Why the U.S. may still have to go to war against Iran

October 26, 2015
A general view of the Bushehr main nuclear reactor

The Bushehr main nuclear reactor, 1,200 km (746 miles) south of Tehran, August 21, 2010. REUTERS/Raheb Homavandi

Effective enforcement of the Iranian nuclear deal remains a conundrum. Enshrined in the agreement is “snapback” — the restoration of international economic sanctions against Tehran should it violate the deal’s terms. Yet the expected rush of European, Russian and Chinese businesses into Iran would make such unified action questionable.

Aware that economic pressure might not be enough, U.S. officials have repeatedly declared “all options” are on the table. Though most have been reluctant to offer details, recent Pentagon talk has focused on a new bunker-buster bomb. Such talk feeds into the growing presumption that Washington would rely on air strikes if Iran violated the agreement.

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, south of Tehran

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei waves to the crowd in the holy city of Qom, 120 km (75 miles) south of Tehran, October 19, 2010. REUTERS/Khamenei.ir

Yet history shows that forceful alternatives either don’t work or are too dangerous and costly. In addition, past air strikes have proved to be unreliable. So policymakers should indeed consider all options. Previous tactics — including assassination, special-forces sabotage, technology disruption, armed forces mobiliztion, massive bombing and war — deserve another look.

Some tacks have worked better than others. Determining the best course, however, can be complicated. Here’s a list:

1)  Assassination marks the nadir on the violence spectrum. It has reportedly been applied by Israel against Iraqi and Iranian scientists — for example, the bomb, delivered by motor cycle, that struck the car in Tehran in which Majid Shahriari, a senior nuclear engineer, was riding in 2010. But the tactic has failed to seriously hinder nuclear development.


Vemork Hydroelectric Plant in Rjukan, Norway in 1935. A commando team blew up heavy water production cells in 1943 to sabotage Nazi German’s nuclear energy project. WIKIPEDIA

2) Sabotage by special forces of nuclear installations has had more impact but is not enduring. One early application was during World War Two, when British commandos attempted to destroy a plant in Nazi-occupied Norway that produced heavy water, a vital substance Germany required for the nuclear weapons effort. Israel’s 1979 commando detonation of the Osirak reactor core as it sat in a French warehouse awaiting shipment to Iraq marks a second case. In both instances, engineers repaired the damaged equipment within months.

3) Sabotage of a different sort, including cyberattacks on Iran’s uranium- enrichment plants, as well as the adulteration of material imported to fabricate centrifuges, set back Tehran’s nuclear program by months. But that was it.

4) Air strikes. Without the precise delivery systems of current air forces, the United States tried a massive bombing campaign during World War Two to destroy the Norwegian heavy-water plant after Britain’s attempted sabotage failed. Even with that, the allies needed a follow-up commando operation to eliminate the surviving heavy-water stocks. But the success in Norway failed to halt Nazi Germany’s program back in Germany. Scientific barriers proved far more important in undermining the Nazi effort.


Before and after photos of the Syrian reactor site released by the U.S. government after the Israeli attack in 2007. Wikipedia/commons

With more advanced aircraft, Israel’s bombardment of Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981, and Syria’s Al Kibar reactor in 2007, succeeded far more efficiently. The destruction of Syria’s reactor may be the most effective use of force in history. With few resources to rebuild the North Korean-engineered plant, Damascus abandoned its nuclear effort.

The attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor told another story. Here, destruction prompted Baghdad to undertake a 10-year covert effort to enrich uranium. By some estimates, Iraq was within a year of succeeding when the 1991 Persian Gulf War broke out.  

But bombing will not prevent efforts at covert reconstruction by countries with the personnel, drive, resources and effective stealth to do the job. Iran, unlike Syria, falls into this category.

5) War or the threat of war. In the end, the only forceful policy that eliminated emerging nuclear weapons programs with certainty — putting aside voluntary monitored relinquishment by former Soviet states, South Africa and Libya — was the successful wars waged against Nazi Germany in World War Two and Iraq in 1991. Occupying military forces in the first case, and international inspectors in the second, were able to eliminate all nuclear contraband.

War, however, remains the most costly option, in both blood and treasure.

It also adds a wrinkle, not in its application, but in its gestation. The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated that threat manipulation — preparations for the use of overwhelming military force to invade the island, coupled with the naval quarantine and the ramping up of the alert status of the nuclear arsenal — intimidated Moscow to abandon its Cuba gambit.

