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Iran: The Threat

At a moment of serious challenge, battered by two wars, ballooning debt, and a faltering economy, the United States appears to have lost its capacity to think clearly. Consider what passes for national discussion on the matter of Iran. The open question is whether the United States should or will attack Iran if it continues to reject American demands to give up uranium enrichment. Ignore for the moment whether the United States has any legal or moral justification for attacking Iran. Set aside the question whether Iran, as Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently claimed in a speech at West Point, “is hellbent on acquiring nuclear weapons.” Focus instead on purely practical questions. By any standards Iran is a tough nut to crack: it is nearly three times the size of Texas, with a population of 70 million and a big income from oil which the world cannot afford to lose. Iran is believed to have the ability to block the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf through which much of the world’s oil must pass on its way to market.

Keep in mind that the rising price of oil already threatens the world’s economy. Iran also has a large army and deep ties to the population of Shiite coreligionists next door in Iraq. The American military already has its hands full with a hard-to-manage war in Iraq, and is proposing to send additional combat brigades to deal with a growing insurgency in Afghanistan. And yet with all these sound reasons for avoiding war with Iran, the United States for five years has repeatedly threatened it with military attack. These threats have lately acquired a new edge.

President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney are the primary authors of these threats, but others join them in proclaiming that “all options” must remain “on the table.” The option they wish to emphasize is the option of military attack. The presidential candidates in the middle of this campaign year agree that Iran is a major security threat to the United States. Senator Hillary Clinton in the last days of April threatened to “totally obliterate” Iran—presumably with nuclear weapons—if it attacked Israel. Senator Barack Obama dismissed Clinton’s threat as “bluster” in the familiar Bush style but agrees that Iran cannot be permitted to build nuclear weapons, and he too insists that a US attack on Iran is one of the options which must remain “on the table.” The presumptive Republican candidate, John McCain, takes a position as unyielding as the President’s: Iran must abandon nuclear enrichment, stop “meddling” in Iraq with support for Shiite militias, and stop its sponsorship of “terrorism” carried out by Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Any of these threatening activities, in McCain’s view, might justify a showdown with Iran.

Sometimes the President’s threats are chillingly explicit. In April the administration released details of the intelligence that explained an Israeli air strike last September on a large, blocklike building in which Syria, with the help of North Korea, had allegedly been building a nuclear reactor. Releasing this information, Bush said in April, was Washington’s way of “sending a message to Iran and the world for that matter about just how destabilizing nuclear proliferation would be in the Middle East.”

The message to Iran was clear—stop or run the risk of a similar attack. Left ambiguous was the question of attack by whom—Israel, which proved itself willing with the attack in Syria, or the United States, which has more planes and missiles at its command? The kind of attack Iran might expect has been spelled out in news stories over the last few years. Some Iranian nuclear research sites are buried as much as seventy meters underground, and there are scores, perhaps hundreds of sites in all, so any serious American effort to destroy Iranian nuclear programs would require intense and numerous strikes by US bombers and missiles. For a time some administration officials lobbied to include the use of nuclear weapons in the strike options for attacking Iran’s protected nuclear targets, but vigorous opposition from the Joint Chiefs of Staff scotched that possibility two years ago.

Yet even conventional bombing attacks are acts of war; unprovoked they are acts of aggression. Iran has said it would respond to an attack but without specifying how. Possible counterattacks might target shipping in the Persian Gulf, or US forces in Iraq or Afghanistan, or something else the US has not anticipated. Such an exchange could not long be confined to tit for tat. An all-out American bombing program might force Iran to capitulate, or it might not. The next step would be invasion, destruction of Iran’s conventional army, occupation of Iran’s capital, and change of Iran’s regime, which has long been an openly declared policy objective of the United States.

Is there anyone outside the US government who thinks it makes sense to invite trouble on this scale? Even some insiders are of two minds. “Another war in the Middle East is the last thing we need,” Gates said in his speech at West Point, “and, in fact, I believe it would be disastrous on a number of levels. But the military option must be kept on the table.”

Forgive me, but why? The military option is a threat; if the threat is carried out it promises widening war and the possibility of failure on the scale of disaster. Why does a policy of courting disaster have to remain on the table?

Nothing in the modern affairs of nations has been more exhaustively analyzed and debated than the utility and dangers of nuclear weapons, and yet the dangers posed by Iran with a bomb have been barely discussed. They are treated as a given. The core idea is that Iran cannot be trusted because the country is run by religious fanatics crazy enough to use a bomb if they had one. This is not the first time such arguments have been made. Some Americans, including Air Force generals, believed in the late 1940s that a preemptive war against the Soviet Union was justified by the peril of Moscow with a bomb. Twenty years later the Russians, in their turn, were so alarmed by the prospect of Beijing with a bomb that they quietly proposed to the Americans a joint effort to destroy the Chinese nuclear development effort with a preemptive attack.

