We joined this effort because we believe a fact-based discussion of the objectives, costs, benefits, timing, capabilities and exit strategy should govern any decision to use military force. Our position is fully consistent with the policy of presidents for more than a decade of keeping all options on the table, including the use of military force, thereby increasing pressure on Iran while working toward a political solution. Since the consequences of a military attack are so significant for U.S. interests, we seek to ensure that the spectrum of objectives, as well as potential consequences, is understood.
If the United States attacks, it could set back for several years Iran’s ability to build a nuclear weapon. If the objective were large-scale damage to Iran’s military and weapons capability, the United States could achieve substantial success. But without large numbers of troops on the ground, we doubt that U.S. military attacks from the air — even if supplemented by other means such as drones, covert operations and cyberattacks — could eliminate Iran’s capability to build a nuclear weapon, unseat the regime or force it to capitulate to U.S. demands.
U.S. intelligence officials have said they believe Iran already has the know-how and much of the technology to build a nuclear weapon. U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials agree that Iran’s leaders have not yet made a decision to build one. But the U.S. government has indicated that if Iran were to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium and build a weapon, the military option must be considered. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said this month that the United States would have “a little more than a year . . . to take the action necessary” should Iran decide to make a dash for a nuclear weapon. We believe that there would be sufficient warning time to decide how to respond.
Though not the only way to achieve these objectives, a U.S. attack would demonstrate the country’s credibility as an ally to other nations in the region and would derail Iran’s nuclear ambitions for several years, providing space for other, potentially longer-term solutions. An attack would also make clear the United States’ full commitment to nonproliferation as other nations contemplate moves in that direction.
The costs are more difficult to estimate than the benefits because of uncertainty about the scale and type of Iran’s reaction. Iran is likely to retaliate directly but also to pursue an asymmetrical response, including heightened terrorist activity and covert operations as well as using surrogates such as Hezbollah. An increase in the price of oil could keep the market unstable for weeks or months and disrupt the global economy.