Would Obama bomb Iran?

Yes, and here’s why, says a former adviser to his defence department

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

17 May 2014

9:00 AM

What is worse: Iran with the Bomb or bombing Iran? This is a question we must reconsider as diplomats return to Vienna this week to discuss Iran’s nuclear programme.

Of course, we all hope that the negotiations will result in a lasting diplomatic accord that resolves the Iranian nuclear challenge once and for all. The election of a new and more pragmatic Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, last August and the successful conclusion of an ‘interim’ nuclear pact in November mean that the prospects for a ‘comprehensive’ settlement have never been brighter.

President Obama has called the Iranian nuclear issue ‘one of the leading security challenges of our time’, and a diplomatic bargain that prevents Iran from building nuclear weapons peacefully would be by far the best outcome to this crisis.

Yet we must also be realistic. Obama himself has estimated that the odds of a comprehensive deal are ‘no better than 50/50’. And his former weapons of mass destruction coordinator, Gary Samore, puts the chances closer to zero. Some officials have expressed optimism in recent weeks, but there is still a significant chance that we will fail to get a deal.

Moreover, even a comprehensive bargain might not solve the problem. The final settlement as currently envisioned would leave Iran only six months away from a nuclear breakout capability, severely tempting Tehran’s leaders to tear up the agreement (overtly or in secret) at a later date.

At best, therefore, a final deal will still require the international community to remain forever laser-focused on Iran to quickly detect and respond to any cheating. At worst, it could quickly unravel and the Iranian nuclear clock would resume its countdown.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

In other words, it is still more likely than not that diplomacy will not work, and if diplomacy fails to stop Iran’s march to a Bomb, then we need to be prepared for what happens next.

America’s position on this issue couldn’t be clearer. In a series of statements, beginning in March 2012, President Obama has declared that a nuclear-armed Iran ‘cannot be contained’ and he is prepared to do ‘everything required’, including using military force, to keep Tehran from the Bomb.

Make no mistake about it, the Pentagon has the capability to devastate Iran’s nuclear programme. America’s newest bunker-busting bomb, the 30,000 pound ‘massive ordinance penetrator’, would make short work of even Iran’s most deeply buried and hardened nuclear facilities. A US strike would set Iran’s nuclear programme back by a number of years at minimum and create a significant possibility that Iran could never acquire nuclear weapons.


Of course, there are serious risks to a strike, including Iranian military retaliation, and spikes in global oil prices and anti-western sentiment, but foreign policy often involves choosing between bad options and these risks must be compared with those of acquiescing to a nuclear-armed Iran.

Nuclear weapons in Iran would spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. Tehran would probably export do-it-yourself atomic bomb kits to other countries around the world. And the global nonproliferation regime would collapse as it became clear that the international community lacked the resolve to stop the spread of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

A nuclear-armed Iran would lead to an even more dangerous Middle East in other ways, too: the Bomb would embolden Tehran to step up its support for terrorists and use its Qods forces to conduct proxy attacks, as well as allowing it to threaten nuclear use in coercive diplomacy against its foes.

Last, but certainly not least, a nuclear-armed Iran could result in Armageddon. Iran’s leaders are not suicidal, but a nuclear Iran will undoubtedly find itself in geopolitical contests with rival states and, in an inherently volatile region with several nuclear-armed states engaging in high-stakes nuclear crises, the risk of something going terribly wrong becomes all too real.


A nuclear war with Iran could very well mean the end of Israel, and once Iran has intercontinental ballistic missiles — something the US defence department reckons could happen next year — a nuclear attack on London or Washington DC.

So it’s clear why there is so much hope for a successful diplomatic outcome. But hope does not guarantee success, which brings us back to our original question.

As a special adviser on Iran policy in the US Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2010 to 2011, I systematically compared these options (deterring and containing a nuclear-armed Iran or conducting a limited military strike on Iran’s key nuclear facilities). In an April 2011 briefing I presented my analysis to top political appointees and military brass in a secure briefing room in the Pentagon.

