The Case for Military Action in Iran

In this week’s National Review, I make the legal case for a preventive attack on Iran’s nuclear weapons facilities.  Where the Obama administration has merely checked in this high-stakes game of poker, Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have gone all in (Ron Paul, of course, folded long ago).  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.

I argue, as I did with the Libyan intervention, that the United States should not be limited by the UN Charter, which limits the use of force to self-defense or when authorized by the Security Council (which would never approve strikes against Iran because of China’s and Russia’s vetos).  The Charter rules have never described state practice and have the effect of keeping dictators in power and preventing the United States and its allies from maintaining peace and security in the world.  The United States should have the legal right to use military force when it removes dangerous threats not just to our security, but to regions and the world — and that is, I argue, exactly what is posed by the prospect of Iranian nuclear weapons.

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.

If you don’t have the latest edition of National Review, read the whole argument here.

  1. Crow

    There is not even an attempt to assess the likelihood of success, the consequences of failure, the money spent, the lives lost, the capacity for retaliation and the ability to damage our strategic interests elsewhere….

    I also have disputes with parts of what Prof. Yoo has argued, but this isn’t quite fair, Conor. 

    To be fair, Prof. Yoo has written this article for National Review. The space limitations there do not allow for the elaboration and thorough treatment of subjects that you rightly suggest must be part of the deliberation amongst policy makers and military leaders.  

    Nevertheless, if you read the article itself, Prof. Yoo does broach the subject of ramifications:

    “…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.”

  2. Crow

    Prof. Yoo: Thanks for writing the article and for contributing to the discussion. 

    I’m going to jump over the places in which we agree to address the areas in which I would like further clarification from you, or where we may disagree.

    1) Your statement that a President need not wait for imminent attack is right in part, but you fail to present any limits to it. I’m not sure if your silence is telling, or if it is the result of the constraints of article length. In any event, we are left with the (perhaps unfair) impression that you believe a President, whenever and wherever he thinks there might ever emerge a threat at any time in the future, even if one has not emerged, has the power to commit military forces of an unspecified size and for an unspecified length of time for objectives that he doesn’t need to spell out to Congress.

    To say the least, this argument downplays Constitutional restrictions and seems to be in tension with your arguments that President Obama has failed to make a case to the public. Can you perhaps clarify? (continued below)

  3. Crow

    (continued from above)

    2)  I think the article severely underestimates the costs and duration of undertaking this operation, and I think you overstate the likelihood that Iran, once defanged of its nuclear program, will play tolerably nice. With regard to the former, for strikes to be undertaken in the way you suggest requires certain military prerequisites which I haven’t the space to detail here but which cannot be conjured from thin air and which will require a greater presence in the region of certain elements that your article omits. The matter of destroying Iranian air defenses involves more force than you suggest, and doesn’t take account of what Iran will do in response.

    With regard to the latter, surely Iran, having faced military action from the United States, is not likely to be chastened but is more likely, through the organs in Syria, North Africa or elsewhere that it funds, to strike against Israel or the United States.

    That is to say: in war, fortuna plays a role. Once you’ve committed to the use of force, you must surely consider the very real possibility that the endgame does not end with the regime remaining in power there.

  4. Crab bait

    Great, no problem. Just as long as we have no humanitarian effort to reform their government. End the threat and get out.

  5. Tommy De Seno
    C

    Can this line of argument be used as justification to attack Pakistan?  How about Russia?

    If not, why are they different?

  6. DocJay

    These military actions for the last 50 years are a joke considering our rules of engagement.  

    You want to nuke them in to the stone age then maybe. Saudi Arabia needs to deposit 3 trillion dollars first or else we let them get hit by Iran first.

    Any military action in Iran short of total nuking will lead to a boots on the ground military industrial complex free for all.  I do not trust a single politician to do the right thing.

    Yes Iran is an issue but being the world police has not been working out so well for us lately.  Let Iran start really killing some people and the Saudi’s and Israel can handle this with their air forces.  

    Your overall plan is sound, but politicians call the shots and fights never quite go the way you want them too.

