ACW Post and FP Article by Jeffrey Lewis

I wanted to recommend to readers Jeffrey Lewis’s most recent post over at Arms Control Wonk, which also links to a very good article he recently wrote at Foreign Policy.  Both address U.S. intelligence assessments of Iran’s nuclear program, and in them Jeffrey provides some very interesting analysis.  What stood out to me particularly is some analysis Jeffrey provides about the historical record of the consequences of counterproliferation-oriented preemptive military strikes.  Here’s a block quote from Jeffrey’s post:

The decision to conduct an airstrike or not is an interesting policy choice.  (Keeping in mind I have a very high burden of presumption against  the use of force in general.) The benefit of a strike is an induced pause in the program — more or less what we have now though imposed through force.  The question is whether an airstrike creates more delay than the current indecision of the Supreme Leader.  So far, I think, the best answer has been no — the NIE believes Iran is reluctant to force the issue by attempting to weaponize its capabilities.

This framing of the policy problem assumes that, once attacked, the Supreme Leader would very likely order a crash program to acquire a nuclear deterrent, a fear that stems directly from Saddam’s reaction to Israel’s destruction of the Osirak reactor. One of the dumbest things I have seen written in a long time is this:

“A similar argument was used by critics of the prospective Israeli strike against Iraq’s nuclear reactor back in 1981 (the critics included then Labor Party head Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, who reportedly is a major critic of the prospective attack on Iran). But that successful strike actually put paid to Saddam Hussein’s nuclear weapons program, which was never resurrected.”

Iraq did reconstitute its nuclear program as we discovered after the 1991 Gulf War.  There is no room for disagreement on this factual point. Whether the Iraqis were competent enough to ever figure it out, they successfully hid an enrichment program for a decade, which probably accounts in no small part for Iran’s late 1980s interest in enrichment technology.

Moreover, the Iraqi “nuclear weapons program” — in the sense of a formal commitment by Saddam to seek nuclear weapons — is best understood a response to the strike on Osirak.  All of the historical evidence that I have seen –largely in the form of memoirs by Iraqi scientists like Madhi Obeidi, Imad Khadduri and Jafar Dhia Jafar — suggests Saddam had yet to decide to seek nuclear weapons until the humiliation of the strike by Israel.  One can suspect he would have gotten around to it eventually, but as it happened the best evidence is that the airstrike was the catalyst for the Iraqi nuclear weapons effort, which then proceeded undetected for nearly a decade.

This observation is in perfect harmony with the conclusions of Malfrid Braut-Hegghammer’s recent International Security article entitled “Revisiting Osirak: Preventive Attacks and Nuclear Proliferation Risks

I think that both Jeffrey’s and Malfrid’s conclusions about the likely negative proliferation consequences of counterproliferation-oriented preemptive military strikes, based in the example of Osirak, are part of a growing consensus to this effect. And this consensus should weigh heavily in the ‘negative’ column of any state’s decisionmaking calculus of whether to engage in such a strike against another state.

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