US defence officials like PowerPoint slides, and the final slide in my presentation was a colour-coded chart showing how the two outcomes under consideration would affect about a dozen key US national security interests. National objectives that improved in a particular scenario were green or neutral yellow, and increased threats to the national security of the country were various shades of orange and red, depending on their severity.

Two patterns stood out. First, there was very little green and a lot of orange and red; these were not good options. Second, the ‘nuclear-armed Iran’ side of the chart was noticeably darker than the ‘military strike’ side, meaning that the risks of a strike paled in comparison to the threats posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Indeed, at the end of the briefing, the most senior official in the room looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Well, if you are right, this is a no-brainer.’

President Obama has made a similar calculation. He and former US President George W. Bush do not often see eye to eye, but they agree that a nuclear-armed Iran is ‘unacceptable’.

Still, some question whether President Obama is really willing to use force. After all, he failed to enforce his red lines when the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad gassed his own people and he is currently standing by as Vladimir Putin redraws the map of Europe.

Yet the President’s closest advisers insist that Iran is different. Obama is determined to make worldwide nuclear reductions a central part of his foreign policy legacy, and he understands that a nuclear arms race in the Middle East is deeply antithetical to that vision. As Dennis Ross, formerly Obama’s top Iran adviser at the White House, said, ‘If diplomacy doesn’t work, we have to be prepared to use force, and I think we will be.’

Similarly, Samore has stated that ‘If [the Iranians] move to high enrichment, I think President Obama would have to act. It’s a casus belli. It’s a blatant move. I think that would lead to the use of force.’

Clarity about our resolve to do whatever it takes might even contribute to a diplomatic settlement. If Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, truly believes the alternative is war with the Great Satan, he might just choose to make a deal with the devil.

Of course, if the time comes, there is always the danger that a leader will go weak in the knees. Or that he will cave to popular resistance at home or abroad. But if the international community truly believes that it is imperative to prevent nuclear war and stop additional countries from acquiring the world’s deadliest weapons, then we must be willing, in principle, to use force to achieve that objective.

If Iran’s nuclear programme continues to advance, therefore, then there may very well come a time to attack. Until then, our thoughts and prayers must be with our diplomats in Vienna.

Matthew Kroenig is associate professor of government at Georgetown and the author of A Time to Attack.

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Show comments
  • danram

    Please. Obama can’t even muster up the backbone to send guns and body armor to the Ukrainians. The chances of him ordering an air strike on Iran are zero and the Iranians know it. .

    • Phill

      It’s not a question of backbone but interests. Russia’s interests in the future of Ukraine far outweighs the United State’s interests, it’s simply not worth the fuss over such a heavily indebted country. Apples and oranges.

      It is perfectly reasonable to believe this conflict will end in war. Has it not already begun? Iranian nuclear facilities have on two occasions sustained massive cyber attacks on it’s centrifuges, causing physical damage in both occasions. Although this cannot be unequivocally be attributed to the U.S, the evidence would seem to suggest it originated there. If Iran continues to develop it’s nuclear capacities than it hard to conclude that this conflict will end in any other way than an American led air strike.

      The option of “standing back” doesn’t exist for a policy maker.

      • CiporaJuliannaKohn

        Obama does not act according to national security interests. He acts according to personal agendas.

        • Phill

          Ok, I’m sure that is true in most cases but if this particular scenario were to materialise then he doesn’t really have a choice. You can call him a fool but he isn’t stupid.

          • Curnonsky

            Except that Obama has shown a pattern of trying to evade making difficult decisions, of sloughing off responsibility to “the international community”, endless peace conferences that achieve nothing, etc. Iran will have nuclear weapons capacity while Emperor Obama is still fiddling, count on it.

    • http://twitter.com/WinstonCDN WinstonCDN


    • Darren Harrett

      Your third rate weapons would be about as effective as they were in vietnam.