The world’s experience with nuclear weapons to date has shown that nuclear powers do not use them, and they seriously threaten to use them only to deter attack. Britain, France, Russia, China, Israel, South Africa, India, Pakistan, and North Korea have all acquired nuclear weapons in spite of international opposition. None has behaved recklessly with its new power. What changes is that nuclear powers have to be treated differently; in particular they cannot be casually threatened.

More recently the examples of Iraq and Libya have suggested that international sanctions work more effectively than military threats to persuade nations to give up bomb programs. As is now well known, American fears of Saddam Hussein with a bomb were unfounded. In early 2003, when the US was loudly insisting that only military invasion and regime change could keep Saddam from acquiring a bomb, the United Nations arms inspector Hans Blix said that whether the danger was real or imaginary could be determined by international weapons inspectors in a matter of months. In the event, the Americans themselves, after a year spent ransacking Iraq for evidence of nuclear weapons activity, announced that Saddam’s bomb program had been completely shut down a dozen years previously, in 1991. But despite the success of sanctions against Iraq the United States continues to speak as if only threats or actual attack might block an Iranian bomb.

Official reluctance to spell out why Tehran more than other nations cannot be trusted with a bomb has been matched by reluctance to consider why Tehran might want one in the first place. Iran’s nuclear weapons program began under the Shah in the 1970s, sputtered for a time after the revolution, and was then revived after the Persian Gulf war in 1991 which evicted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait. The Iranian government flatly denies that it is pursuing nuclear weapons, hell-bent or otherwise. Recently the CIA released its own conclusion that Tehran had abandoned any formal R&D effort to design nuclear weapons and fit them to a delivery system.

But whether or not that is or remains true is in one sense irrelevant; the hard part—say 90 percent of the challenge—in manufacturing nuclear weapons is making fissionable material, and in that Iran appears to be well on its way to success with its new, more efficient design of centrifuges for uranium enrichment. So set aside the question of whether Iran wants an enrichment program to make bomb-grade material or only for the production of electricity; if they get either, they could get both. It is a relatively—stress relatively—simple task to turn highly enriched uranium into a weapon. Iran with highly enriched uranium poses almost the same threat as Iran with a bomb. What we ought to ask, then, is why Iran wants its own production capacity for making the stuff of bombs?

What US officials say, when they say anything at all, is that Tehran wants a bomb in order to dominate the Persian Gulf region and to threaten its neighbors, especially Israel. This is a misreading of how other nuclear powers have made use of their weapons. As tools of coercive diplomacy nuclear weapons are almost entirely useless, but they are extremely effective in blocking large-scale or regime-threatening attack. There is no evidence that Iran has a different motive, and plenty of reason for Iran to fear that attack is a real possibility.

Indeed, the Bush administration, far from trying to quiet Iran’s fears, makes a point of confirming them every few months. These threats are not limited to words, but are supported with practical steps—the presence of large American armies just across Iran’s borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the dispatch of the world’s largest fleet of warships to cruise along Iran’s Persian Gulf coastline. The Bush administration further accuses Iran of “meddling” in the affairs of its neighbors, of supplying weapons and training to Iraqis who kill Americans, and of being the world’s principal state sponsor of terrorism. Fear that Saddam Hussein might provide nuclear weapons to terrorist groups was the leading American justification for the invasion of Iraq, and the same concern is often cited about Iran.

The seriousness of American threats is confirmed by the fact that no significant national leader in the United States has ever disowned or objected to them in clear, vigorous, principled language. It is as if the whole country listens to the administration’s threats with breath held, wondering if Bush and Cheney really mean to do as they say, and in effect leaving the decision entirely to them. Americans may count on the President to think twice, but why would leaders in Tehran, responsible for the lives of 70 million citizens, want to depend on President Bush’s restraint for their survival and safety? Bush has a history. On his own authority, without the sanction of any international body, he attacked Iraq five years ago and precipitated a bloody chain of events that shows no sign of ending. It would be natural, indeed inevitable, for any government in Tehran, seeing what has happened next door, to ask what could save Iran from a similar fate. An answer is not far to seek: nuclear weapons with a reliable delivery system could do that.

