Bomb-Bomb-Bomb, Bomb-Bomb-Iran?

Bill Keller – New York Times January 22, 2012

O.K., Mr. President, here’s the plan. Sometime in the next few months you order the Department of Defense to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity. Yes, I know it’s an election year, and some people will say this is a cynical rally-round-the-flag move on your part, but a nuclear Iran is a problem that just won’t wait.

Our pre-emptive strike, designated Operation Yes We Can, will entail bombing the yellowcake-conversion plant at Isfahan, the uranium enrichment facilities at Natanz and Fordo, the heavy-water reactor at Arak, and various centrifuge-manufacturing sites near Natanz and Tehran. True, the Natanz facility is buried under 30 feet of reinforced concrete and surrounded by air defenses, but our new bunker-buster, the 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, will turn the place into bouncing rubble. Fordo is more problematic, built into the side of a mountain, but with enough sorties we can rattle those centrifuges. Excuse me? Does that take care of everything? Um, that we know of.

Civilian casualties? Not a big deal, sir, given the uncanny accuracy of our precision-guided missiles. Iran will probably try to score sympathy points by trotting out dead bodies and wailing widows, but the majority of the victims will be the military personnel, engineers, scientists and technicians working at the facilities. Fair game, in other words.

Critics will say that these surgical strikes could easily spark a full-blown regional war. They will tell you that the Revolutionary Guard — not the most predictable bunch — will lash out against U.S. and allied targets, either directly or through terrorist proxies. And the regime might actually close off the vital oil route through the Strait of Hormuz. Not to worry, Mr. President. We can do much to mitigate these threats. For one thing, we can reassure the Iranian regime that we just want to eliminate their nukes, not overthrow the government — and of course they will take our word for it, if we can figure out how to convey the message to a country with which we have no formal contacts. Maybe post it on Facebook?

To be sure, we could just let the Israelis do the bombing. Their trigger fingers are getting itchier by the day. But they probably can’t do the job thoroughly without us, and we’d get sucked into the aftermath anyway. We might as well do it right and get the credit. Really, sir, what could possibly go wrong?

The scenario above is extracted from an article by Matthew Kroenig in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs. (The particulars are Kroenig’s; the mordant attitude is mine.) Kroenig, an academic who spent a year as a fellow at the Obama administration’s Defense Department, apparently aspires to the Strangelovian superhawk role occupied in previous decades by the likes of John Bolton and Richard Perle. His former colleagues at Defense were pretty appalled by his article, which combines the alarmist worst case of the Iranian nuclear threat with the rosiest best case of America’s ability to make things better. (Does this remind you of another pre-emptive war in a country beginning with I?)

This scenario represents one pole in a debate that is the most abused foreign policy issue in this presidential campaign year. The opposite pole, also awful to contemplate, is the prospect of living with a nuclear Iran. In that case, the fear of most American experts is not that Iran would decide to incinerate Israel. (Mahmoud Ahmadinejad does a good impression of an evil madman, but Iran is not suicidal.) The more realistic dangers, plenty scary, are that a conventional conflict in that conflict-prone neighborhood would spiral into Armageddon, or that Iran would extend its protective nuclear umbrella over menacing proxies like Hezbollah, or that Arab neighbors would feel obliged to join the nuclear arms race.

For now, American policy lives between these poles of attack and acquiescence, in the realm of uncertain calculation and imperfect options. If you want to measure your next president against a hellish dilemma, here’s your chance.

In the Republican field we have one candidate (Rick Santorum) who is about as close as you can get to the bomb-sooner-rather-than-later extreme, another (Ron Paul) who is at the let-Iran-be-Iran extreme, and Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich are in between. Of particular interest is Romney, who has performed the same rhetorical trick with Iran that he did with health care. That is, he condemns Obama for doing pretty much what Romney would do.

Although much about Iran’s theocracy is murky, a few assumptions are widely accepted by specialists in and out of government.

First, for all its denials, the Iranian regime is determined to acquire nuclear weapons, or at least the capacity to make them quickly in the event of an outside threat. Having a nuclear option is seen as a matter of Persian pride and national survival in the face of enemies (namely us) who the Iranians believe are bent on toppling the Islamic state. The nuclear program is popular in Iran, even with many of the opposition figures admired in the West. The actual state of the program is not entirely clear, but the best open-source estimates are that if Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ordered full-speed-ahead — which there is no sign he has done — they could have an actual weapon in a year or so. 

American policy has been consistent through the Bush and Obama administrations: (1) a declaration that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable”; (2) a combination of sticks (sanctions) and carrots (supplies of nuclear fuel suitable for domestic industrial needs in exchange for forgoing weapons); (3) unfettered international inspections; (4) a refusal to take military options off the table; (5) a concerted effort to restrain Israel from attacking Iran unilaterally — beyond the Israelis’ presumed campaign to slow Iran’s progress by sabotage and assassination; and (6) a wish that Iran’s hard-liners could be replaced by a more benign regime, tempered by a realization that there is very little we can do to make that happen. This is also the gist of Romney’s Iran playbook, for all his bluster about Obama the appeaser.

In practice, Obama’s policy promises to be tougher than Bush’s. Because Obama started out with an offer of direct talks — which the Iranians foolishly spurned — world opinion has shifted in our direction. We may now have sufficient global support to enact the one measure that would be genuinely crippling — a boycott of Iranian oil. The administration and the Europeans, with help from Saudi Arabia, are working hard to persuade such major Iranian oil customers as Japan and South Korea to switch suppliers. The Iranians take this threat to their economic livelihood seriously enough that people who follow the subject no longer minimize the chance of a naval confrontation in the Strait of Hormuz. It’s not impossible that we will get war with Iran even without bombing its nuclear facilities.

That’s not the only problem with the current — let’s call it the Obamney — approach to Iran.

The point of tough sanctions, of course, is to force Iranians to the bargaining table, where we can do a deal that removes the specter of a nuclear-armed Iran. (You can find some thoughts on what such a deal might entail on my blog.) But the mistrust is so deep, and the election-year pressure to act with manly resolve is so intense, that it’s hard to imagine the administration would feel free to accept an overture from Tehran. Anything short of a humiliating, unilateral Iranian climb-down would be portrayed by the armchair warriors as an Obama surrender. Likewise, if Israel does decide to strike out on its own, Bibi Netanyahu knows that candidate Obama will feel immense pressure to go along.

That short-term paradox comes wrapped up in a long-term paradox: an attack on Iran is almost certain to unify the Iranian people around the mullahs and provoke the supreme leader to redouble Iran’s nuclear pursuits, only deeper underground this time, and without international inspectors around. Over at the Pentagon, you sometimes hear it put this way: Bombing Iran is the best way to guarantee exactly what we are trying to prevent.

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