CORRECTION: The original version of this article misstated Kroenig's role in policy planning at the Penagon.
The Obama administration is locked in a fierce internal debate about whether to order military strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities, a move that would represent a high-stakes gamble that Iran’s nuclear program could be destroyed without triggering a new Mideast war.
High-level deliberations about issues as important as Iran are held behind closed doors in secure facilities at the White House and the Pentagon, rarely giving outsiders a view of various options under discussion.
Now, however, competing essays by Matthew Kroenig and Colin Kahl, who both stepped down recently from jobs in the Pentagon’s Mideast policy shop, are offering an unusual look inside the White House deliberations about how far to go to stop Iran. With American-Iranian tensions rising by the day, the essays in Foreign Affairs—one making the case for striking Iran and one making the case against—illustrate why the U.S. and its allies are having such a difficult time deciding how to respond to Iran's ongoing progress toward building a nuclear bomb. The White House declined comment on the essays.
Kroenig, one of the protagonists in the debate, left the Pentagon last summer after working on Iran policy as a desk officer in Kahl’s office. The title of his essay, “Time to Attack Iran,” leaves no doubt about his thinking.
Kroenig begins by citing outside estimates that Iran could produce a crude nuclear weapon within six months of deciding to do so, which means Western policymakers are running out of time to make a decision. He argues that an Iranian bomb would trigger an Arab nuclear-arms race, risk igniting a bloody war between Iran and Israel, and force the U.S. to expand its military presence in the Mideast—and potentially station nuclear weapons there—as part of an effort to contain Iran.
“A carefully managed U.S. attack would prove less risky than the prospect of containing a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic—a costly, decades-long proposition that would likely still result in grave national security threats,” Kroenig writes. “Attempting to manage a nuclear-armed Iran is not only a terrible option but the worst.”
Kroenig argues that American strikes could successfully destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities, a highly questionable assertion. He believes the U.S. and its allies know where Iran’s most important nuclear facilities are located, have weapons capable of destroying even sites buried deep underground, and possess the intelligence skills to find new facilities before they become operational. He notes that Iraq and Syria abandoned their nuclear-weapons programs after the facilities were destroyed by Israel.
Kroening also argues that the U.S. could prevent a broader Mideast war by persuading Iran that it was targeting its nuclear facilities and not trying to overthrow the country’s Islamist government. He also believes U.S. policymakers could persuade Israel to hold off on responding to an Iranian counterattack, as it did after Iraq hit the Jewish state during the first Gulf War, and accept limited Iranian retaliation against American targets. Tehran, he believes, wouldn’t hit the U.S. or its allies too hard because of fears of provoking an all-out American push to overthrow its Islamist government
“Attacking Iran is hardly an attractive prospect,” he argues. “But the United States can anticipate and reduce many of the feared consequences of such an attack.”
Kahl – who stepped down weeks ago as the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a senior position that made him Kroenig’s boss – disagrees with virtually every aspect of Kroenig’s essay. Kroening, he writes, “takes a page out of the decade-old playbook used by advocates of the Iraq war” by pushing for preemptive strikes on Iran, a strategy which didn’t work the way proponents thought it would in Iraq and probably wouldn’t work the way proponents now believe it would in Iran.
He begins by arguing that Iran’s clerical leadership hasn’t made a final decision to build a bomb and that constructing a weapon and a means for carrying it to a target could take years longer. There's still time, Kahl believes, to see if the increasingly hard-hitting U.S. economic and political sanctions on Iran persuade Tehran to abandon its quest for a weapon before deciding on war.
To Kahl, Kroenig’s belief that Iran is just months away from a bomb is far from the only “misleading part of his article.” Kahl is much more critical of Kroenig’s assertion that the U.S. could manage a conflict with Iran and prevent it from spiraling out of control.
“His picture of a clear, calibrated conflict is a mirage,” Kahl writes. “Any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences.”
Kahl argues that Iran’s clerical leadership would consider American strikes as a direct threat against the regime itself and likely choose a disproportionately violent counterattack in response. Iranian strikes which cause significant U.S. casualties or heavy damage to allies like Israel, in turn, could force Washington and its allies to launch a wider campaign against Iran.
Kahl acknowledges the U.S. military could destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities and set the program “back 20 years in a matter of weeks.” But those gains would be offset, Kahl believes, by rallying public support in Iran for its hardline leaders and giving the country clear incentives for fully evicting international inspectors and launching a bigger covert program.
“Kroenig’s recommended approach, then, would likely be just enough to ensure a costly, long-term conflict without actually compelling Iran to change its behavior,” Kahl concludes. “Given the high costs and inherent uncertainties of a strike, the United States should not rush to use force until all other options have been exhausted and the Iranian threat is not just growing but imminent. Until then, force is, and should remain, a last resort.”
In the meantime, U.S.-Iranian tensions continue to escalate. Iran has threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, a vital oil shipping lane, a move the Pentagon describes as a “red line” it would respond to with force. The administration says it will not allow Iran to obtain a bomb and force remains on the table, but it is so far relying on sanctions. If those don’t work, the U.S. will soon face the stark choice outlined in the Foreign Affairs essays: using force now or potentially having to do so at a later, and far more dangerous, date.