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.