While there are vast differences in the proposals of the Obama and Romney campaigns there is one issue that both men seem to generally agree on: the need to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon. While their policy recommendations may differ in the details, the basic objective is the same. A nuclear armed Iran would be a clear threat to American interests in the Middle East, an existential threat the Israel, and could potentially disrupt the global economy. Harsh sanctions are currently in place, but despite the obvious damage that they do to the Iranian economy there is little evidence that they have much effect on the Iranian resolve to build a nuclear program. Military strikes are an option, but should be considered the last resort. The costs of military strikes on the Iranian nuclear program, and the costs of allowing Iran to construct a nuclear weapon have been laid out in two recent papers.
The first paper, titled “Weighing Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” and published by the bipartisan Iran Project, attempts to lay out exactly what actions the US and Israeli militaries could take, and what the long term repercussions of those actions would be. It seems fairly clear that the primary option for military strikes would be an Air and Naval bombing campaign, perhaps with limited ground action by special forces. The authors argue that such a campaign would set back the Iranian nuclear program by approximately four years. A similar campaign waged by the Israelis alone would delay the nuclear program for about two years, simply because Israel lacks some of the capabilities of the American military. The benefits of such an action are clear. The Iranian nuclear program would be heavily damaged and disrupted. As a necessary part of the campaign, Iranian military defenses would be significantly reduced, leaving them vulnerable to follow on attacks. Military strikes on Iran would also demonstrate America’s resolve in preventing nuclear proliferation.
Unfortunately, there are significant downsides to military strikes on Iran. As stated above, an air campaign cannot achieve the goal of destroying the Iranian nuclear program. Complete destruction would require a ground war. The United States would need to deploy more men than it used in Iraq and Afghanistan combined to take and hold Iran. In the current policy environment this option is essentially off the table. Strikes against Iran would most likely lead to retaliation against US and Israeli interests, either directly by Iran or through proxy forces. Military strikes are also likely to do significant damage to American credibility around the world. Iran would be able to portray itself as the victim of American aggression, and the consensus the America has been able to build in opposition to Iranian nukes will likely fall apart. Finally, a strike on the Iranian nuclear program would likely have the effect of pushing Iran into becoming a nuclear state. Only this time they would do it faster and more secretly.
The second paper, titled “The Price of Inaction: Analysis of Energy and Economic Effects of a Nuclear Iran” and written by the Bipartisan Policy Center, argues that allowing Iran to develop a nuclear weapon would have significant effects on global energy prices and on the US economy. According to the authors, the presence of a nuclear Iran would lead to the rise of insecurity and instability in the Middle East. There would be a corresponding rise in global energy prices. In the first year the price of oil could rise as much as $27 a barrel in the first year. Over the course of the next several years prices could rise to an extra $55 a barrel. This would lead to a 30% increase in US gas prices, a 1% increase in unemployment and inflation, and a 1% decrease in GDP. These economic impacts are separate from those that would occur if conflict was to erupt in the Middle East. The presence of a nuclear armed Iran would be a massively destabilizing factor. Scenarios ranging from skirmishing in the Persian Gulf, to Shiite unrest in oil producing regions, to a full blown nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel or Iran and Saudi Arabia are all possible. While the economic impacts of these scenarios pale against the human cost they would be significant.
There are essentially no good options on Iran. Sanctions may be politically popular, but their utility is extremely limited. Military strikes have significant drawbacks. And the presence of a nuclear armed Iran would have regional and global consequences that must be avoided. Whichever candidate wins next month’s election is going to have a difficult time dealing with the Iran problem.