The Bottom Line on Iran: The Costs and Benefits of Preventive War versus Deterrence

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Executive Summary

It appears increasingly likely that the Bushadministration's diplomatic approach to Iran willfail to prevent Iran from going nuclear and thatthe United States will have to decide whether touse military force to attempt to delay Iran's acquisitionof a nuclear weapons capability. Some analystshave already been promoting air strikesagainst Iran, and the Bush administration haspointed out repeatedly that the military option is"on the table." This paper examines the optionsavailable to the United States in the face of aprospective final diplomatic collapse.

Evaluating the two ultimate options—militaryaction on the one hand and acceptance and deterrenceon the other—reveals that neither course isattractive. However, the evidence strongly suggeststhat the disadvantages of using military actionwould outweigh those of acceptance and deterrence.Attacking Iran's nuclear program wouldpose several problems: U.S. intelligence seems likelyto be even poorer on Iran than it was on Iraq; Iranhas hardened and buried many nuclear facilities ina way that would make them difficult to destroy;Iran could respond in such a way that the UnitedStates would feel forced to escalate to full-blownregime change; and there would be a host of unintendedconsequences inside and outside Iran.

A policy of acceptance and deterrence is also anunattractive prospect. Iran would likely be emboldenedby the acquisition of a bomb and could destabilizethe region and inject more problems into analready bleak prospect for peace between theIsraelis and Palestinians. Still, given the costs of themilitary option, the only compelling rationale forstarting a war with Iran would be if there weregood reason to believe that the Iranian leadershipis fundamentally undeterrable. But available evidenceindicates that Iran is deterrable and wouldbe particularly so if faced with the devastatingrepercussions that would result from the use of anuclear weapon. Therefore, the United Statesshould begin taking steps immediately to preparefor a policy of deterrence should an Iranian bombcome online in the future. As undesirable as such asituation would be, it appears less costly than strikingIran.

Justin Logan

Justin Logan is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.