  • Phill

    Any good realist knows that such diplomatic settlements are fraught with danger and should be viewed with suspicion. Despite the rhetoric the chances of Obama (or whoever follows him) bombing Iran are actually quite high. Not because he is a warmonger but because there are certain unfortunate political realities in the nature of the international state system. Any western “ideals” will frankly be ignored and exploited by a weaker and fragile Iran, given the chance. That is given the chance…

    • CiporaJuliannaKohn

      Obama is not a realist. He is a demagogue.

      • Phill

        He’s both, but when diplomacy fails and it they get close enough to the bomb he’l have no choice but to launch an attack. However he’s probably hoping to ride diplomacy until his term is up and rather than it being on his head.

      • http://twitter.com/WinstonCDN WinstonCDN

        He is also a Kenyan

  • gaz

    obama is toothless

  • Tomas Pajaros

    Obama would only bomb Iran if they bombed Israel and quite possibly not even then.

    • bartbeast

      Here is a solution that would fit Obama’s worldview. Bomb Israel off the map so that Iran won’t feel so threatened and would not need a bomb. Problem solved.

      • ErnieBanks

        Then Iran would threaten someone else.

        • bartbeast

          Yes and then Obama would find a way to screw up the next country being threatened so not to actually deal with the real problem of the Islamo-fascists in Iran. Obama has to look after “his people”.

  • Dave Jones

    Always remember,its very easy to tell when iran is lying to you……their mouth will be moving!!!!!!

  • roger

    With poor quality advisers like Kroenig no wonder Obama is being careful.
    The Americans can deter any rational actors and annihilate any crazy one, they need to tell Tehran that if Hesbollah or the Quds force let off a small nuke anywhere then the Persian culture will end in a firestorm, no ifs or buts.

    • ErnieBanks

      If Obama said that, no one would pay any attention.

  • frank

    LOL…Sycophants in the media still trying to spin our incompetent president. “He’s against water boarding, but 3,000 drone kills are OK! He has managed to lose the the Iraq War, and somehow managed to lose the Cold War, and has surrendered in Afghanistan, but is still capable of leading us into battle! He won a Nobel Peace Prize! He’s everything! He’s nothing!”

    • http://twitter.com/WinstonCDN WinstonCDN

      He has been an empty suit all his life

  • JobsForAmericansPlease

    War is coming. Our only hope is Israel.

  • AD_Rtr_OS

    No, but he’s considering it for Texas.

  • ErnieBanks

    I think this author may be the only one in the world who believes the red lines that Obama paints in the sand. I am sure the Iranians don’t.

    • MissDemeanor

      islamists have never felt safer

  • Old man winter

    We can’t stop every nation on earth who wants a bomb from getting one. America has to live with the reality that other people can have nuclear technology too. You may not like a country like Iran having a bomb, but nobody likes Pakistan having it, and they do. Nobody likes North Korea having one. And certainly nobody liked Stalin getting it, but they did.

    • Phill

      Are you serious? Do you really believe that a nuclear armed Iran is an acceptable world to live in? It is a nightmare scenario for the middle east it would be catastrophic. Only a fool would trust such a regime. You seem to be fine with a nuclear Iran but then follow to mention North Korea, which is the best example of why you can’t allow rouge states to have nuclear weapons! Diplomacy becomes impossible. It is exactly because North Korea has nuclear weapons that the world has been unable to do take down that vicious regime and liberate it’s people.

  • wally

    Hussein Soetoro is a useless brown affirmative action qunt he will never bomb Iran, that is guaranteed.

  • Vehmgericht

    Where were all these armchair warriors when Pakistan was building a nuclear arsenal? There is far more chance that Pakistani nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of complete lunatics than Iranian ones.

    • mikey248

      Vehmgericht, you are indeed correct. Indeed, Pakistan is the number one issue keeping US presidents awake at night for the past 16 years.

      Israel offered India in 1983 to take out Pakistan’s nuclear program. India, still in thrall with its self-defeating third-worldism, I may third-way-ism, refused.