But coercive diplomacy is never a sure thing. Think about the massive buildups undertaken by U.S. and allied forces against Iraq in 1991 and 2003. Both failed to intimidate, and war ensued.

6) There is one last option of the “all options” alternative that policymakers appear loath to talk about: acceptance of Iran as a nuclear armed state. Farfetched? Even the Israelis apparently gave a nod to that possibility when Ehud Barak, former prime minister and defense minister, recently revealed that, between 2010 and 2012, Jerusalem seriously contemplated military action against Iran but then got cold feet.

For Washington to take this course would actually be consistent with historic behavior. When faced with a nuclear buildup in China during the early 1960s, North Korea in recent years and the Soviet Union at the beginning of the Cold War, the United States decided that managing an adversary with an emerging nuclear arsenal was a better course than using force to stop it. Of course, acceptance of Iran into the nuclear club banks that it will be a responsible steward of the bomb.

History’s lessons for halting Iran’s nuclear temptation are sobering. “All options are on the table” may be a nice catch phrase — but if the mullahs attempt a nuclear breakout, only a winning war would guarantee full success.

Half measures, notably air strikes, may buy time to sway Tehran to rethink its nuclear course. But the past’s inconvenient truth remains: Unless Iran complies with the recent agreement and the underlying nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Washington faces a daunting choice should snapback fail. It can go to war or bet that deterrence applied against nuclear adversaries in the past will work again against Iran’s revolutionary regime.


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

What a paranoid piece of garbage. The article stinks too.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Warmongering! Assassinations, sabotage, cyberattacks, coercive diplomacy, massive bombings, war; you certainly have exhausted all options! Targeting scientists is not fair-game, anywhere! Peace…

Posted by FredKhal | Report as abusive

Was this article co-authored by Benjamin Netenyahoo?

Posted by worldscan | Report as abusive

The Iranians knew that as soon as the ink was dry on the agreement, they could go and do as they wished. Obama has no intention of holding them to their word and their Nuke program will continue as planned.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

All this article shows is that the U.S. is a terrorist state that has committed numerous acts of terrorism against Iran. So, I guess terrorism is not enough for Reuters. It wants the U.S. to commit an actual act of aggression on Iran.

Posted by Logical123 | Report as abusive

The US has more or less had to drop the stick here, and since in this case the nuclear issue was just like the WMD case against Saddam, a mere scaremongering tactic, I’m pretty sure that slowly but surely we’ll hear less and less about anything related to the Iranian nuclear program. Instead, Iran will be more and more in the news about the new business opportunities opening up. Because there are many hundreds of billions of worthwhile investments to make there e.g. in developing the gas fields.

The whole nuclear issue is just one big blown up piece of hot air that isn’t going to be worth reporting on. The only issue here that a country that is going to produce its own fuel for a few Gigawatt powerplants will necessarily also have the capability of producing nuclear weapons at a rate of a few Hiroshima sized bomb per day. Iran will be allowed to produce its own fuel in a decade wen the contract with Russia expires under the deal that has been done. This came after the Western powers dropped its opposition to the idea that Iran would ever be allowed to enrich uranium.

This whole attitude the West took drove the conflict, we could just as well have said that Iran cannot have a petrochemical industry, just because the break out time to produce the amount of Sarin gas needed to kill a million people is less than a day.

Posted by CountIblis | Report as abusive

WMD’s. hahaha

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Let us guess. With the right intervention, Iran could be transformed into a “model of democracy” for the rest of the middle east.

Good old conservative thinking.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Reuters used to be a respected news outlet not just mouthpiece for the crazies. What happened?

Posted by bradsmall | Report as abusive

We haven’t tried bombing Israel or SA yet. If you’re looking for solutions for the myriad troubles, try thinking outside the box. Bet quite a few regimes would then find some heart.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

I suggest Mr Ramberg reads Gareth Porter’s ‘Manufactured Crisis’ and hopefully begins to understand the house of lies that has been the Iranian nuclear file.
No doubt this edifice of deceit that is being dismantled by Obama/Kerry, will be rebuilt by the next Republican administration. And, the endless analogies with the WW2 will be just another tool for fear-mongering — so beloved of the neo-cons.

Posted by XZXZ | Report as abusive

its surprising to see a newspaper advising killing Iranian scientists and admitting Israeli’s done this before.
Newspaper terrorism I call this

Posted by Reviewer453 | Report as abusive

And the Reuters propaganda machine censored another comment of mine.

So much for a free press…….

