Knowing Why Not To
Bomb Iran Is Half the Battle
By Martin van Creveld
April 21, 2006
Republished with permission of
One of my teachers, a former chief of Israeli
military intelligence, used to say that going to war is not like asking
a girl out on a date. It is a very serious decision, to be made on the
basis of carefully crafted answers to even more carefully crafted
Some serious questions, then, about whether the United States should
bomb Iran's nuclear installations.
The first and most obvious question is whether it is worth doing in the
first place. Starting right after Hiroshima, each time a country was
about to go nuclear Washington went out of its way to sound the alarm,
warning of the dire consequences that would surely follow. From 1945 to
1949 it was the Soviet Union which, once it had succeeded in building
nuclear weapons, was supposed to make an attempt at world conquest.
In the 1950s it was America's own clients, Britain and France, who were
regarded as the offenders and put under pressure. Between 1960 and 1993,
first China, then Israel (albeit to a limited extent) and finally India
and Pakistan were presented as the black sheep, lectured, put under
pressure and occasionally subjected to sanctions. Since then, the main
victim of America's peculiar belief that it alone is sufficiently good
and sufficiently responsible to possess nuclear weapons has been North
As the record shows, in none of these cases did the pessimists' visions
come true. Neither Stalin, Mao nor any of the rest set out to conquer
the world. It is true that, as one country after another joined the
nuclear club, Washington's ability to threaten them or coerce them
However, nuclear proliferation did not make the world into a noticeably
worse place than it had always been — and if anything, to the contrary.
As Europe, the Middle East and South Asia demonstrate quite well, in one
region after another the introduction of nuclear weapons led, if not to
brotherhood and peace, then at any rate to the demise of large-scale
warfare between states.
Given the balance of forces, it cannot be argued that a nuclear Iran
will threaten the United States. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's
fulminations to the contrary, the Islamic Republic will not even be a
threat to Israel. The latter has long had what it needs to deter an
Should deterrence fail, Jerusalem can quickly turn Tehran into a
radioactive desert — a fact of which Iranians are fully aware. Iran's
other neighbors, such as Russia, Pakistan and India, can look after
themselves. As it is, they seem much less alarmed by developments in
Iran than they do by those thousands of miles away in Washington.
The main countries to feel the impact of a nuclear Iran will surely be
those of the Persian Gulf. This is not because Tehran is likely to drop
a bomb on Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates; rather, the Iranian regime
may feel less constrained in dealing with its neighbors across the Gulf.
With Iraq in pieces, thanks to President Bush, the United States is now
the only country that can safeguard the Gulf States — and with them the
flow of oil — from Iran. America's armed forces, therefore, will have to
remain in the region regardless of whether or not Iran goes nuclear.
The second question that needs to be asked is whether bombing Iran's
nuclear installations can successfully be accomplished. Israel's strike
in 1981 against Iraq's Osirak reactor was successful and is often cited
as a model of its kind. But since then, of course, many things have
As the world's sole superpower, the United States has at its disposal
forces and weapons far superior to anything that existed a quarter
century ago. On the other side of the coin, the Iranian nuclear program
is much larger, more dispersed, better protected and better camouflaged
than Iraq's program was.
Most important of all, the vital element of surprise will be absent. The
Israeli strike owed much of its success to the fact that it came like a
bolt from the blue. By contrast, Washington has been publicizing its
intentions for months, if not years. A precision-guided surgical air
strike may take out some vital installations and set back the program —
or it may not.
Perhaps more troubling than either of these outcomes is the possibility
that the attackers, trying to hit camouflaged targets said to be buried
deep underground, will not know whether or not they have succeeded. As a
result, they may have to go on bombing for much longer than the few days
Pentagon sources say the operation might last.
The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that there will be losses in
the form of aircraft downed, pilots killed or captured (and, of course,
displayed on television) and the like. Remember, Vietnam, Afghanistan
and Iraq were not supposed to last years either.
The third question for Washington to consider is what Iran can do in
response to the bombing of its nuclear installations. In essence, there
are three possibilities: Tehran can step up aid to the Iraqi insurgents,
strike out at the Gulf States and Israel, or send terrorists to commit
acts of sabotage around the world.
Militarily all such measures, the last two in particular, are likely to
be symbolic and unable to seriously obstruct the American operations. On
the other hand, what they will do to public opinion — on whose support
any prolonged campaign depends — remains to be seen.
Last but not least, before deciding to bomb Iran's nuclear installations
the Bush administration must seriously question whether the intelligence
on which its decision is based is reliable. Those of us who have
followed reports on the development of Iran's nuclear program know that
the warnings from American and other intelligence agencies about Tehran
building a bomb in three and five years have been made again and again —
for more than 15 years.
For 15 years, the intelligence agencies have been proven dead wrong. And
to this gross exaggeration of Iran's true intentions and capabilities
must be added the fairy tales the same intelligence agencies have been
feeding the world regarding Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass
The Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National
Security Agency and the rest of the American intelligence community may
know where Iran's nuclear installations are located. Or they may not.
They may know how those installations are inter-connected, which ones
are the most important, and how they can be hit and destroyed. Or they
If their past record is any indication, the intelligence agencies may
not even know how to tell whether they know enough about Iran's nuclear
installations — or whether or not they are lying to their superiors, or
to themselves. Anybody who believes one word they are saying — let alone
uses the "information" they provide as a basis for decision-making —
must be out of his or her mind.
These, then, are the questions. Whatever George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld
and Condoleezza Rice decide to do, they must make up their mind soon.
Failing to do so, they run the risk that, by attacking a program that is
already well under way, they will enable radiation to escape and cause
heavy casualties not just in Iran but in some of the neighboring
countries as well. What such a scenario will do to America's standing in
the region may well be imagined.
Perhaps my teacher was wrong after all. Deciding whether or not to bomb
Iran is a bit like taking a girl out on a date: One knows where one
begins, but one never knows where one ends up.
Martin van Creveld, a professor of military history at the Hebrew
University, is author of Transformation of War (Free Press,
1991). He is the only non-American author on the U.S. Army's required
reading list for officers.
Copyright 2006 © The Forward
We especially suggest the following books by Dr. Martin
van Creveld. Fighting Power is a classic description of
what it takes to use maneuver warfare, and Transformation is a
witty and perceptive glimpse of a foreboding future:
- 254 pages
- 0.9 x 9.5 x 6.5 in.
- Free Press
- March 1991
- 198 pages
- 0.7 x 9.4 x 6.2 in.
- Greenwood Press
- October 1982
Articles by Martin van Creveld on DNI:
Return to DNI