  7. Crab bait

    -Can this line of argument be used as justification to attack Pakistan?  How about Russia? If not, why are they different?- This problem can be solved swiftly (maybe). This argument can not be made for Russia and Pakistan.

  8. Tommy De Seno
    C
    Crab bait: -Can this line of argument be used as justification to attack Pakistan?  How about Russia? If not, why are they different?- This problem can be solved swiftly (maybe). This argument can not be made for Russia and Pakistan. · Dec 28 at 4:12pm

    I’d appreciate more than the conclusion!   What’s the difference (and let me add North Korea to the list)?

  9. Conor Friedersdorf
    C

    So to be clear, John Yoo thinks that the president assumes near dictatorial power when the United States is at war, cheers on war-making – as he did after the Libya conflict – even when Congress does not declare war, and now argues that making war is justified even when there is no imminent threat from a foreign nation. What could possibly go wrong with this mix of views?

  10. Paul A. Rahe
    C

    The United States should have the legal right to use military force when it removes dangerous threats not just to our security, but to regions and the world.

    Given that Iran has been at war with us now for over thirty years; given that oil, which is a strategic substance, is concentrated in the Middle East; given the proportion of that oil which is exported through the Straits of Hormuz; given the ability of the Iranians to shut those straits; and given the manner in which the Iranian acquisition of nuclear weapons would transform the balance of power in that corner of the world, I am in firm agreement with your conclusion. But, John, I do not agree that it would be appropriate for us to act if our own security was not somehow at stake.

  11. flownover

    Someone, probably Krauthammer, said tonight on Fox that global naval policing has been our responsibility for the last 60 years ( with the Brits covering the prior 200). If that is the case, and the multiplatform venue the norm, then it falls to us . The UN is a waste of time in every sense. Let them come to their senses in their own time, we’ll wake them when it’s done. Air ,land, and sea are the same now, when do we draw the coordinates on the bureaucrat’s lairs and mullah’s hidden (but I’ll bet sacred) command centers ?

    25% of our oil could be had here for less blood and treasure . Evidently the principles of the left are dearer than the blood of Islam . 

  12. Fred Cole
    Tom Lindholtz: How did hostility with Japan end? We used the ultimate weapon in our arsenal to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were strong and we were serious. How did hostilities with Germany end? Essentially the same way — fire storm carpet bombing of military and civilian targets alike in the absence of the not yet ready nukes — to demonstrate that we were strong and serious. In every conflict since we have sent the message that we were not strong enough to actually use our ultimate weapon, and that we were not serious about stopping hostilities. The message has gotten through loud and clear. The comparison of the numbers of American lives lost IN Japan vs. the numbers of lives lost in every conflict since show the price we have paid for allowing the world’s mad men to mistake our compassion for weakness. If the only message that is understood is strength, then strength is the message that MUST be sent. · Dec 28 at 9:18pm

    So, just to clarify.  You want to nuke Iranian cities?

  13. Douglas
    Tommy De Seno: Can this line of argument be used as justification to attack Pakistan?  How about Russia?

    If not, why are they different? · Dec 28 at 3:40pm

    I don’t favor John’s argument, but I can still see a big difference between Iran, Pakistan, and Russia. 

    As Prof. Rahe said, we’ve been in a de facto state of war with Iran for decades. Sacking an embassy… sovereign territory… and taking staff hostages is an act of war, after all. And while Pakistan and Russia help our enemies on the sly, both have had nuclear weapons programs for years and have proven stable management of such weapons (with the exception of the immediate post-Soviet era, but that was lack of money and sloppiness, not aggression). 

    Iran, on the other hand, has a regime that well and truly wants to hurry the apocalypse, and thus bring about their beloved Mahdi. The difference between Pakistan and Iran is that the Paki’s have Islamist-leaning Muslims, and that Iran has terrorists fanatics with an apocalyptic bent. That’s a pretty big difference.

