Let’s assume that Iran is indeed conducting a covert nuclear weapons program, and that Iran was behind Hezbollah’s recent fighting against the Lebanese government.
1. Do these facts make an attack legal? I’m not an expert in the law of war, and this issue was certainly debated ad nauseam in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq. But it seems to me that an attack on Iran is not within the bounds of self-defense or defense of Israel (since the threat to Israel, while perhaps starker than the threat to the United States, is still not immediate enough to justify war, in my view); and that to the extent an attack on Iran could somehow be viewed as a defense of Lebanon or even as a defense of Israel, as far as I know the U.S. has no mutual defense treaty with either country (in contrast to, say, the NATO treaty, our treaties with Japan and South Korea, etc.).
2. Would an attack make strategic sense? It’s difficult to see how it could. I assume that despite official protestations of the Army’s readiness, in fact the Army today could not fight a major ground war inside Iran. So an attack means either special forces-type operations or attacks from the air or the sea. Does anyone believe that our intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program is good enough to think that we could destroy it remotely? Given the intelligence community’s conclusions in the recent National Intelligence Estimate on Iran, and given how starkly those conclusions differ from the Administration’s earlier view, and given the difficulty in obtaining good human intelligence in Iran and elsewhere in the Middle East, I don’t see much reason for confidence. So probably the most we could accomplish would be to set back the Iranian program by some amount of time and destroy whatever tendency may exist within the Iranian elite to negotiate about the program or to be more transparent about Iran’s nuclear activities. And the cost, in good will inside Iran, in the Islamic world, and even in the world at large would be immense. I mean, yes, the Security Council and most of our allies support sanctions on Iran, and Iran is, after all, in violation of its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But who else, aside from Israel, would be in favor of an attack?
Is there some way to stop this before it starts? Are we confident that internal opposition within the Administration will prevent it?