Preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons will be one of the top foreign policy and national security challenges facing Joe Biden when he becomes president Jan. 20.
Realistically, diplomacy and empty threats won’t accomplish this vital task — we’ve seen them fail under both Democratic and Republican administrations. The only way for Biden to succeed will be to use military force against Iran.
I realize this proposal will be met with cries of “warmonger” and doomsday scenarios of a massive U.S. invasion of Iran with heavy American casualties. But that’s not what I’m suggesting.
Marine Gen. James Mattis, then head of U.S. Central Command (and later President Trump’s defense secretary), said in 2013 that the American military could bring Iran to its knees. “There are a number of means to do that,” he said, “perhaps even short of open conflict.”
The U.S. has an arsenal of weapons that can be used in coordination with allies including Israel and Arab nations that don’t require a Desert Storm-type of invasion of Iran. Unlike diplomacy, which has repeatedly failed to get Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, limited force against the regime can succeed.
President Trump rightly abandoned President Barack Obama’s overly generous Iran nuclear deal, which failed to stop Tehran from advancing toward a nuclear bomb.
But while Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of economic sanctions has crippled Iran’s economy, it has not stopped the Islamic Republic’s malignant behavior. And Trump’s term in office is about to end with Iran closer to possessing nuclear weapons than it was when he became president in January 2017.
What can Biden do differently to deal with a major Iranian threat to our national security and the security of U.S. allies?
Unfortunately, Biden is starting off on the wrong path. He wants to return to Obama’s calamitous Iran nuclear deal and appears ready to ease the pressure on Iran to entice the regime to return to the negotiating table.
The Iranians, however, have no interest in talks without being compensated for the economic damage of the Trump sanctions. But even if Biden takes this unwarranted step, there is zero chance Iran will agree to serious limits on its nuclear program, let alone restrictions on its other malign activities supporting terrorism and military action in the greater Middle East.
Only military force can eliminate or at least seriously reduce the Iranian threat.
Obama never seriously threatened military force against Iran. He appeared weak by failing to enforce his red line and attack Syria following the regime’s use of chemical weapons, and then furthered his profile in weakness by withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq.
The Iranians concluded they had nothing to fear from Obama. They used that to their advantage to out-negotiate the president and his team and get relief from U.S. and international economic sanctions without sacrificing their strategic objectives.
Trump’s term in office is about to end with Iran closer to possessing nuclear weapons than it was when he became president in January 2017.
Trump initially frightened Iranian leaders when he attacked Syria. He gave the Iranians another scare when he approved the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the terrorist commander of the Iranian Quds Force.
But Trump’s unpredictability, his calls for withdrawing troops from the Middle East and elsewhere, and his failure to respond to Iranian provocations — even after a ballistic missile attack on a U.S. base in Iraq — revealed his belligerent threats to be just bluster.
To be effective, threats must be credible. Biden must demonstrate he is prepared to use force against Iran if necessary. That means a U.S. response must take place if Iran attacks our allies or if our assets are attacked. We should not seek escalation, but shouldn’t shrink from it either.
One way to contain the Iranians is by keeping U.S. forces in the region, especially in neighboring Iraq. The ayatollahs who rule Iran were petrified they might be the next target after the American military deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein under President George W. Bush. But the threat from the U.S. dissipated with the removal of our troops and the reluctance of the next two American presidents to use force.
While our armed forces must be ready to act if necessary, we have a range of other options — one of which is cyberwarfare.
The U.S.-Israeli intelligence operation Olympic Games, started under President George W. Bush and expanded under Obama, for example, is believed to have set the Iranian nuclear weapons program back months, if not years.
In 2019, the U.S. Cyber Command targeted computer systems that control Iranian missile launches and those used by an Iranian intelligence group believed to be involved in planning attacks against oil tankers.
The United States also reportedly conducted a cyber operation in response to Iran’s attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities. Likewise, in response to an Iranian cyberattack, Israel reportedly hacked into Iranian computers that regulate the flow of vessels, trucks, and goods — bringing shipping traffic at Iran’s Shahid Rajaee port terminal to a halt.
Sabotage may be carried out in other ways. Over the summer, for example, several explosions and fires attributed to Israel damaged weapons facilities across Iran. One blast destroyed parts of a secret facility in Parchin associated with nuclear weapons research and damaged part of a missile facility.
Another explosion destroyed a building at the Natanz enrichment facility where Iran has been developing advanced centrifuges to significantly speed up the enrichment of uranium. The Institute for Science and International Security reported that this represented “a significant setback to Iran’s plans and ability to mass produce advanced centrifuges” and said rebuilding the plant would likely take at least a year.
Decapitating the leadership of Iran’s terror and nuclear networks can also weaken the regime. Trump ordered the killing of Soleimani, the mastermind of Iranian military operations in Iraq and Syria, who the Pentagon said was “actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.”
Israel has been accused of killing at least six Iranian scientists, most recently the head of the Iranian nuclear weapons program, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Contrary to the appeasers’ claims that such assassinations have no impact, former CIA Director Michael Hayden told Israeli journalist Ronen Bergman that “the death of those human beings had a great impact on their nuclear program.”
The killings hurt Iran in three ways: “the loss of the know-how in the dead men’s minds; the significant delays in the program resulting from the need to beef up measures to prevent penetration by Western intelligence; and the abandonment of the program by experienced experts for fear that they would suffer a similar fate,” Hayden said.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh and sabotage operations exposed the weakness of Iran’s intelligence agencies. This was an embarrassment to the regime and caused officials to engage in recriminations and lose confidence in their ability to protect their personnel and facilities.
Knowing its nuclear facilities are targets, Iran has moved some underground. The United States could target them using bunker-busting bombs, which former Defense Secretary Ash Carter said have the capability to “shut down, set back, and destroy” Iran’s nuclear program. Airstrikes could also destroy Iranian air bases, naval bases, and ballistic missile installations.
Iran has harassed American ships in the Persian Gulf and threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. has planned for this contingency and could send a message if tensions escalated by sinking Iran’s brand-new warship.
A U.S. operation could target Kharg Island — from which Iran exports 90% of its oil and natural gas — or the port of Bandar Abbas, which is responsible for 90% of Iran’s container trade. A broader strike might include air and missile strikes against oil refineries, natural gas terminals, railways, bridges, roads and power plants. America could also impose a no-fly zone and/or a naval embargo on Iran.
Military planners always hope their operations will succeed. However, they must also consider worst-case scenarios, including many of those suggested by opponents of the use of force. Even limited attacks could provoke Iranian retaliation against U.S. troops and allies, and escalate to war.
But here’s what’s important to remember: If Iran develops nuclear weapons, most — if not all — our options will be foreclosed. Nuclear weapons would virtually guarantee that no nation would dare attack the Islamic Republic. This is why the Iranian leaders have been working for years to develop a nuclear force.
Even worse, if Iranian leaders actually ordered the use of nuclear weapons to attack another nation or U.S. forces, the consequences would be horrific.
Ultimately, incoming President Biden will have to decide whether the risks of military action against Iran outweigh the benefit of preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons. But he will also have to consider the costs and benefits of inaction.