A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat
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A Time to Attack: The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat

by Matthew Kroenig

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Iran's advanced nuclear program may be the world's most important emerging international security challenge. If not stopped, a nuclear-capable Iran will mean an even more crisis-prone Middle East, a potential nuclear-arms race in the region and around the world, and an increased risk of nuclear war against Israel and the United States, among many other imminent


Iran's advanced nuclear program may be the world's most important emerging international security challenge. If not stopped, a nuclear-capable Iran will mean an even more crisis-prone Middle East, a potential nuclear-arms race in the region and around the world, and an increased risk of nuclear war against Israel and the United States, among many other imminent global threats.
Matthew Kroenig, internationally recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on Iran's nuclear program, explains why we need to take immediate steps to a diplomatic and, if necessary, a military solution - now - before Iran makes any further nuclear advances. A Time to Attack provides an authoritative account of the history of Iran's nuclear program and the international community's attempts to stop it. Kroenig explains and assesses the options available to policymakers, and reflects on what the resolution of the Iranian nuclear challenge will mean for the future of international order.
This dramatic call to action provides an insider's account of what is being said in Washington about what our next move must be as the crisis continues to develop.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Kroenig (Exporting the Bomb), an expert in nuclear strategy and national security, has become one of the leading academic voices calling for a military strike on Iran. Making a forceful case here, he writes: “It is my judgment, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that Iran has in fact made a final decision to build nuclear weapons.” Arguing that “we can trade Iran’s nuclear program, the greatest emerging threat to the country, for limited Iranian military retaliation”—which he estimates as several hundred deaths, mostly in Israel, and a short-term rise in the cost of oil—Kroenig persuasively argues that the consequences of a preemptive strike are far preferable to allowing Iran to build a warhead; he gives short shrift to the advocates of diplomacy and ongoing talks merit only two sentences. Echoing Netanyahu, Kroenig suggests that Obama would be wise to delineate a clear red line which, if passed, would trigger an immediate strike, but he maintains that ultimately the job will fall to the United States, calling the Israeli military option “an unmitigated disaster.” A continuation of Kroenig’s well-received and controversial article in Foreign Affairs, the book provides similarly clear-eyed but divisive advice regarding an urgent situation. Agent: Will Lippincott, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (May)
From the Publisher

“Thankfully, Matthew Kroenig has written a compelling book that takes a serious analytical look at the Iranian nuclear program. Even those who oppose his position would be well advised to consider his well-reasoned arguments.” —Ambassador Dennis Ross, Former Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for the Central Region, and author of The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace

“Matthew Kroenig's A Time to Attack is the most thorough book-length examination of the issues involved in assessing the Iranian challenge. Clearly and engagingly written, A Time to Attack is a major contribution to the national debate on the issue and is a must read for any and all who would venture to put forward an opinion on this vital topic.” —Ambassador (ret.) Eric S. Edelman, Former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, 2005-2009 and co-chair of the Gemunder Center Iran Task Force

“Matthew Kroenig is a smart, serious expert whose provocative arguments on Iran policy…will inform and sharpen your thinking about Iran, nuclear proliferation, and American foreign policy more generally.” —Gideon Rose, Editor, Foreign Affairs

“As someone who has written a book making the exact opposite argument of A Time to Attack, I want to commend it to anyone interested in the question of Iran's nuclear program and what America should do about it.” —Kenneth M. Pollack, author of Unthinkable: Iran, the Bomb, and American Strategy

Kirkus Reviews
Kroenig (Government/Georgetown Univ.;Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, 2010,etc.) explains why we need to prepare to bomb Iran.This is no neoconservative cheerleading for another Middle East war; Kroenig knows that nobody has the stomach for that.As a former special adviser for Iranian affairs to the secretary of defense, however, he also fully understands the challenge that a militant Iran presents to American foreign policy goals worldwide, particularly the enforcement of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, thus, the prevention of a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. The author’s analysis is well-organized, thorough, and presented in clear, simple language. He explains why a nuclear-armed Iran would cause extensive problems for America and its allies and severely damage the credibility of American guarantees; three presidents have, after all, stated emphatically that they would not permit Iran to obtain the bomb.Kroenig would prefer to resolve the issue through diplomacy, but he doubts it can be done, contending that we have nothing to offer that could persuade Iran to give up joining the nuclear club.Meanwhile, the centrifuges are spinning; Iran may have enough fissionable material to start building nuclear bombs within 14 months, at which point they cannot be stopped.Kroenig is not advocating regime change by invasion, only a surgical attack on the uranium and plutonium production sites. He discusses at length the difficulties involved in such operations, the likely blowback and the alternative of containing a nuclear Iran, but he concludes that if diplomacy fails, a bombing run is the “least bad” option.If one accepts his premises—and not all analysts do—the logic of Kroenig’s position is inexorable and the conclusion, as unavoidable as it is unwelcome.Aggressive title aside, this is a carefully argued call for action on a problem that is only going to get worse.

