On the ground, more terror.
Poison-laced missiles raining down on U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, the downing of a U.S. passenger airliner, suicide bombers in major cities, perhaps unleashing their deadly payload in a shopping mall food court. It could be 9/11 all over again. Or worse.
On the political front, more anti-Americanism.
Renewed venom aimed at Washington from European capitals, greater distrust from China and Russia, outright hatred in the Arab and Muslim world. Oil prices spiralling out of control, a global recession at hand.
In Iran, a galvanizing of a splintered nation. An end to hopes for political reform, a rally-around-the-leader phenomenon common among the victimized, an ability to rebuild a nuclear program in two to four years.
These are the potential costs of a U.S. military strike in Iran.
“It would be Iran’s Pearl Harbor and it will be the beginning of a war, not the end of a war. It will set back American strategic interests for a generation,” says Joseph Cirincione, the director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“The war will take place at a time and location of Iran’s choosing. It will make Iraq look like a preliminary bout.”
But the cost of inaction could be even higher: a defiant nation with an apparently unstable leadership steeped in hatred for Americans in the heart of the Middle East with nuclear capabilities.
With Tehran ignoring both threats and cajoling from the international community and declaring itself — prematurely — part of the world’s “nuclear club” this week, talk of the Washington stick moved to the forefront, while the carrot, now discredited, was pushed off centre stage.
While the week began with the White House trying to tamp down speculation about military strikes in Iran, reported by The Washington Post and by journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, it was becoming clear the Bush administration was growing impatient with a diplomatic effort that is not working with Tehran.
It may have also welcomed talk of potential military strikes, even if it would be extremely reluctant to use them, simply to remind some recalcitrant United Nations members such as China and Russia that diplomacy does have an end date.
The bluntest assessment of diplomatic success came from Karl Rove, U.S. President George W. Bush’s political adviser and deputy chief of staff, who told a Houston audience Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was “not a rational human being.”
“We are engaged in a diplomatic process with our European partners and the United Nations to keep (Iran) from developing such a weapon,” Rove said. “It’s going to be tough because they are led by ideologues who have a weird sense of history.”
Ahmadinejad announced this week that Iran had taken its nuclear enrichment program to new levels. Before he did so, he dismissed any influence of the United Nations, according to state media. “They know they cannot do a damned thing,” he said.
The Iranian government has stated it will construct 3,000 centrifuges at a facility in Natanz and would eventually expand that to 54,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium into fuel rich enough to produce atom bombs. Estimates of their capability date range from 2010 to 2020.
Bush has been clear he wants to stop Tehran from acquiring even the knowledge needed to build nuclear weapons, and last month he vowed U.S. military might could be used to protect staunch allies such as Israel.
But, earlier this week, Bush called reports of potential military strikes on Iran “wild speculation.” British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said the stories were “completely nuts.”
U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld weighed in, saying he wouldn’t address things from “fantasy land,” but then added: “The last thing I’m going to do is to start telling you or anyone else in the press or the world at what point we refresh a plan or don’t refresh a plan, and why. It just isn’t useful.”
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sternly called for action at the UN, but didn’t say what it could be, leaving her spokesman sputtering about “re-underlining” the call for Iran to suspend its enrichment program and vowing this time the Security Council will do more than just release a statement.
“This is not a question of Iran’s right to civil nuclear power,” Rice said. “This is a question that the world does not believe that Iran should have the capability and the technology that could lead to a nuclear weapon.
“When the Security Council reconvenes, it will be time for action.”
The timing of military strikes is now being openly debated in Washington.
Cirincione says he believes there will be secret strikes announced by Bush after they happen. But first, he says, Bush should be expected to go to the U.S. Congress for authorization before mid-term elections in November, while Republicans still control the House of Representatives and the Senate.
Approval before the elections, the strike after the elections, because the almost certain spike in U.S. gas prices following such action will blunt any rally-round-the-flag effect at election time, he says. John Pike, a military analyst at globalsecurity.org, predicts strikes in the summer of 2007, safely away from the presidential election the next year. He argues, as many do, that Bush already has congressional approval and needs not go back to lawmakers. “It will be a surprise,” he says. “There’s nothing like dropping bombs on evil-doers to give Republicans some political updraft.”
Pike argues that, despite all the breast-beating in Congress about misuse of a resolution that got the country into war in Iraq and all the sound and fury about clandestine surveillance in this country, nothing has been done to strip Bush of any power when it comes to war. “He will be looking at atomic ayatollahs. There will be some real downsides (to military action) and there will be efforts to redouble diplomatic moves, but in Tehran, the U.S. is equated with Satan.
“What kind of diplomatic solution do they believe they can get from Satan?”
Other analysts have been blunt in their assessment of the cost to the United States.
“The most dangerous delusion is that a conflict would be either small or quick,” says Richard Haass, the president of the non-partisan Council on Foreign Relations.
Haass, who until July 2003 was a principal adviser to former secretary of state Colin Powell, says destroying Iran’s nuclear capacity would require numerous cruise missiles and aircraft.
“Iran would be sure to retaliate, using terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas and attacking U.S. and British forces and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said in a written analysis this week. “This would require the U.S. to respond militarily against a larger set of targets inside Iran. What would begin as a limited strike would not remain limited for long.”
Haass also warned that such a strike would likely push oil prices above $100 (U.S.) per barrel, setting off an economic chain reaction that could lead to global recession.
He predicts a certain increase in anti-Americanism in Europe, further rage against the U.S. in the Arab and Muslim world, and a questioning of U.S. ties in Russia and China.
Ken Pollack of the more liberal Brookings Institution argues for sanctions restricting investment in Tehran.
“The world community should force Iranians to have an internal debate — do they want their nuclear program more than a healthy economy?” he told a recent forum.
But Pollack adds a sobering point. If the administration truly believes it cannot live in a world in which Iran has nuclear weapons, the military option may be the only way to prevent that.
But it would be seen as an unprovoked attack on a country that has attacked no one. It would be likened to Osama bin Laden’s attack on the U.S., Pollack said, reminding his audience how the United States responded to that.