An unavoidable challenge
Now is the time to make the case for military action against Iran

Rick Bajornas/United Nations

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, president of the Islamic Republic of Iran, addresses a high-level meeting on the development needs of Africa on Sept. 22, 2008, in New York.

Article Highlights

  • Republican candidates must begin preparing the case for a military strike to destroy Iran's nuclear program

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  • Obama has left the nation uninformed about the nature and possible consequences of military action

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  • A president need not wait until an attack is imminent before taking action

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Our political calendar and one of our nation's greatest threats have synchronized. In the upcoming year, the American people will render their judgment on Barack Obama's presidency. Meanwhile, if the International Atomic Energy Agency's November report is accurate, Iran will soon join the ranks of the world's nuclear powers. Because of the Obama administration's reluctance to confront this looming threat, others—such as the Republican presidential candidates—must begin preparing the case for a military strike to destroy Iran's nuclear program.

Republican frontrunners have seized upon the threat. In last month's South Carolina debate, Mitt Romney promised that Iran "will not have a nuclear weapon" under his presidency. Economic sanctions and aid to internal opposition come first, said the former Massachusetts governor, but "if all else fails . . . [and] there's nothing else we can do besides take military action, then of course you take military action."

Newt Gingrich, the frontrunner in several early states, heartily agrees. In the South Carolina debate, Gingrich proposed covert operations, including "taking out their scientists" and "breaking up their systems," and a Cold War-style strategy "of breaking the regime and bringing it down." But the former House speaker "agree[s] entirely" with Romney that, should pressure fail, "you have to take whatever steps are necessary" to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

In this game of diplomatic poker, the Republicans would go all in where the last administration and the present one have checked. Though he declares that "we don't take any options off the table," President Obama avoids explicit military threats. Instead he seeks to "isolate and increase the pressure upon the Iranian regime." He naïvely hoped to negotiate a settlement with Tehran (and Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea!), but he has ended up in the same place as his predecessor. George W. Bush declined to attack Iran's nuclear infrastructure. He also passed on striking a suspected Syrian nuclear facility (the Israelis destroyed it in 2007). Like Obama, he pursued economic sanctions and applied political pressure to foster Iranian regime change.

"An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, though it would impose costs in human lives and political turmoil, would serve these interests and forestall the spread of conflict and terror."--John Yoo

President Obama has done more than merely delay the inevitable day of reckoning with Iran. He has left the public uninformed about the nature and possible consequences of military action, which must be serious and sustained enough to destroy complex, protected, and dispersed facilities—pinpoint bombing of a single facility will not end Iran's nuclear program. Iran might respond by attacking Israel, Arab allies such as Saudi Arabia, and oil shipments in the Persian Gulf. President Obama has also failed to explain the heavy costs of containment, which would involve a constant, significant conventional and nuclear military presence on Iran's perimeter.

Obama has compounded this political negligence by failing to build the legal case for attacking Iran. Instead, the administration has tethered American national security to the dictates of the United Nations. In Libya, Obama delayed launching the air war until the Security Council approved the intervention, allowing a popular revolution to metastasize into a prolonged, destructive civil war. The same craving for international approval may lead the administration to put off military action against Iran until it is too late.

The U.N. Charter guarantees the "territorial integrity" and "political independence" of each member nation, and prohibits the use of force except in self-defense, which many scholars and international officials interpret to mean that force is prohibited except when an invader has attacked across a border or is about to do so. It does provide an exception for war to prevent threats to international peace and security, but only if approved by the Security Council (where the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China all have a veto). Not surprisingly, U.N. authorizations to use force are rare. China and Russia, both Security Council members, generally oppose intervention in what they consider "internal" affairs, including policies that repress political and economic freedoms. They can usually be counted on to protect other oppressive regimes by blocking U.N. approval for war, as they did in Iraq in 2003.

Just as national governments claim a monopoly on the use of force within their borders and in exchange offer police protection, the U.N. asks nations to give up their right to go to war and in exchange offers to police the world. But the U.N. has no armed forces of its own, has a crippled decision-making system, and lacks political legitimacy. It is contrary to both American national interests and global welfare because it subjects any intervention, no matter how justified or beneficial, to the approval of authoritarian nations.

Thankfully, the U.S. has not often waited for the Security Council's permission to protect its interests. But if the president seeks U.N. authorization for a military action against Iran, his administration will have to make a case much like the one that the Bush administration made regarding Iraq. It can argue that destroying Iran's nuclear weapons is a combination of self-defense and protecting international security. Nuclear weapons in the hands of an obvious enemy would constitute a grave threat to American interests. Even without them, Iran has fomented conflict in the region, supported groups hostile to Israel through its client state Syria, supported terrorists who target American allies such as Saudi Arabia, and attacked American troops in Iraq. It has also supported attacks on our embassies and military bases in places such as Saudi Arabia and Lebanon, planned to kill ambassadors on American soil, and of course taken our diplomatic officials hostage. Nuclear weapons would allow Iran to escalate hostilities with little fear of any large-scale American military response. If Saddam Hussein had succeeded in his drive to build nuclear weapons, would the United States have gone to war in 1991 to protect a small, oil-rich sheikdom?

A president need not wait until an attack is imminent before taking action. Iranian nuclear capabilities would cause a radical reversal of the balance of power, and that fact justifies action in itself. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Pres. John F. Kennedy imposed a blockade, which is an act of war, though his legal advisers claimed it was a "quarantine" instead. Soviet nuclear missiles were not fueling on the launch pads, but President Kennedy used force because the Russian deployment upset the superpower equilibrium in the Western Hemisphere.

Even realists who criticize a pro-democracy agenda should support the prevention of Iranian hegemony in the Middle East. Iran seeks to export its fundamentalist revolution, with its brutal suppression of individual rights and free markets, throughout the region. It stokes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Its president hopes to wipe Israel from the map. It undermines reconstruction and reconciliation in Iraq. It supports terrorists throughout the world. It threatens to close off the Straits of Hormuz, through which travels 17 percent of the oil traded worldwide. It has attacked shipping in the Persian Gulf. A nuclear Iran could expand its asymmetric warfare against its neighbors, or even escalate into conventional warfare, with little fear of direct retaliation.

Military action need not go so far as an invasion or even a no-fly zone. Our forces would have to destroy Iranian air-defense sites, but otherwise, thanks to precision-guided missiles and drones, they could concentrate on a few links in the Iranian nuclear chain: the centrifuge facilities where uranium is enriched, the assembly points for weapons, and perhaps missile and air-delivery systems.

The surgical nature of such strikes would make them proportional to the military objective, which would be not the overthrow of the Iranian regime but the destruction of its nuclear capability. Nuclear-weapons infrastructure is a legitimate military target, even if some strikes may kill civilians. If casualties result because facilities are located beneath cities, the fault rests with the Iranians for deliberately using civilians to shield its military—a move long forbidden by the laws of war. Unlike Iranian-supported terrorist groups, the United States will assuredly do everything possible to keep civilian loss of life to a minimum.

The United States has assumed the role, once held by Great Britain, of guaranteeing free trade and economic development, spreading liberal values, and maintaining international security. An attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, though it would impose costs in human lives and political turmoil, would serve these interests and forestall the spread of conflict and terror. The Republican presidential candidates should begin preparing the case now for this difficult but unavoidable challenge.

John Yoo is a visiting scholar at AEI

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