U.S. retaliation could take the form of a military action targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities. Any such attack, though it might be preemptive in its intention, would be reactive as a matter of international law, since it would be in response to an armed attack by Iran. It would not require Security Council approval, since Article 51 of the United Nations Charter explicitly preserves the right of member nations to respond to any armed attack. An unambiguous public statement by the United States would send a powerful deterrent message to Iranian Authorities who may be contemplating “criminal” attacks on soft American targets. It would also provide an advanced justification for a U.S. military attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
This is not to argue against such an attack if Iran decides not to go after soft American targets. It may become necessary for our military to target Iranian nuclear facilities if economic sanction and diplomatic efforts do not succeed and if the Iranian government decides to cross red lines by militarizing its nuclear program and placing it in deep underground bunkers. But the legal justification for such an attack would be somewhat different. It would be predominantly preemptive or preventive, though it would have reactive elements as well, since Iran has armed our enemies in Iraq and has caused the death of many American soldiers.
If Israel were to be compelled to act alone against Iran’s nuclear program—which is designed to accomplish the task of “annilat[ing]” the “Israeli people”—it too would be reacting as well as preempting, since Iran has effectively declared war against the Jewish state and its people. Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, recently confirmed Iran’s role as Hezbollah’s active partner in its war against Israel, claiming that it “could not have been victorious” in its 2006 war without the military support of Iran. Iran’s ongoing military support of Hezbollah and Hamas coupled with its direct participation in the bombing of the Israeli Embassy constitute sufficient casus belli to justify a reactive Israeli military strike against the Iranian nuclear program.
The best outcome, of course, would be to deter both immediate Iranian aggression and continuing Iranian development of nuclear weapons by making the cost too high for even the most zealous or adventurous Iranian leaders. But for deterrence to succeed, where sanctions and other tactics appear to be failing, the threat of military action must be credible to the Iranians. Right now it is not, because Defense Secretary Panetta and other administration officials are sending mixed signals, not only with regard to the U.S., but also with regard to Israel. The administration must speak with a clear, unambiguous and credible voice that leaves no doubt in the minds of Iranian leaders as to America is resolve not to tolerate attacks on our citizens or a nuclear armed Iran. As George Washington wisely counseled in his second inaugural address, “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
A slightly shorter version of this op-ed appeared in the Wall Street Journal on February 13, 2012.
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