Recent statements by senior US and Israeli officials regarding Iranian intransigence with regard to international calls for negotiation has raised once again the issue of preemptive military action. The international community's most recent analogy vis-Ã -vis preemption is president George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq.
For this reason, preemption has acquired a pejorative connotation in recent years, and the possibility of using preemptive action against Iran is viewed by many as a nonstarter. But invoking the term preemption and the analogy to Iraq in policy debates for Iran's nuclear program is both misguided and dangerous.
It is in fact a misnomer to refer to an attack against Iran as preemption, and this has negative consequences on the policy debate.
FIRSTLY, A preemptive military strike is one in which Side A attacks Side B when Side A has full assurance that an attack by Side B is imminent. Israel's actions on the morning of June 5, 1967 fall under the preemption classification. Not only is this accepted practice in international relations, it is in fact protected under international law.
What most people actually mean when they discuss policy options vis-Ã -vis Iran is prevention. A preventive military strike is when Side A attacks Side B because Side A believes that at some point in the future, Side B will be a threat to it; prevention lacks the sense of immediacy characterized by preemption.
So would a strike against Iran fall under preventive military action?
According to this logic, a strike against Iran would in fact be preventive, right? Wrong. Preventive military policy also suggests that the potential "strikee" is not currently a threat, active or passive. It is well documented, and accepted, that Iran supports financially, logistically, politically, and militarily, the who's who of terrorist organizations and states: Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaida, Taliban, Syria, Sudan and North Korea.
Not only is this support well documented, the Iranian regime and its proxies boast of this support. Iranian weapons have killed Israelis (read Hamastan and Hizbullah-stan). Iranian weapons have killed Americans (read Iraq and Afghanistan). Iran's actions in Lebanon and Syria are in direct violation of that oft quoted term in Article 51 of the UN Charter, "international peace and security." By calling for and presaging the elimination of an internationally recognized state, Iran's leadership is brazenly violating the Genocide Convention.
ALL THESE examples of Iranian hostilities are found in open sources. A strike against Iran, therefore, would neither be preemptive nor preventive. It would fall under the classification of retaliation, in response to the direct and indirect murder of a state's citizens, the disruption of international peace and security and numerous other internationally recognized norms vis-Ã -vis interstate relations.
Relying on Iraq as an analogy for the situation with Iran holds true in some respects. Both countries are in the Middle East. Both countries' names begin with "I-R-A." Both countries are majority Muslim, albeit different sects. This is where the analogy ends.
Chattering classes and media invoke the fact that the US invaded Iraq and has yet to find weapons of mass destruction, the raison d'Ãªtre for invading. Because Saddam Hussein did not have an active program, or rather, because one was not found, these people conclude that the war in Iraq constituted bad policy. This is the greatest difference between Iraq and Iran. The International Atomic Energy Agency, US, Israel, European Union, Russia, the Gulf states and most importantly Iran, acknowledge an active nuclear program. This fact is not in doubt.
An international inspection following a strike against Iran would not magically reveal that there was no WMD program. The only disputes among these actors are how advanced the Iranian nuclear program is, and whether or not the weaponization program is active. But can honest disputants deny weaponization in the face of Iran's continual testing of long-range missile and its desire to enrich uranium to higher levels?
For an honest policy debate on Iran, it is critical to reframe the issue in two ways. Most importantly, a military strike must be posed as one of retaliation, not preemption, not prevention. Secondly, when relying on historical analogies to explain the situation in Iran, proper analogies must be used. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately, there is no analogy for a nation like Iran acquiring a nuclear capability.
The writer holds an MA in government from the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the IDC-Herzliya. He was formerly a policy analyst at the Program in Applied Decision Analysis at the Lauder School of Government.