WASHINGTON -- A new assessment of the costs and benefits of attacking Iran says U.S. military strikes probably carry the risk of igniting an all-out war in the Middle East.
The report, by more than 30 former U.S. government officials, national security experts, and retired military officers, says attacks would shake the Iranian regime's political control.
But it goes on to say that Tehran would likely retaliate, directly and through surrogates. The report says an attack could delay Tehran's development of an atomic bomb for a few years, but could also rally the Iranian public behind the clerical establishment and strengthen the regime’s hold on power.
The report, which was released on September 13 at a public think tank in Washington, doesn’t offer a conclusion or recommendations.
Iran says all its nuclear activities are peaceful, but Western countries accuse Tehran of pursuing a secret weapons program.
The report says achieving more than a temporary setback to Iran's nuclear program could require a military operation that includes a land occupation – a more demanding prospect than the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.
U.S. strikes could destroy Iran's most important nuclear facilities and damage its military forces, it says, but would only delay -- not stop -- the Islamic republic's pursuit of a nuclear bomb.
If the United States alone, or with Israel, carried out “extended military strikes,” Iran’s ability to build a nuclear bomb could be delayed by two to four years, it says.
The report estimates that a military strike by Israel alone could delay Iran’s nuclear program by up to two years.
"You can't kill intellectual power," said retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Frank Kearney, who endorsed the report. He is a former deputy director at the National Counterterrorism Center and former deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command.
Deterrent, Or Motivator?
One of the authors of the report, James Walsh, an expert in international security and research associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Security Studies Program, said there could be nonproliferation benefits to a strike on Iran.
“You could, by taking military action, send a deterrent signal to other proliferators either in the Middle East or elsewhere saying: well, if you try this, this is going to happen to you. So that would be a nonproliferation benefit, a deterrent signal if it was interpreted that way," Walsh said
"Finally you reassure U.S. allies, the Saudi Arabias of the world, that no, we're not going to let adversaries develop nuclear weapons and threaten you," he added.
Yet any strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would also have important long-term regional and global consequences for the United States, said Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
“There could be and probably would be a breakdown in the solidarity that the United States has achieved in the region and beyond, particularly over the use of sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program,” Pickering said.
He added that an attack on Iran would also increase Iran’s motivation to build a nuclear bomb because the Iranian regime would see it as an inhibitor against future attacks.