      Now, every Indian lives under the threat of nuclear annihilation whenever the perennial game of Pakistani-Indian “chicken” runs afoul (OK, puns not appropriate here).

      With Iran, the threat is less one of nukes falling into the hands of al-Qaeda or the Taliban and more one of Iran deciding to bring on their 12th Mahdi themselves (with their free ticket to heaven)…and less disputably one of nuclear proliferation throughout the region, as numerous Arab states feel they need nukes to defend against Iran (but not against Israel)–including Saudi Arabia, UAE and Egypt.

      • Vehmgericht

        I would also say that Iran’s number one enemy is not Israel – despite their bluster – but Saudi Arabia and that I would not be at all surprised if it were suddenly to be revealed that the Saudis had nuclear weapons at their command.

        • Grey Wolf

          Good comment again.

          The Arab – Iran conflict is an old one. Its a culture conflict rather than national. There are historical memories at play here. Few in the media know it.

          I think, when needed, Pakistan, the idiotic state, will hand over nuclear systems to Saudi Arabia. For all practical purposes, Saudi Arabia should be considered a nuclear state.

      • Grey Wolf

        Good comment.

        Do read my response to Vehmgericht above. Think you will agree with me.

        I think in Iran the Iranian nationalist strand has a check over the Shia messianic impulse. Iran does have a longer memory when it was a Zoroastrian empire that was one of the Indo-European cultures (”Indo-European” is an historical-cultural-linguistic-anthropological term just like ‘Semitic’ or ”Turkic”). Its conversion to Islam is a later affair. So hopefully Iran will not do anything self-destructive because of counter impulses.

      • Darren Harrett

        Iarael never had the ability to destroy Pakistans nuclear sites without having its own destroyed.

    • Grey Wolf

      Very perceptive, very informed comment, mate.

      Pakistan is a nearly failed state. Its semi-trained security agencies are literally the state with loose control over its restive radicalised Sunni population. There is a greater chance the A-bomb will fall in their hands, i.e. the Sunni radicals non state actors. That could lead to scary scenarios considering most Arab states are Sunni.

      Iran, on the other hand, is reviled by Arab Sunnis and their stooges like Pakistan. Shia Iran is a heretical state. The real snake pit is Saudi Arabia.

      But thanks to neo-con stupidities, 3 quarters of western media can’t tell one culture / country from another anyway so the idiocies will last a long time.
      Neo-cons have screwed the West.

  • JEFFofTX

    Would Obama bomb Iran? Only if there’s some sort of political advancement for him.

  • Adaadat

    Attacking Iran would also allow Hillary to sail into the White House. She had a fairly hawkish profile as Foreign Secretary, so who better to respond to a foreign relations General Election campaign, than someone steeped in global experience? If Barry is careful, he could create a perfect opening for Hillary.

  • Jackthesmilingblack

    You have to admit the religion of peace has come in for a lot of bad press recently. But Islam does shoot itself in the foot. So if Obama wants to psyche up the mug punter US public for an attack on Iran all has has to do is imply that Boko Haram are supported by Iran. Well, it worked last time.

  • Doug

    I think Prof. Kroenig is wishful thinking. IMHO there is not the slightest chance in the world either that President Obama would attack Iran or give the green light to Israel to do the same. There is no Iranian provocation that would prompt Obama to act. He just doesn’t think that Iran getting nukes is that big a deal.

  • littlegreyrabbit

    All the nuclear facilities in Iran originated in the time of the Shah under American guidance. If it made economic sense for Iran to acquire nuclear technology in the 1970s, then it probably still makes sense for them. If Iran really wanted nuclear weapons they would have acquired them by now.
    Personally I think a nuclear armed Iran would be a stabilizing factor in the Middle East, it would certainly persuade Israel to mind its ps and qs.

    • hyphenatedamerican

      So the Russians did not build a nuclear plant in Iran?

      • littlegreyrabbit

        I have no idea – I don’t follow the paranoid scaremongering of the Anglophone elite very closely.
        Just it is a historical fact that there is very little difference between the nuclear ambitions of pre and post revolutionary Iran.