The continuing military occupation of Iraq, the expansion of military efforts in Afghanistan, the desire to carry the war against the Taliban across the border into Pakistan, and the resort to military threats to force the government of Iran to give up its nuclear programs all represent examples of what has become the American approach during the Bush years to getting what it wants in the world—relying on military force to resolve political problems. How else are we to explain two wars and the threat of a third? Sometime during the Clinton years a faction of the Republican Party in exile lost patience with the accepted way of conducting foreign relations. Talking, negotiating, proposing alternatives, cajoling allies with economic and military aid, taking conflicts to the United Nations, convening conferences, sitting on commissions and issuing, repeating, and underlining warnings—in short, all the other “options on the table”—came to be seen in certain Republican circles as time-wasting, irresolute, and futile—a pattern of weakness that invites defiance.

The argument of the neoconservatives, stated in its nakedest form at the outset of the Bush administration, notes that the United States is the world’s sole great power. We have a military capability that dwarfs all others. We need not defer to weak and corrupt governments that treat us with disdain.

The change was already underway when the shock of the attacks on September 11 created something like a Dirty Harry moment—an abrupt end to patience, a breaking with civility, a rejection of pettifogging legality, a brushing aside of caution in the use of force, all those Aunt Sally hesitations which Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld intended to root out as part of the Pentagon’s “old think.” The goal was a kind of internal liberation of the national psyche—comfort with the word “imperial,” unashamed acceptance of power, eagerness to put “boots on the ground,” plain talk with anybody who stood in our way, prompt action if they did not step aside. Preemption was the dominant word in the new national security strategy issued in 2002. At West Point that spring the President said, “America will not wait to be attacked again. We will confront emerging threats before they fully materialize.” The idea was in effect to clean up Dodge—to stop fooling around, remove defiant regimes, and make the Middle East safe for America and its friends.

Rarely has a theory been quashed by reality more abruptly. Iraq, as we discovered after the capture of Baghdad, had in fact posed no threat whatever, and its occupation brought a host of expensive and intractable new problems that continue to sap American strength. In Afghanistan as well, little went as planned. The Taliban was removed, not destroyed, and gradually it has returned. Pakistan, once a chief American ally in the region, now resists American pressure to pursue the Taliban into Pakistan’s tribal areas. In Iraq, most American initiatives during five years of war have had the effect of strengthening the Shiite friends and allies of Iran. The government in Baghdad confers often with Iran, and the influence of Iran is heavily felt in Lebanon and Gaza. Iran dismisses all threats aimed at its nuclear programs as if the United States and Israel were powerless.

With its time in power rapidly running out, the Bush administration is mired in two frustrating wars, stretched thin militarily, living on borrowed money, and exhausted intellectually. It would be hard to name a time when the United States faced a wider range of political problems, or had better reasons to avoid additional military entanglements. Bush and Cheney concede nothing of the kind, but promise “serious consequences” for continued Iranian defiance. It is a strange fact that the locus of opposition to attack on Iran is not in Congress but in the Pentagon, where an insider told the reporter Seymour Hersh two years ago, “There is a war about the war going on inside the building.” When the administration planned to add a third aircraft carrier group to the Fifth Fleet in the Persian Gulf, the move was blocked by the then newly promoted chief of Central Command, Admiral William Fallon, who told friends that war with Iran “isn’t going to happen on my watch.”

Until his resignation in March, Fallon often contradicted and undermined the tough talk of the administration, speaking dismissively about the prospects of war with Iran. “Another war is just not where we want to go,” he told the Financial Times. “This constant drumbeat of conflict…is not helpful and not useful,” he said to al-Jazeera television. In recent months Fallon also traveled in Afghanistan and spoke at candid length with the military writer Thomas Barnett, who was working on an article for Esquire. When the article was ready to go to the printer Fallon invited an Esquire photographer to Central Command headquarters in Tampa, Florida, to take his picture. War with Iran, yes or no, Barnett wrote, would “all come down to one man”—Fallon. The White House was not happy with Fallon’s interference, Barnett reported. Washington rumor said Fallon’s time was short. His removal, Barnett predicted, “may well mean that the president and vice-president intend to take military action against Iran before the end of this year….” A week after Barnett’s piece appeared in Esquire, Gates announced that Fallon was retiring at his own request. The Esquire article had been the talk of the Pentagon nonstop; leaked stories were coming from all directions. Fallon wasn’t just on his way out; Gates said he would be gone by the end of the month.

Fallon’s open and outspoken resistance to the idea of war with Iran represents something new and extraordinary—maybe. It is too early to be sure. But beneath the surface of recent statements by Fallon, Gates, and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, something large seems to be swelling up—resistance by the Pentagon to passive acceptance of a wider war. To see the shape of the conflict one must first accept the seriousness of both parties—the administration in making its threats to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and Pentagon officials when they say a wider war would be practically difficult and strategically unnecessary.

