Every now and again, the New York Times lends its editorial pages to an individual bent on bombing Iran. Last year, it allowed Benny Morris to publish a saber-rattling screed that argued for an immediate Israeli or American assault on Iran—thankfully, Benny Morris’s call was ignored.
Wednesday, the Times allowed Alan J. Kuperman to echo Morris’s call and urge bombing of Iran. Kuperman’s unpersuasive argument—that bombing would not undermine Iran’s opposition movement and that Iran’s response would either be negligible or deterrable—is based on a selective, inapt reading of history as well as a gross overstatement of Iran’s current activities and the United States ability to respond. Absurdly, Kuperman premises his argument on the (incorrect) notion that Iran has violated international law and then suggests, ultimately, that the United States take action that would clearly violate international law.
Kuperman suggests that bombing Iran would only temporarily retard Iran’s opposition movement. He finds authority for this proposition in the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999. He notes that NATO bombing temporarily bolstered Milosevic’s popularity but that within a short time, pro-democracy forces ousted Milosevic. But opposition movements are necessarily parochial—to claim that because, in the one instance of Serbia, external use of force only temporarily and weakly magnified the citizenry’s nationalism, that similar external use of force in the case of Iran will have a similarly weak effect is nonsensical. Kuperman has here indulged nothing more than a post hoc, ergo proctor hoc logical fallacy. Indeed, examples of attacks resulting in a rallying-around-the-flag effect abound: the United States following Pearl Harbor or September 11 are instructive.
Kuperman further tortures reason by arguing that the United States could attack Iran and suffer relatively little cost because of the size of the US air force. Kuperman believes that Iran would not retaliate for a strike against its nuclear facilities because Iranian retaliation would invite a wider bombing campaign. Given the large (and growing) deployment of American troops in countries neighboring Iran, and the ability of the Iranians to exert influence in each of those countries—to say nothing of Iranian cooperation vis-à-vis Afghanistan—Iranian retaliation for American bombing would appear to be guaranteed. The threat of additional American bombing is unlikely to serve as a deterrent for Iran because the amount of bombings required to make Iranian retaliation cost prohibitive is quite large. History has demonstrated that the threat of air assault on an entrenched regime does little to dissuade such a regime in its offensive actions; that only a lengthy, wide reaching bombing campaign, or a bombing campaign coupled with a ground assault puts an end to the offensive action—see, for example, the NATO bombing campaign in Serbia in 1999 or the air war in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Unlike either of those examples, bombing Iranian nuclear sites (and the wider bombing campaign Kuperman invites following the inevitable Iranian retaliation) does not have the benefit of either legality or moral force. Though not Security Council authorized, NATO bombing in Serbia was widely by the international community seen as a moral necessity to end Milosevic’s genocide in Kosovo. While an Osirak-like strike would likely receive mild public condemnation and private support, a wider bombing campaign would be vociferously condemned, reviled, and would only further undermine US public diplomacy goals in the developing world. It would also be illegal.
It is also no answer for Kuperman to assert that Iranian retaliation could be weathered because Iran already aids its proxies in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though Kuperman is correct, he conflates Iranian proxies with those forces actively engaged in combat with the United States. He also ignores that any materiel support Iran may give to these proxies could be ratcheted up and that the proxies who aren’t harrying US forces could be unleashed.
Finally, bombing Iran’s nuclear sites will not solve the problem. As Kuperman himself notes, there are likely nuclear sites US intelligence is unaware of, US bombing may not effectively reach many of the hardened Iranian sites, and destroying even those sites will not halt—it may at best delay—Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Unilaterally bombing Iran’s nuclear sites may not be the worst policy option available to US decision makers, but it is close.