        Nuclear weapons aren’t that hard to achieve and we have been hyperventilating about Iran being a year away from the bomb for over 20 years now. So I assume if they wanted it, they would have it by now – they say they don’t and there has never been any evidence to indicate they are lying. Not that Americans are ever that worried about evidence. Iran, it should be pointed out, plays a far more constructive role in the Middle East than America’s closest allies – Saudi Arabia and Qatar. While the Gulf states were busily building up the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran was doing everything it could to oppose them. Perhaps if Washington had spent a little less time running Israel’s agenda vis-a-vis Iran and a little more concentrating on what its friends in the Gulf were up to, you wouldn’t have lost so many people on 9/11

  • Curnonsky

    If this article reflects the quality of adviser Obama has surrounded himself with, we are in even deeper trouble than I thought.

  • MarVista509

    No. dreaming on is free!

  • Jenson Phaedor


  • George Kato

    The liberty school recognizes the dangers to liberty posed by collectivists who seize upon temporary crises to centralize government power.

  • mikey248

    The problem is that Obama, if ever he would even consider bombing, would go to the UN, where the idea would get vetoed.

    Also, the problem is that going to the UN would provide Iran with notice during which to relocate and hide its centrifuges.

    For both reasons, the only way to bomb is by surprise.

    Obama is the wrong man for the job.

    • victor67

      Ah you need a leader who regards International law with contempt. Like Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld.

      • hyphenatedamerican

        International law is pretty flexible, which is why Moslem countries are allowed to kill Jews, Christians and Hindus.

  • victor67

    So the armchair warriors raise their ugly heads again, dying for another war but it is never them or their sons or daughters who do the dying.
    No more blood just to expand the American empire and its little aircraft carrier (Israel) in the ME. That is the only thing a strong Iran threatens. Haven’t they learned nothing in the last 14 years.
    Recent events have seen a strengthening of Iran with Assad back in the ascendancy and the conflict with Russia all this is to Iran’s advantage.
    Kroenig says how easy it is for the Septic Tanks(Yanks) to bomb Iran. Probably just as easy as shock and awe in 2003 . What might not be so easy is the aftermath.
    Get used to it the west will have to live with a strong Iran and every problem cannot be solved by ballistic missilies and bunker busting bombs.

  • http://twitter.com/WinstonCDN WinstonCDN

    Obama won’t bomb his Muslim buddies in Iran.

  • hyphenatedamerican

    Why would Iranians think that Obama is not bluffing? His last behavior proves that he goes easy on the enemies of the western world.

  • cromwell

    “Would Obama bomb Iran?” Well yes if he followed Kroenigs advice, but of course Kroenigs advice comes with a lot of 3rd party self interest.

  • Egyptsteve

    The main problem is that every prediction and every analysis that has been produced by the American foreign policy establishment and the military with respect to the Middle East in the last 40 years has been completely wrong — 180 degrees wrong. So what we read here is an irrefutable argument for diplomacy, and if diplomacy fails, for long-term containment and deterrence, eventually to be followed by detente.

  • Michael85

    So many chickenhawk pussies here salivating another war for their enjoyment.

    • roccolore

      Liberal pussies support Iran because they hate Jews and Christians.

      • Michael85

        Conservative pussies send other people’s kids to fight wars whilst pussies like roccolore stay at home and cower.

        • roccolore

          You Democrats are the pussies who support radical Islam and hate our troops. You would have defended Hitler during WWII.

          • Michael85

            You would have cowered in WW2 like a pussy. You would have sucked a thousand dicks to stay out of the war.

          • Aron

            Hey genius, a Progressive defeated Adolf Hitler. It was the conservatives who wanted to stay out of the war.

          • Michael85

            You would hide during WW2 coward.

  • Darren Harrett

    “the 30,000 pound ‘massive ordinance penetrator’, would make short work of even Iran’s most deeply buried and hardened nuclear facilities.”


    You need to check out irans UHPC concrete.