  14. tabula rasa
    Conor Friedersdorf: . . . John Yoo thinks that the president assumes near dictatorial power when the United States is at war, cheers on war-making – as he did after the Libya conflict – even when Congress does not declare war, and now argues that making war is justified even when there is no imminent threat from a foreign nation. What could possibly go wrong with this mix of views? ·

    How does one know when we are under “imminent threat from a foreign nation” when the threat is a nuclear weapon?  In the old days, the other nation’s armies would mass on your border.   A nuclear attack is, by its nature, covert and indeterminate.  But we do have some facts:  (1) Iran has been at war with U.S. since 1979; (2) it is building or has built a nuclear weapon; (3) its president, along with other Iranian leaders, has called for the destruction of Israel and ridding the area of Jews; (4) Israel is our best ally in the region (and a working democracy).

    If an atomic weapon is deployed against Israel or US, I’d love to hear Conor’s justification for the American policy of restraint that invited the attack.

  15. tabula rasa

    To clarify the post I just made, I’m not necessarily advocating an immediate military attack on Iran.  A decision to do so must be based on our best intelligence, the level or risk to the US and Israel, any military action must be sized to meet the threat (I oppose nation-building in Iran), and we must include in our calculus the impact of action/inaction on our oil supplies (and its impact on our economy).

    But to simply remove any form or military action from our list of possible responses would violate the constitutional duty to “provide for the common defense.”

  16. Fred Cole

    It seems like this is a problem (the Iranian nuke program) best left to the Israelis.  They have the capacity, the technical skill and most of all, the direct interest.  And they’ve done very well so far.

    The Iranians won’t close the Straight of Hormuz.  They’d lose their navy.  They’re not that dumb.

  17. Fred Cole
    tabula rasa

    If an atomic weapon is deployed against Israel or US, I’d love to hear Conor’s justification for the American policy of restraint that invited the attack. · Dec 28 at 6:18pm

    If anything, it’d be deployed against Israel, not against the US.  And deploying against the Israelis would be difficult.

  18. Illiniguy
    Paul A. Rahe: The United States should have the legal right to use military force when it removes dangerous threats not just to our security, but to regions and the world.

    But, John, I do not agree that it would be appropriate for us to act if our own security was not somehow at stake. · Dec 28 at 5:15pm

    Dr. Rahe, with all due respect, it seems that you’ve pulled in your horns somewhat when you imply that our security is not now at stake. If Iranian hegemony throughout the Middle East, and its displayed willingness to export terrorism aren’t sufficient indications of a threat to our security, allowing them to up the ante with nuclear weapons certainly does. Our national interests, and our security interests extend worldwide. Since WWII, we’ve been seen by the free world as Hobbes’ Leviathan, it’s time we acted the part.

  19. Tom Lindholtz

    How did hostility with Japan end? We used the ultimate weapon in our arsenal to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we were strong and we were serious. How did hostilities with Germany end? Essentially the same way — fire storm carpet bombing of military and civilian targets alike in the absence of the not yet ready nukes — to demonstrate that we were strong and serious. In every conflict since we have sent the message that we were not strong enough to actually use our ultimate weapon, and that we were not serious about stopping hostilities. The message has gotten through loud and clear. The comparison of the numbers of American lives lost IN Japan vs. the numbers of lives lost in every conflict since show the price we have paid for allowing the world’s mad men to mistake our compassion for weakness. If the only message that is understood is strength, then strength is the message that MUST be sent.

  20. Conor Friedersdorf
    C

    It is striking if typical that all the Iran hawks reason this thing out at 5,000 feet, and pay literally no attention to the actual logistics of trying to eliminate Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons through military force. There is not even an attempt to assess the likelihood of success, the consequences of failure, the money spent, the lives lost, the capacity for retaliation and the ability to damage our strategic interests elsewhere. It isn’t that the hawks carefully weighed these things and concluded that a military strike is the way to go. They just don’t even bother to ask these questions at all, just like they didn’t bother to game out the postwar period in Iraq. They’re armchair generals in the worst way possible, and didn’t even learn from their last mistaken adventure.(Note that this isn’t a criticism of Yoo, but something his piece made me realize).