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Read an Excerpt

A Time to Attack

The Looming Iranian Nuclear Threat

By Matthew Kroenig

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2014 Matthew Kroenig
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-137-46415-6


From Atoms for Peace to Atoms for War

On March 5, 1957, the United States and Iran signed a nuclear cooperation agreement under which Washington promised to provide Tehran with various nuclear technologies, including a nuclear research reactor. Roughly a half-century later, the US Department of Defense was drawing up plans to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. Why the change of heart?

Some have suggested that this apparent 180-degree turn is proof that the United States is fickle, if not downright hypocritical, in the way it views the development of nuclear programs in other countries. As I will explain in this chapter, however, the United States has actually been remarkably consistent in its approach to the spread of nuclear technology around the world since 1945. It has always promoted the diffusion of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes while simultaneously opposing its military application.

Its policy toward Iran has been consistent with this broader pattern. The United States encouraged the development of nuclear research and energy in Iran beginning in the 1950s but actively sought to discourage Iran from acquiring the most sensitive nuclear capabilities since that time. The fall of the shah and the rise to power of an anti-American Islamic government under Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 transformed the two countries from close friends to sworn enemies almost overnight. But the current Iranian nuclear crisis did not really begin until 2002, when it was revealed that Iran had secret plans to enrich uranium, a sensitive activity that can be used to generate fuel for nuclear reactors or, as Washington and the rest of the international community fears in Iran's case, nuclear weapons. This chapter tells the story about we got from there to here.

ATOMS FOR PEACE, 1945–1979

Nuclear weapons made their first appearance on the world stage in 1945 when the United States dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to bring World War II to a close. The horrifyingly destructive power of nuclear weapons quickly became apparent to all, and the United States and later the Soviet Union (the other Cold War superpower, which would test its own nuclear weapon in 1949) soon attempted to prevent other countries from acquiring the world's most dangerous weapons.

There was a problem, however. Nuclear technology is dual use in nature, meaning that the exact same technology can be used for both military and peaceful purposes. At the beginning of the nuclear age, many people were quite optimistic about the potential transformational benefits of the peaceful uses of nuclear technology. A controlled nuclear chain reaction can produce electricity. While today we are well aware of the costs as well as the benefits of nuclear power, experts in the early nuclear age were overly optimistic about nuclear energy's potential upsides, gushing about the possibility of providing endless sources of electricity that would be "too cheap to meter." In addition, controlled nuclear reactions can produce radioactive isotopes that have important medical applications. Moreover, in the early nuclear era, experts even predicted that peaceful nuclear explosions (PNEs) could be used instead of dynamite to move vast quantities of earth in order to construct roads, bridges, dams, and other major infrastructure projects. It seemed impossible, if not unethical, therefore, to deny the vast benefits of this promising new technology to developing countries around the world.

The United States attempted to square the circle. On December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave his now-famous "Atoms for Peace" speech before the UN General Assembly. In the speech, Eisenhower announced that Washington would help other countries develop nuclear technology for peaceful purposes while simultaneously resisting any attempts to build nuclear weapons. (While somewhat more sophisticated in form, this is essentially the same tightrope that the United States attempts to walk in its nuclear nonproliferation policy to the present day).

Iran, like many other countries around the world, was eager to access the benefits of peaceful nuclear technology, and just over three years after Eisenhower's speech, on March 5, 1957, Washington and Tehran signed a nuclear cooperation agreement under the auspices of the Atoms for Peace program.

At the time, Iran was under the leadership of Shah Mohammad Rezç Pahlavœ. The shah was a pro-Western secular monarch and an American ally. In the shah's Iran, Washington saw a Middle Eastern partner capable of balancing against the growing influence of the Soviet Union among Arab countries in the region. The provision of civilian nuclear technology was one of many tools that the United States used in an attempt to bind friendly countries to its side in its Cold War competition with Moscow.

As part of the nuclear deal, the United States helped the shah lay the foundations for a peaceful nuclear program. Washington built the Tehran Nuclear Research Center at Tehran University and supplied Iran with the 5-megawatt Tehran Research Reactor, which began operation in 1967.

Under Atoms for Peace, the United States helped Iran with basic nuclear science and research, but this assistance in no way suggests that Washington was somehow supportive of the shah's building nuclear weapons as some commentators misleadingly imply. After all, the United States provided the same basic nuclear technology to dozens of other countries around the world, including Congo, Mexico, and Vietnam. Washington clearly did not intend to proliferate nuclear weapons to all of these countries. Moreover, the technology transferred under Atoms for Peace was far too rudimentary to get the recipients anywhere close to a nuclear weapons capability. Indeed, if building nuclear weapons is like running a marathon, receiving a nuclear research reactor is like taking one's first baby step. As I show in my previous book Exporting the Bomb: Technology Transfer and the Spread of Nuclear Weapons, countries that get help with basic civilian nuclear technology of the kind that the United States provided to Iran are no more likely to build nuclear weapons than countries that do not receive any such help.