This showdown—if it is truly taking place—has been a long time coming. Ten years ago a young Army major, H.R. McMaster, published a history of American escalation of the war in Vietnam, Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies that Led to Vietnam. McMaster’s argument, stripped to its core, was that against their own best judgment the joint chiefs passively acquiesced to White House pressure to expand the war. Johnson, with his eye on a second term, did not want to be the first American president to lose a war, and the joint chiefs did not want to run their careers aground. Despite the harshness of McMaster’s conclusion his book was widely read in the Pentagon and made a deep impression on a generation of rising officers, many of them now of flag rank and in positions of responsibility.*

When a reporter asked Gates if Fallon’s departure “means we’re going to war with Iran,” the secretary called the idea “ridiculous.” But he didn’t leave it at that. He began his own campaign of public remarks stressing the importance of a peaceful resolution of the challenge posed by Iran’s nuclear program. As he had at West Point, Gates held fast to the administration’s basic stance—“all options are on the table”—but he drained the pugnacity of the claim with Fallon-like flourishes. “We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage…and then sit down and talk with them,” Gates said in mid-May. “There is no doubt that… we would be very hard-pressed to fight another major conventional war right now.” Admiral Mullen sounded a similar note when he recently told a television journalist in Israel that he was “very hopeful” that the US could avoid a conflict with Iran, which he evaluated as “a very significant challenge.” Mullen added:

I certainly share the concern about Iran and about the leadership, and I think it is very important that we increase as much as possible the financial pressure, the diplomatic pressure, the political pressure, and at the same time keep all the military options on the table.

Develop some leverage…sit down and talk…financial pressure, diplomatic pressure, political pressure….

These are unfamiliar words coming from the Bush administration. They roughly echo the approach of Barack Obama, who has said he would “talk” to the leaders of Iran, meaning that he would commence discussion of serious issues without first demanding concessions. The Bush administration rejects this idea. A few years back, at a moment when Iran still had a relatively moderate president and was prepared to offer major concessions to the US, it refused to talk to Iran at all; now it is prepared to talk, but only after Iran has suspended its uranium enrichment program. The words are slightly altered, but the stance remains intransigent.

In his recent speech to the Israeli Knesset, Bush, without naming Obama, denounced his approach as “this foolish delusion,” discredited in the 1930s when the British thought they could “talk” to Hitler. In the world according to the neoconservatives no failing of character is more craven or pusillanimous than a willingness to talk to fascists, Nazis, or dictators. Bush plunged the rhetorical knife in deep: “We have an obligation to call this what it is— the false comfort of appeasement.”

Bush and Cheney prefer the language of flat command that implies “or else.” A long list might be appended here of their frequent warnings that the United States does not trust Iran with the knowledge to enrich bomb-grade uranium and will not tolerate an Iranian bomb. Many of these warnings have been issued in the last month or two and we may expect a continuing barrage until their final days in office. The President’s frustration is plainly evident: Saddam Hussein may be gone, but Iran remains defiant, and more powerful than ever. The President’s male pride seems to have been aroused; he said he was going to solve the Iranian problem and he doesn’t want to back down. The intensity of Bush’s desire to crush this final opponent is evident in his words and his body language, but does he retain the power to carry out his threats?

From one point of view the answer seems obvious. It is too late. With the exception only of the neoconservative faithful, every close observer of the American–Iranian standoff says that the administration’s threats are empty, that the United States does not have the military resources, or the political support at home, or the agreement of allies abroad, to carry out a full-scale air attack on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, much less to invade and occupy the country. Two of the skeptics, Gates and Mullen, are running the Pentagon, and their cautioning remarks, only a step this side of insubordination, would seem to make attack impossible. But if attack is impossible, why does Bush talk himself into an ever-tighter corner by continuing to issue threats? Does he believe Iran will cave? Are these the only words he thinks people will still listen to? Is he hoping to tie the hands of the next president? Or is he preparing to summon the power of his office to carry out the last option on the table? One hardly knows whether to take the question seriously. It seems alarmist and overexcited even to pose it when the realities are so clear. But it is impossible to be sure—Bush has a history.

In an article I wrote in these pages in March 2003, I took up a concern that has preoccupied me ever since—the danger that the war would spread to engulf the region. That article concludes:

But a war to overthrow Saddam Hussein won’t by itself provide a “decision outcome” in the present case because there are two rogue states with programs to build nuclear weapons in the Middle East. The theory says that both have to go, and if President Bush can be taken at his word, he thinks the same thing. To me, the implication seems clear: Iraq first, Iran next.

We’re not free of this danger yet.

June 19, 2008

  1. *

    McMaster, a 1984 graduate of West Point, went on to distinguish himself in Iraq, where he later served as an adviser to the American commander there, General David Petraeus. His name was recently added by Petraeus to an official Army list of nominees for promotion to brigadier general. McMaster is also one of the Army’s leading theorists of counterinsurgency.

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