Albert Hunt: Need debate on the cost of bombing Iran

09/30/2012 12:00 AM

09/30/2012 6:31 AM

There is a robust debate on the virtues and risks of trying to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities. That discussion is taking place in Israel.

In the U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney parry over who has the smartest strategy for ensuring Iran doesn’t obtain the enriched uranium to develop a nuclear weapon. Both candidates warn about the dangers of Iran becoming a nuclear power.

There is almost no discussion on the costs of a strike to take out that nuclear capacity – be it by Israel or the United States – in lives, money and regional and global standing.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel says a pre-emptive strike against Iran is probably necessary, and he resists any pressure from the U.S. government to hold off.

Obama doesn’t believe the need for military action is imminent. Romney, the Republican presidential candidate, basically would give the Israelis a blank check.

A high-level group of national-security experts recently offered some answers to the questions about cost and consequences that the candidates are avoiding. Called the Iran Project, the report was signed by more than 30 experts. It says flatly that “extended military strikes by the U.S. alone or in concert with Israel could destroy or severely damage the six most important nuclear facilities in Iran.” An Israeli attack, they add, would delay the operation by two years, while more sophisticated U.S. capabilities would take it out for up to four years.

The report states that to prevent the Iranians from restarting, the U.S. would need to conduct a “significantly expanded air and sea war over a prolonged period of time, likely several years.”

If the goal is regime change, that would probably require the use of ground forces to occupy Iran. That would mean a commitment of resources and personnel “greater than what the U.S. has expended over the last 10 years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.”

Whatever course is chosen, the experts conclude that an attack on Iran would ensure retaliation. They anticipate efforts to close the Strait of Hormuz for days or weeks, with global economic implications, and asymmetrical attacks using surrogates such as Hezbollah on U.S. facilities in the region and beyond. Conceivably, it could set off a regional war.

Still, the Iran Project authors acknowledge that for the U.S. there are risks to any course of action. “The failure to attack and the decision to attack both could have some negative reputational consequences. The challenge then would be to determine which of those consequences are most probable, important and lasting.”

Romney and Obama owe it to the American people to address that question.

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