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Ira Straus

The Options on Iran

There are only two real options:

  • Strike Iran first.
  • Wait for Iran to strike first.

Striking Iran first means partially disarming it of the missiles and bombs that it can use to cause damage when it strikes the US and Israel; and also, crucially of its nuclear weapons program and its drone production facilities. It means a quite costly but still limited war.

Waiting for Iran to strike means making sure Iran can do a lot of damage. It means a much costlier war, potentially an unlimited one.

Israel probably feels it has to wait for this, under pressure of the US and the world media. The world treats a large-scale Iranian attack on Israel as necessary before it could view it as acceptable for Israel to hit Iran seriously.

The US could strike first, and more effectively than Israel alone. But it has thus far set itself against this.

A Graham policy or a Biden policy

There are two opposed fundamental attitudes here:

The Graham attitude: strike first.

The Biden attitude: let the enemy strike first.

Graham is not president.

And so we wait for Iran to get nuclear weapons.

When Iran strikes, it will do so at a time and place of its own choosing. It will probably first assemble a nuclear arsenal. Pres. Biden would then gravely proclaim his superior wisdom and say we must respect Iran’s nuclear deterrent and not start World War III.

Biden’s arbitrary red line against our side

Biden’s red line against hitting Iran has been arbitrary. He argues for it by labeling it a “regional war” if Iran is hit. That is neither accurate, nor by any means the worst imaginable outcome as he seems to feel. Why does he do this? The clue lies on the other side of the Black Sea: it is his equivalent way of saying, against Israel, what he has said against Ukraine, when he has been pressed to finally give the right weapons to Ukraine. In the case of Ukraine, he has kept refusing it by labeling it “World War III”.

If Iran gets a nuclear arsenal, any war with it really could turn into nuclear war and a kind of World War III. Biden’s policy of passivity would have brought on the very horror he talks about avoiding.

The choice boils down to one

There might still seem to be two ways of avoiding a nuclear World War III with Iran:

  • Strike first to disarm Iran.
  • Yield to Iran on everything.

But the second option is unreal. It wouldn’t happen. America would not always yield to Iran on everything. And Iran, once it went nuclear, would escalate its aggressions and blackmails. It would push them too far for any American president.

We would have to hope desperately for the Iranian people to topple their regime, and quickly. But no sober person would count on its happening in the relevant timeframe. We’ve been hoping for that for 45 years already.

The one way we could really help the people topple the regime is by striking it preemptively and disarming it. The people would sense the regime’s weakness and might find the courage to finish it off.

Once Iran assembles its nuclear weapons, the chances for its overthrow will be greatly diminished. The regime would have a new rush of nationalist pride to reinforce it. It would feel strong and remoralized; dissidents would feel weak and demoralized.

So would we.

The real options: preemption, or war with a nuclear Iran

We are left with only two options:

  • Strike Iran first and fight a limited war that prevents a nuclear Iran from ever arising.
  • Wait until Iran has nuclear weapons. Then get deterred by Iran while it carries its terrorism and destabilization farther and farther. End up in World War III with a nuclear Iran.

It might seem obvious that the first option is better. But not everyone yet seems ready to accept that reality. It runs into the political phobia of the Administration and its party against preemption.

Preemption, after all, means doing something like what W. Bush did. It means taking the heat for starting a war – even if, more truthfully, it would be finally responding seriously to Iran’s long war against us and exercising our escalation dominance against it – and doing so without absolute certainty of being right. It means ceasing to use W. Bush’s deadly mistake as a reason for an eternal mental block against preemption, no matter how obvious a necessity it might become.

Waiting feels easier. It means being able to tell one’s fellow passivists that it’s all Iran’s fault not ours when they build their nuclear arsenal. It means not having to grow up and take responsibility.

Good people know otherwise.

The question is whether we have enough good people in the White House.

About the Author
Chair, Center for War/Peace Studies; Senior Adviser, Atlantic Council of the U.S.; formerly a Fulbright professor of international relations; studied at Princeton, UVA, Oxford. Institutions named above for identification purposes only; views expressed herein are solely the responsibility of the author.
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