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Time to get real: There is no military solution to U.S. problems with Iran
Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, did his best to insult President Bush and offend American public opinion during his visit to the United Nations. His performance was primarily for consumption back home, where baiting the Americans and outraging the Israelis play well.
But if Ahmadinejad played right into Bush's axis-of-evil imagery, Bush's options for dealing with Iran are far from attractive. They basically boil down to three: starting a messy war with Iran; pursuing a policy of containment, as we did for four decades with that other evil empire, the Soviet Union; or constructively engaging with Iran and negotiating a rapprochement, as Henry Kissinger accomplished with yet another seemingly implacable and rhetorically ferocious foe, then known as Red China.
As Seymour Hersh has reported in The New Yorker, Vice President Dick Cheney and other ultras in the administration have been actively promoting the option of "taking out" Iran's nuclear facilities before Tehran acquires the capacity to build a bomb. However, there has been tremendous "push-back" from the military, not least from the Navy, which rightly fears missile retaliation against its highly vulnerable aircraft carriers.
The Century Foundation has just published a sobering paper by Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel and one of the military's most respected specialists on war simulation, playing out likely scenarios and projecting probable results. Two years ago, Gardiner conducted such an exercise for The Atlantic Monthly. His latest update, "The End of the Summer of Diplomacy: Assessing U.S. Military Options on Iran," is even more chilling.
Gardiner writes, "One source of the momentum in Washington for a strike on Iran's nuclear program is the strategic observation that if such an attack is inevitable, then it is better done sooner than later." But is war with Iran really inevitable? After calculating the likely course, benefits, and costs, Gardiner thinks not.
U.S. intelligence about the extent and location of Iran's nuclear facilities has serious gaps, according to a report by the House Intelligence committee cited by Gardiner. Analysts are widely divided about how many years away Iran is from being able to produce an operational bomb. "Paradoxically," Gardiner writes, "these gaps in intelligence produce not caution, but further pressure to attack."
For political cynics who believe Bush, Cheney, and Karl Rove would stop at nothing to hold onto power, a first strike against Iran would be the ultimate preelection "October surprise."
Since Gardiner's last such simulation two years ago, Iran has further decentralized and hidden its nuclear program. Israel has a plan to attack Iran's known nuclear facilities, but with Iran already having medium-range missiles with conventional warheads, Israel would be the prime victim of inevitable massive retaliation.
Gardiner reports that since 2004, U.S. and Israeli commando and drone operations in Iran have been planting electronic sensors to try to detect radiation emitted from nuclear research facilities. The United States, hoping to destabilize the regime, has also supported insurgent groups inside the ethnically Kurdish region of Iran. This is all in preparation for a possible airstrike.
But Gardiner reports just how difficult this would be. He calculates that such a U.S. attack would need to target at least 400 "aim points," and that the United States would need to hit Iran's widely dispersed medium-range missiles as well as other military targets. Many are in densely populated civilian areas.
Some in Washington argue that a US attack should aim not just to "take out" Iran's military capabilities, but its regime as well. "It sounds simple," Gardiner writes, but "No serious expert on Iran believes the argument about enabling a regime change."
Rather, the immediate consequences would likely be a devastating attack on Israel, and the further destabilizing of Iraq (remember Iraq?) where Shi'ite militias would go into full-scale warfare against U.S. troops in support of Shi'ite Iran. As widespread civilian casualties mounted, the United States would not even enjoy the minimal diplomatic cover that Britain provided for the U.S. attack on Iraq. The global consequences would be far more severe oil disruption, outraged world opinion, and the risk of a wider regional ground war requiring either many more U.S. ground troops or humiliation.
Iran is far larger and more powerful than Iraq. Far from making war inevitable, that reality limits American options. Gardiner concludes flatly that there is no military solution to U.S. issues with Iran. If the United States could find a path to rapprochement with Red China, it had better explore every diplomatic possibility for Iran before launching what could well be World War III.
Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect. This column originally appeared in The Boston Globe.