Costs and Benefits: The Iran Project

A quick scan of daily headlines will prove that there has been no shortage of debate over Iran’s nuclear program. The trouble is, the debate thus far has been “fact-free, partisan, and not very nuanced,” as MIT professor Jim Walsh commented yesterday at the launch of a new report from The Iran Project.

Funded in part by Ploughshares Fund, the Iran Project brings together a group of more than 30 bipartisan senior national security experts to produce a report that seeks to present clear, non-partisan facts on the costs and benefits of striking Iran in response to its nuclear program. Although the report echoed the findings of other recent expert analysis that have warned against preemptive strikes on Iran, the bipartisan nature of this group provides a needed counter to the heated partisan politics that have surrounded this issue in recent months.

In fact, the group’s participants include some of the most notable voices in American foreign policy over the last four decades, including former Republican national security advisor Brent Scowcroft, former Democratic national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, former chairman of the Federal Reserve bank Paul Volcker, and many others. Ploughshares Fund President Joe Cirincione and Ploughshares Fund board members former Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NE) and Admiral Joe Sestak. 

A panel of the project’s contributors, Amb. Bill Luers, Dr. Jim Walsh of MIT, Amb. Thomas Pickering, and Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, debuted the report called “Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran,” at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars on Thursday.

Their presentation made clear that this report was firmly grounded in “a large reservoir of informed analysis and opinion.” It was also clear that the costs of an Iran strike at this time are more numerous than the benefits. From a comprehensive survey of the likely outcomes of a military strike by Israel or the United States to preemptively challenge Iran’s nuclear program, the group identified some disturbing possibilities:

• Retaliation against U.S. interests and personnel in the Gulf, Israel, and possible indirect retaliation by Iran proxies in the region
• A breakdown of the global coalition that the U.S. has fostered around sanctions
• Damage to U.S. regional and global reputation
• An increased likelihood that Iran would become nuclear, based on a reinforced solidarity of the population around the regime

The study focused on “questions that U.S. leaders and citizens should ask themselves when contemplating any military action,” including questions about the justifications of force, U.S. capabilities and objectives, and of course, an endgame strategy. At the most basic level, the contributors sought to determine whether or not the U.S. or Israel would be right to attack Iran, and if we did, what the likely outcomes would be.

Although the report refrained from policy recommendations, the contributors answers to these questions paint a picture that clearly determines that now is not the right time for an Iran strike.