By Ari Kattan
Colin Kahl and Matthew Kroenig engaged in another debate last week in their ongoing back-and-forth over the timing and utility of a potential preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. The now-famous debate between these two former Defense Department officials and Georgetown University professors has been characterized as a discussion between polar-opposite views, but this depiction does not do justice to the nuance and complexity of the issue and their arguments. Both Kahl and Kroenig saw a nuclear Iran as destabilizing and damaging to U.S. interests and neither has ruled out military action. But they disagreed on the urgency of such military action and the threshold that would need to be crossed before the United States should use military force.
Kroenig opened up the debate by saying he believes a nuclear Iran is the greatest national security issue facing the United States. In his view, there are three options vis-à-vis Iran: diplomatic action to halt their nuclear program, acquiescence to a nuclear-armed Iran, or military action to physically destroy their nuclear program. Diplomatic action, he argued, will ultimately prove futile because the Iranian regime’s top priorities—regime survival and regional dominance—are both served by acquiring nuclear weapons. Making a deal with the West and halting uranium enrichment to 20 percent does not advance their interests. This leaves the United States to choose between acquiescence and military action.
In Kroenig’s view, a nuclear-armed Iran and its potential regional and international consequences are unacceptable. He argued that if Iran acquired nuclear weapons, it could provide a nuclear umbrella to its proxies, making it harder to contain or retaliate against them without risking escalation that could lead to a nuclear exchange. He also feared the risk of further proliferation in the Middle East and beyond. Over the long-term, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Egypt could try and acquire nuclear weapons to balance Iran. The damage to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) would also be substantial, with other countries, especially rouge states, concluding that they can get away with developing nuclear weapons. Kroenig also disputed the claim that deterrence between Iran and Israel would work similar to how deterrence prevented nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Israel and Iran do not have diplomatic relations and they are both in a much more unstable region. The clear communication of red-lines and the diplomatic ability to deescalate crises that existed during the Cold War does not exist between Israel and Iran, making deterrence potentially less effective.
Given these risks, Kroenig argued that if sanctions and diplomacy fail, the United States should strike Iran’s nuclear facilities and absorb what he believed would be a “token” Iranian retaliation in response. During the strike, the United States should communicate to Iran that the attack is limited in nature and is not intended to bring down the regime. He says this assurance would prevent the Iranian government from using all of its retaliatory capabilities, such as closing the Strait of Hormuz, because doing so would invite further U.S. military action against the Iranian military. Thus, Iran would be denied nuclear weapons and the consequences of the strike would be mitigated by leaving the Iranian military and the regime itself as bargaining chips. An international coalition would be preferable for such a strike, but if necessary, the United States should go it alone.
Kahl, who spoke second, addressed each of Kroenig’s arguments and explained why he feels that talk of military action is premature and what criteria he felt must be met before a preventive strike on Iran is warranted. First, he argued that while the threat from Iran is growing, it is not yet imminent. Iran could have a nuclear weapon approximately one year after the decision is made to get the bomb, but Iran has not yet made that decision and is unlikely to make that decision soon. If and when Iran makes that decision, the United States would know about it and could then assess the military option—excessive talk of a preventive strike now only convinces the Iranians that the United States is solely interested in regime change, not in a diplomatic solution.
Kahl also addressed what he called “hyperboles” that are often used when discussing the consequences of a nuclear Iran. A “regional proliferation cascade” is unlikely because no other country in the Middle East is capable of producing nuclear weapons. Egypt is too preoccupied with internal strife, Turkey is covered by NATO’s nuclear umbrella, and Saudi Arabia does not have the technological or industrial capacity, and would likely be satisfied with American security guarantees. He acknowledges that a nuclear capability would embolden Iran and would enable it to further utilize its proxies. But, he argued, Iran uses proxies precisely because it wishes to create plausible deniability for its actions to avoid retaliation. If Hezbollah, Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad overstep their bounds, it would invite retaliation against Iran, so Iran has an incentive to keep them in check.
Kahl then tackled the question of the military strike itself. He took issue with Kroenig’s war plan, saying that war plans never “survive first contact with the enemy.” Given that Iran already believes the United States is interested in regime change, it would be extremely difficult to communicate Kroenig’s limited war aims. If these limited aims—the destruction of Iran’s nuclear facilities and nothing more—are not communicated effectively, Iran will think it has nothing left to lose and will lash out with all of its retaliatory capabilities. This would be incredibly damaging and create dangerous unpredictability. It would disrupt oil supplies from the Persian Gulf and bid up the price of oil (even if Iran chose not to close the Strait of Hormuz) during a time of economic vulnerability in the United States and Europe, and could escalate into unforeseen territory that might necessitate a ground invasion of Iran, a scenario for which the United States has no appetite.
Kahl’s last point was that a military strike would most likely only delay, not prevent, Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and thus the costs associated with a preventive strike would be for nothing. The only way military action would be justified is if Iran made the decision to get nuclear weapons and the United States could assemble a large coalition similar to the coalition against Saddam Hussein during the Persian Gulf War. A large coalition is necessary, he argued, in order to maintain Iran’s diplomatic isolation and the sanctions that would be necessary to prevent Iran from reconstituting its nuclear program. Without a broad coalition, Iran will be able to play the victim to Western bullying and break out of its isolation.
Both Kroenig and Kahl argued their points well, but Kahl was the most convincing. He acknowledged many of Kroenig’s concerns as valid, but argued effectively that a preventive strike—except under a very high threshold—would be unlikely to go as planned and would be unlikely to deny the Iranians the bomb permanently. As for who is right regarding whether or not deterrence will work as a regional security paradigm between Israel, Iran and the Arab states, nobody knows. Hopefully, we will never have to find out.