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

In a humanistic society governed by Law, Propaganda of War, as well as bombing, assassinations, and other forms of terrorism should be outlawed. The present author should be tried and incarcerated.

Posted by BraveNewWrld | Report as abusive

It is frightening that this kind of “Dr. Strangelove” logic still gets space in a news organization such as Reuters.
The authors logic beggars belief especially after all the death,destruction and mayhem caused by the catastrophic military adventures in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria.
I guess the massive flood of displaced people entering europe has escaped Ramberg’s attention. Not to even mention the fact that millions of people have died in these past few years because of our actions.
Anyone would have to be a complete fool to even consider these options.
But then, he has proved that already.

Posted by derykhouston | Report as abusive

Reuters, PLEASE, PLEASE get rid of your neocon war-monger columnists.

If you can’t manage to bring yourself to canning these people, at least get some non-interventionists as columnists as a counterweight.

Posted by upstater | Report as abusive

Yeah that’s all we need. More war in the Middle East of all places.

Posted by RickandMorty | Report as abusive

America’s priorities are all wrong now. We let Pakistan get nukes, and that is the country that was harboring Osama Bin Laden for crying out loud? We call them an “ally” and give them money.

Iran is actively fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda elements throughout the middle east. We sanction them and threaten them and write stupid chest-pounding articles about them.

Picking the wrong enemies again. And certainly the wrong friends.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Mr. Ramberg like his other like minded warmongers itches for war. I am sure he has very close connection to Israeli warmongers and has heavily invested in industries of war-making. As previous comments indicated what a piece of garbage. Mr. Ramberg have overlooked that today’s Iran is not Norway of 1940s or Iraq’s 1981. He missed to see the videos of hundreds if not thousands of rows of short and long range missiles on trucks ready to roll out of miles and miles of underground bunkers to rain on all US and Israeli installations in middle east including their bases in their puppets’lands in middle east. I recommend he takes a break and stop using drugs and alcohol for few days to get over his hulucinations. And then try to write a positive article

Posted by kirali | Report as abusive

There is nothing anyone can do if a country decides to build a specific kinda weapon. So like the ending goes… Accept Iran as a Nuclear State.. Jail who all are responsible in the west for that…Like.. the entire Bush Administration who went on to war with Iraq instead of Iran. That will be a good start to fix things.

Posted by Looter | Report as abusive

Why is this the US’s problem? Iran is much closer to the EU.

Posted by Nagle | Report as abusive

The author writes as if he was a Jewish American neoconservative who would have fit perfectly among the war mongers in stumblebum Bush’s administration.

Posted by Counselor1 | Report as abusive

You forgot to mention regime change ?

Posted by andychrys | Report as abusive

…..Because Israel says so……

Posted by james123456 | Report as abusive

Notice how willing they are to sacrifice American blood for Israel.
There is no reason why Iran should be our enemy. Just because Iran is an enemy of Israel, shouldn’t make them our enemy.

Posted by TheRat | Report as abusive

You Zio-nazzzzi scums,can write as much propaganda as you want,but your Murdering ways in the Middle east will Stop in Syria,attack IRAN and you are doomed.

Posted by p10186666 | Report as abusive

Mr. Ramberg works for the apartheid state of Isreal

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

U.S. would gain far more by siding WITH Iran. Saudi Arabia was a terrible and unreliable ally from the start. We picked the wrong team, and this sloppy expensive refugee-ridden quagmire of a result is what that looks like on the ground.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

This article is a fact but the “header” is a but misleading, also the writer should have done due diligence. He failed to mention that every war that the US had entered or ventured into was an abject failure, Korean war, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, so many young lives lost by the US, the word “war” connotes a dirty word to all Americans.
Americans are now waking up to a new reality and have lost an appetite for war at the behest of Israel. These same sentiments have been echoed by Europeans to. We may well see a pariah state of Israel soon emerging in the next decade.

Posted by politicaljunkie | Report as abusive

The smiling gray haired Satan-worshiper

Posted by jimst | Report as abusive

There are a few typos in the article. The author meant israel instead of iran. Sorry for the trouble

Posted by kill-ziocons | Report as abusive

While Israel has at least 90 nuclear warheads. And they don’t hide the fact that they hate ALL other nations either, they have a solution to “Anti-Israeli” policy, known as the “Sampson Option” which says that Israel will strike every other major city (Washington, Moscow,Berlin, Tehran, Tokyo, Beijing etc.) in the event of something that would hinder Israels racist, extremist foreign policy useless.

Posted by Logical1918 | Report as abusive