Neither was Iran particularly interested in building nuclear weapons at the time. Indeed, Iran's leaders publicly pledged not to build nuclear weapons on July 1, 1968, when they signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). The NPT, as the name suggests, is an international treaty designed to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons to additional countries. It is arguably the most successful international treaty ever created; nearly every country on Earth is a member, and the treaty has been quite effective at keeping countries out of the nuclear club. Later, in 1974, Tehran concluded its safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The IAEA serves as the UN's nuclear watchdog, and the safeguards agreement grants international inspectors the authority to periodically visit Iran's declared nuclear facilities and verify that Iran is using its nuclear facilities strictly for peaceful purposes.

The NPT creates two classes of states. The five states that tested nuclear weapons before 1968 (the United States, the Soviet Union — now Russia — Great Britain, France, and China) are grandfathered in as "nuclear-weapon states." They have the legal right under international law to possess nuclear weapons. All other states that sign the treaty, including Iran, join as "non-nuclear-weapon states." They agree not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for various benefits, including a pledge from all states to pursue negotiations toward eventual nuclear disarmament; and, most importantly in Iran's case, the inalienable right to develop nuclear technology for "peaceful purposes."

By the 1970s, Iran was interested in expanding the "peaceful purposes" of its nuclear program beyond mere research to include the production of nuclear energy. In 1974, the Iranian parliament, the Majlis, passed the Atomic Energy Act of Iran and established the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI). Iran subsequently entered into negotiations with Western countries to have nuclear power reactors built on Iranian territory. In 1976, West Germany began the construction of two light-water nuclear power reactors in the Iranian town of Bushehr and, in 1977, Tehran concluded a contract with France to have two additional power reactors erected near the city of Ahvaz in southwest Iran.

The United States and Iran also discussed the possibility of further nuclear cooperation. Throughout the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations, the two countries attempted to come to terms on a major nuclear cooperation deal that would have included the provision of eight nuclear power reactors to Iran. Negotiations stalled, however, over Iran's interest in reprocessing plutonium. Reprocessing has legitimate civilian applications, but, like uranium enrichment, it also gives countries the ability to produce fuel for nuclear weapons. The eight light-water power reactors the United States was willing to export did not provide a significant weapons proliferation risk, but the ability to reprocess would have put Iran only a hair's breadth away from the atomic bomb. By the late 1970s the United States had a strict policy of preventing the spread of uranium enrichment and plutonium-reprocessing technologies to new countries, including Iran, due to this proliferation risk.

In the end, the Iranians agreed to give up their hopes of reprocessing, but the nuclear cooperation agreement was never consummated for a different reason: US-Iranian relations were about to undergo a seismic shift.


On November 4, 1979, a gang of Iranian students and protestors stormed the US embassy in Tehran and took hostage fifty-two American diplomatic personnel working inside. This was a major breach of international law and a violent and direct challenge to the United States. For over a year, Americans tuned in to their nightly television newscasts hoping to get word of the hostages' release, only to be disappointed night after night. The hostage crisis was becoming a major political liability for President Jimmy Carter, and in April 1980 he ordered a secret military mission, Operation Eagle Claw, to rescue the American prisoners. The mission was a complete debacle, resulting in a failure to rescue the hostages in addition to the loss of two US aircraft and eight military service personnel. Finally, on January 20, 1981, just after the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan and 444 days after they were first taken captive, the hostages were released by Iran.

The hostage crisis, however, was only one small event in a larger political transformation taking place in Iran. The shah had never been terribly popular, and his secular and Western orientation did not sit well with many in a country that is a spiritual home of the Shia branch of Islam. This dissatisfaction, combined with economic problems and widespread government corruption, had led to a campaign of civil resistance and anti-government protests in Tehran in late 1977 and 1978. Finally, convinced that he could no longer hang on to power, the shah left Iran in January 1979.

The next month, in February 1979, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini triumphantly returned to Iran from exile in Paris. Khomeini was a politically active Shia cleric and a longtime political opponent of the shah. In November of that year, a new constitution was adopted proclaiming Ayatollah Khomeini the supreme leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran. Within a year, Iran had been transformed from a secular, pro-American monarchy to a Muslim theocracy that viewed the United States as its foremost foe.

US-Iranian relations would never be the same.

