses that can destroy ballistic missiles in flight. We should put these efforts into overdrive to protect our friends in the region.

To further pose a credible military deterrent to Iran, the United States also must pump up its special operations and human intelligence resources, and arrange ready access to the Middle East.

Today, our special ops are overstretched. The Pentagon should stop using these troops for foreign training assignments and other jobs that can be handled by conventional units. And it should bolster their ranks and expand human intelligence assets, ensuring that they have the language skills, area knowledge, and detailed and accountable intelligence needed to operate in Iran.

Finally, the Pentagon should nail down basing options in the region. That doesn't mean permanent bases - just agreements with friends who will let us use their territory, waters and air space to launch and sustain operations against Iran, should they become necessary.

There are no easy solutions for the threat posed by the nuke-hungry mullahs of Iran. But appropriate military options exist. To be able to exercise these options successfully - and to provide maximum deterrent effect - we must start making the right military investments now.

James Carafano is a senior research fellow for defense and homeland security at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer