Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Is a Strike on Iran Inevitable?

There is little question that there are those in the Bush administration, certainly including the President himself, who believe the only possible way to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power is to strike Iran before it acquires the ability to build a nuclear weapon. The only questions really are 1) has the Bush administration already decided to launch a strike on Iran 2) how effective will such a strike be and 2) what will be the consequences?

As to the first question, many believe that the Bush administration's diplomacy with Iran (if you can call it such) has merely been an effort to "check off the boxes", to make it appear that they engaged in negotiations with Iran in good faith, that Iran stone-walled the process, and to grant some form of legitimacy to any military action we may take. Here's retired Colonel Sam Gardiner of the USAF (via Kevin Drum):

If the experience of 1979 and other sanctions scenarios is a guide, sanctions will actually empower the conservative leadership in Iran. There is an irony here. It is a pattern that seems to be playing out in the selection of the military option. From diplomacy to sanctions, the administration is not making good-faith efforts to avert a war so much as going through the motions, eliminating other possible strategies of engagement, until the only option left on the table is the military one.

Here's Seymour Hersh:

A government consultant with close ties to the civilian leadership in the Pentagon said that Bush was “absolutely convinced that Iran is going to get the bomb” if it is not stopped. He said that the President believes that he must do “what no Democrat or Republican, if elected in the future, would have the courage to do,” and “that saving Iran is going to be his legacy.”

To some extent, military planning-even in the midst of negotiations-is mere prudence. Taken to an extreme however, it gives credence to the idea that those doing the planning have already made up their mind. In that context, we have this development:

Are we about to attack Iran? That's the impression conveyed by Time magazine's latest cover story. A "prepare to deploy" order has been sent out to U.S. Navy submarines, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers, and two mine-hunting ships. The chief of naval operations, the nation's top admiral, has ordered a fresh look at contingency plans for blockading Iran's oil ports.

Kaplan thinks this may be part of the administration's continual and elaborate game of chicken with Iran (and to be fair it's not exactly an overwhelming armada we're assembling here) but he's willing to concede that there may be those in the Bush administration who have already made up their minds.

James Bramford thinks it's a foregone conclusion:

Over the past six months, the administration has adopted almost all of the hardline stance advocated by the war cabal in the Pentagon. In May, Bush's ambassador to the United Nations, John Bolton, appeared before AIPAC's annual conference and warned that Iran "must be made aware that if it continues down the path of international isolation, there will be tangible and painful consequences." To back up the tough talk, the State Department is spending $66 million to promote political change inside Iran -funding the same kind of dissident groups that helped drive the U.S. to war in Iraq. "We may face no greater challenge from a single country than from Iran," Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared.

So, even if the Bush administration has already made up their minds on the war, can we "take out" Iran's ability to produce a nuclear bomb? Here's Gardiner again:

In the case of an attack on Iran, after five nights of bombing, we can be relatively certain of target destruction.

Because of the gaps in the U.S. intelligence on Iran, and specifically on Iran's nuclear program, American miliary leaders are growing increasingly uneasy about the reliability and comprehensivness of target selection. In other words, after the five night military attack we would not be able with any degree of certainty to say how we had impacted the Iranian nuclear program.

Sam Gardiner took part in a war-gaming session put on by the Atlantic Monthly in 2004 and while he remains generally optimistic that airstrikes could put a huge damper on the Iranian nuclear program, the war-game supported the idea that we could never really know how effective a strike could be:

What about a pre-emptive strike of our own, like the Osirak raid? The problem is that Iran's nuclear program is now much more advanced than Iraq's was at the time of the raid. Already the U.S. government has no way of knowing exactly how many sites Iran has, or how many it would be able to destroy, or how much time it would buy in doing so. Worse, it would have no way of predicting the long-term strategic impact of such a strike. A strike might delay by three years Iran's attainment of its goal—but at the cost of further embittering the regime and its people. Iran's intentions when it did get the bomb would be all the more hostile.

For what it's worth retired Gen. Wesley Clark also believes that airstrikes would cripple the Iranian nuclear program (again via Kevin Drum):

Contrary to conventional wisdom, which suggests that Iran's research sites are too widespread to be destroyed via bombing, Clark believes that a military strike on Iran could wipe out its nuclear program very effectively indeed. He figures that a 14-day bombing campaign plus a few special-ops missions — which he described in some detail — would pretty much put them out of business.

I think it's fair to say then that the evidence is conflicted. Even if you agree with the morality of launching an attack on an enemy that doesn't pose an imminent threat to you (I don't) one has to wonder if doing so makes any sense. To determine that there's the classic cost-benefit analysis. The benefit is we keep nukes away from Iran for a few, or perhaps many, more years. So what are the costs? Well, there are the costs in manpower and equipment that launching such a strike would entail. Gardiner thinks those would be low, and that we might actually get away without any casualties. But then there are the short and long-term consquences of a strike, which he thinks will be considerable. Gardiner believes that the short-term consequences could include Iran utilizing Hezbollah to launch attacks on Israel, channeling more effort into attacks on U.S. soldiers in Iraq, and using it's connections to al-Sadr to attack U.S. soldiers and put pressure on Iraq's oil supply.

Those are all consequences that perhaps we would be willing to endure, strategically, to forestall Iran's ability to acquire nuclear weapons. But there's a hitch in this analysis; Gardiner thinks the Bush administration is not content to simply destroy Iran's nuclear ability. He believes that the administration, and President Bush in particular, are intent on using the "opportunity" presented by the threat of Iran's nuclear program, to remove the rulers of Iran from power. In the very next paragraph after the one cited above on the uncertainty of knowing whether we've destroyed Iran's nuclear ability, he says this:

If this uncertainty does not appear to worry the proponents of air strikes in Iran it is in no small part because the real U.S. policy objective is not merely to eliminate the nuclear program, but to overthrow the regime. It is hard to believe, after the misguided talk prior to Iraq of how American troops would be greeted with flowers and welcomed as liberators, but those inside and close to the administration who are arguing for an air strike against Iran actually sound as if they believe the regime in Tehran can be eliminated by air attacks.
Perhaps he was thinking of what Hersh wrote in the same article cited above:

One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that “a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.” He added, “I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, ‘What are they smoking?’ ”

The rationale for regime change was articulated in early March by Patrick Clawson, an Iran expert who is the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and who has been a supporter of President Bush. “So long as Iran has an Islamic republic, it will have a nuclear-weapons program, at least clandestinely,” Clawson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on March 2nd. “The key issue, therefore, is: How long will the present Iranian regime last?”

The unspoken answer is probably something like "Only as long as we allow it to."

If in fact regime change is the ultimate goal, and the destruction of the Iranian nuclear program only the excuse to exercise such regime change (from the air as it were), Gardiner says the bombing campaign will be considerably longer, and the consequences much worse, including a high probability of "Hezbollah attacks outside the region", "Iran blocking Gulf oil flow", "Iran stopping it's own oil exports" and the possibility that Iran may attack other regional oil facilities, conduct suicide attacks around and outside the region, threaten other regional governments, or even pull Syria onto it's side in any conflict. Gardiner does the best that he can, but admittedly it is difficult to entirely predict how a regime that feels that it's power is personally threatened will react in the face of military strikes. But we can be assured that the Iranians will not make the mistake the Saddam Hussein did in believing that we are not really coming after them. In fact (and this is my own theory) they are likely to take any attack, even one we intend to limit only to their nuclear ability, as a threat to their regime, meaning their response may be considerably more provocative than we are counting on.

Either way, Gardiner doesn't believe regime change will work, and his conclusion is worth quoting at length:

At the end of the path that the administration seems to have chosen, will the issues with Iran be resolved. No. Will the region be better off? No. Is it clear Iran will abandon its nuclear program? No. On the other hand, can Iran defeat the United States militarily? No.