The Iranian Revolution not only had implications for Iran's geopolitical orientation, however, but also for its nuclear program, which stalled in the immediate wake of the revolution. Western contracts were torn up. Germany pulled out of Iran and never completed the nuclear reactors at Bushehr. France and the United States did not follow through on the nuclear agreements they had negotiated with the shah.

Iran's new supreme leader was not terribly interested in nuclear power or, at least initially, in nuclear weapons. But a devastating decade-long war with a neighboring country would help change his mind.

IRAN-IRAQ WAR, 1980–1988

Seeking to take advantage of the turmoil inside an Iran wracked by revolution, Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein ordered his armed forces to invade Iran in September 1980. The resulting eight-year conflict was one of the longest and most gruesome wars of the twentieth century.

The war resembled World War I in that the two sides engaged in years of bloody trench warfare that had the effect of barely moving the front lines. In an attempt to break through the stalemate, both sides resorted to desperate measures. To clear Iraqi minefields, Iran used human minesweepers. These units of teenage and pre-teenage boys were recruited to charge unarmed through minefields in advance of Iranian soldiers. They wore the white headbands of martyrs and cried out in joy as they marched to their impending death.

The war also saw attacks against nuclear facilities. A US attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, therefore, would not be the first time that the country has suffered such a fate. Iraq bombed Iran's partially completed Bushehr reactors, and Iran returned the favor, striking Iraq's French-built nuclear reactor at Osiraq. The Iranian strike was only partially successful, however, and Israel followed up with a more decisive attack of its own in the following year.

Perhaps the most notable feature of the conflict, however, was Iraq's widespread use of chemical weapons. Over the course of the war, it is estimated that Saddam inflicted up to 50,000 casualties on Iran through the use of mustard gas and other lethal chemical agents. Ayatollah Khomeini had initially declared weapons of mass destruction to be contrary to the tenets of Islam, but he eventually concluded that they might be necessary to defend his newly created Islamic Republic. In a letter to supporters in 1988 announcing his decision to drink from the "poisoned chalice" and sign a ceasefire with Iraq, he explained that Iran's military position at the time was hopeless, but that he looked forward to the day when Iran could renew the fight with the help of "atomic weapons which will be the necessity of the war at that time."


A. Q. Khan might very well be one of the most nefarious villains of the second half of the twentieth century. From 1987 to 2003, he was instrumental in spreading dangerous nuclear weapons technology to four rogue states: Pakistan, Iran, Libya, and North Korea.

As a Pakistani scientist working in the Netherlands in the 1970s, he smuggled uranium enrichment technology back to Pakistan. As mentioned above, uranium enrichment technology can be used to make fuel for nuclear power plants or for nuclear weapons. Pakistan used it for both, assembling its first nuclear bomb in the late 1980s.

Dr. Khan then turned his nuclear smuggling ring outward, transferring build-your-own-atomic-bomb kits to Iran, Libya, and North Korea. Khan and his cronies became rich selling sensitive nuclear technology; the rest of the world became imperiled. But Khan wasn't acting alone. The Pakistani government encouraged the exports because they believed the United States had become too powerful following the collapse of the Soviet Union; it was intent on constraining American power by creating an alliance of "strategic defiance" against the United States, linking China and a band of nuclear-armed rogue states.

Representatives of the Iranian government first met with Khan in 1987. Over the next several years, Pakistan gave Iran uranium enrichment designs and component parts and possibly a Chinese design for a nuclear warhead. The advanced nuclear program that Iran possesses today would not have been possible were it not for Dr. Khan.

Iran was a spendthrift nuclear customer, however, and didn't limit its purchases to one supplier. In 1992, it attempted to buy plutonium-reprocessing capabilities from Argentina (the same capabilities it had tried to get from the United States in 1978), but Buenos Aires denied the request. In 1995, it signed a nuclear cooperation agreement with Russia. Moscow contracted to finish the construction of the Bushehr reactors that Germany had left unfinished in the 1970s. More shockingly, Russia offered to help Iran build a uranium enrichment plant. Washington went ballistic over Moscow's plan to export such a sensitive nuclear technology to its old foe, and Russia canceled the uranium enrichment portion of the deal under American pressure. There is reason to believe, however, that Russia may have continued to provide Iran with covert nuclear assistance, including nuclear weapons designs. China also helped to fuel Iran's nuclear ambitions. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Beijing helped Iran with uranium-conversion capabilities and provided Tehran with calutrons, a key technology for laser isotope separation.


Excerpted from A Time to Attack by Matthew Kroenig. Copyright © 2014 Matthew Kroenig. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Matthew Kroenig is internationally recognized as one of the world's leading authorities on Iran's nuclear program. From 2010 to 2011, he was a Special Advisor in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where he worked on defense policy and strategy for Iran. He has also worked as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is associate professor and international relations field chair in the department of government at Georgetown University, a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, and author of Exporting the Bomb.

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