Would Attacking Iran Really Make It More Determined to Build Nukes?

I’m one of those progressives who concedes that sometimes conservatives get the facts on the ground straight. (Their conclusions, almost never.) At the Tablet, Lee Smith of that redoubt of conservatism, the Weekly Standard, writes:

Amid all the different theories concerning the Iran plot … it is perhaps most useful to look at this recent effort as the final test Iran will face before it gets a nuclear weapon. [Emphasis added.]

At first I wasn’t sure exactly what point Smith was trying to make. After reading the paragraph over a couple of times, I realized that what he meant by what’s italicized is: “the final test that the United States will face before it likely fails to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapons.” I hadn’t seen that sentiment expressed before. Smith continues:

Seen this way, it is clear that the White House wouldn’t want to highlight Israel’s spot in Iran’s crosshairs, because no matter how many times President Barack Obama tells Israeli officials and Jewish audiences that an Iranian nuclear bomb would be unacceptable, his administration’s real policy position has just been exposed.

Said policy, which involves just calling

… for more sanctions against Tehran in response to an operation intended to slaughter hundreds of American allies [as well as Americans] makes it clear to everyone, especially the Iranians, that Washington isn’t going to do anything serious about stopping Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Why isn’t it? Here, Smith’s opinion is nothing you haven’t heard before.

The problem is that Obama’s White House, like George W. Bush’s, fears that taking too active a role against Iran and its assets will put U.S. military personnel at risk of Iranian retaliation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He then arrives at another novel (to me, anyway) insight.

That means that American strategists … no longer consider the U.S. military a deterrent to Iranian actions; rather, the presence of American troops in theaters where the Iranians also operate has effectively deterred the United States from taking action against Tehran.

The irony Smith has unearthed is undeniable. He sticks the knife in and twists.

U.S. involvement in the Middle East and Washington’s policy of not confronting Iran about its openly aggressive behavior have created a situation in which our troops are now effectively being held hostage, a situation that Iran underlines with each new act of aggression and terror.

There’s nothing for it then but for either the United States or Israel to attack Iran, right? If you’re disposed to consider that an option, consider first a policy brief based on an article in the Summer 2011 issue of International Security. Author Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer points out one of the issues with a preemptive attack.

The legitimacy and consequences of the 1981 [Israeli attack on Iraq's Osirak reactor] remain in dispute. Advocates argue that it was a preemptive attack and therefore permitted under international law. Critics claim that, as a research reactor, Osirak did not constitute an acute proliferation risk. … Recent evidence confirms that [it] was intended not to produce plutonium for a weapons program, but rather to develop know-how … for large-scale production of plutonium.

As you can see, the first problem was confirming that the target represented more than a threat in the distant future. As for the second problem

Israel’s attack triggered a far more focused and determined Iraqi effort to acquire nuclear weapons. When the program was interrupted by the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq stood on the threshold of acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.

Ms. Braut-Hegghammer proceeds to speculate about the conditions under which a state might respond to an attack by resolving to bring its nuclear-weapons program to fruition.

Generalizing about the effects of attacking nuclear infrastructure is a difficult task. … A plausible hypothesis, however, is that the distribution of probable outcomes resembles a bell curve. At one end, states with minimal nuclear infrastructure may present a smaller proliferation risk [after its nuclear facilities have been attacked] because of the increased costs of developing a nuclear weapons capability. In the middle section, attacks on states that are moving toward completion of the fuel cycle may produce more mixed outcomes. On the one hand, developing a domestic nuclear weapons capacity will be more costly following the destruction of key sites. [On the other] attacks, however, may create a domestic incentive to build a deterrent to avoid similar strikes in the future. … At the other end of the curve, attacks on states that have mastered the complete nuclear fuel cycle may increase the risk of proliferation.

As for states such as Iran

… which are capable of producing fissile material but seem to lack elite consensus to proceed with a nuclear weapons program, an attack could accelerate acquisition of a nuclear weapon.