Will the United States force a regime change in Iran? In all probability it will not. Will the economy of the United States suffer? In all probability it will. Will the United States have weakened its position in the Middle East? Yes. Will the United States have reduced its influence in the world? Yes.

When I finished the 2004 Iran war game exercise, I summarized what I had learned in the process. After all the effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. You have to make diplomacy work." I have not changed my mind. That conclusion made sense then. It still makes sense today.

Proponents of a military strike on Iran overhype the ability Iran has to hurt us. It is worth remembering that Iran at present has no nuclear weapons, and is years away from having the ability to build them, and that even after they acquire them it is entirely reasonable to believe that they intend to use them for defensive purposes. Only by talking in apocolyptic language can the hawks hope to cause us to forget such inconvenient facts. They are at the same time dismissive of the consequences, either refusing to admit to them, or merely gliding over them as if they are the inevitable costs of a absolutely necessary military strike.

But it is quite clear to me and to others smarter than myself that the cost-benefit analysis leaves us with no choice but to negotiate with Iran. I do not believe that we should permit Iran to have nuclear weapons, and I believe that our willingness to use military force to prevent such an acquisition is one of the cards we have left to play against Iran. At the same time, I firmly believe that a pre-emptive (or rather, pre-meditated) attack on Iran at this stage, years before Iran has the capability to build nukes, is not only immoral but will do more harm than good to our national security in both the short and the long-run. An attack that would seek to change the regime in Iran, premised solely on the non-imminent threat of a nuclear Iran, would be criminal.

A final question remains; given that many people on the right, the left and in the middle believe that a strike on Iran is a bad idea, given the loss of the administration's credibility on Iraq, given the growing weariness of the American people for war, how does the Bush administration believe that they can really pull this off? Can they? I've seen little so far that tries to analyze the political calculations at play here, along with what the domestic consquences of an attack on Iran would be. I for one don't think the administration has a snowball's chance in hell of getting their war on Iran, but at the same time, the administration has proven themselves perfectly willing to act without the consent of Congress, they must surely see the political opportunity in such an attack (though perhaps not the equal or greater political costs) and even the immediate consequences of such an attack may be to difuse and vague to allower cooler heads to prevail. But I think that perhaps we have reached a moment where the probability of a strike is much greater than it has been at any time, and if the Bush administration is going to hit Iran, they're going to do it sometime soon and to hell with the consequences if it plays well in the mid-terms.

All I can say is, keep an eye on the news and on those naval deployments.


adam said...

Good analysis.

Fan Boy said...

I am more comfortable with Iran having a nuke and balancing power in the Middle East then Bush attacking Iran.

Russia and China would need to be on board. No one had security treaties with Iraq, both have them with Iran.

copy editor said...

Attacking Iran, as detailed, will require a sizeable number of Naval power. It could require as many as three or four (maybe five) carriers to launch the number of sorties that Iran's nuclear program would require. We are some time from this scenario. However, carriers have an "on station" life of sixth months.

Perhaps in early 2007 we will see the administration deploy an additional carrier group to the Persian Gulf to put pressure on Iran.

Then it comes down to the lunar calendar.

I believe George W. Bush has convinced himself that he does not want war. He also remains completely ignorant -- and this is baffling -- that war plans, public threats, private assurances, and deployments can and do lead to wars.

adam said...

You know what? We should just tell Iran that not only will we let them pursue nuclear power, but we'll help them achieve it, but they have to do three things 1) Recognize Israel's right to exist and 2) stop supporting Hezbollah and 3) allow weapon inspectors full access to facilities. Sure, they wouldn't go for it, but think about the results if we made a sincere effort. Could anyone seriously argue that we weren't in the right and Iran was in the wrong? We could clearly have called their bluff.

I agree that the Bush administration's main goal in regards to Iran is regime change, and that's why we don't get things like unilateral talks (and why they would never consider the above plan).