The Risks of War

Published April 14, 2006, issue of April 14, 2006.
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At least on the face of things, the latest news emerging from Tehran must bring some significant shift in the tone and calculus of American strategic thinking on the Middle East. Former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani announced Tuesday that Iran has succeeded in producing a limited amount of enriched uranium for nuclear fuel. True, it was only a test cascade involving 164 centrifuges, hardly the opening of a doomsday production line. Indeed, it could strengthen the argument of those who claim Iran is years away from a weapon, not months. But it shows that the threat is real. The mullahs mean business.

The news adds urgency to the debate that exploded into public view last week, when a flood of simultaneous news reports indicated that the Bush administration is actively preparing for an attack on Iran. The reports, all based on sources close to the center of policy-making, indicate that military planning has shifted into high gear. Key administration figures are said to have reached the conclusion that only war can prevent a nuclear-armed Islamic republic.

War hawks point, quite cogently, to the obvious threat of nuclear weapons in the hands of a fanatical Islamist regime that openly sponsors international terrorism and threatens genocide against Israel. They frankly acknowledge the enormous challenges inherent in any military option. They admit that Iran has learned the lessons of the 1981 Israeli strike on Iraq’s nuclear plant, dispersing its own program among dozens of sites, many buried below tons of reinforcement. To have any chance of working, America would have to mount an elaborate series of air strikes, perhaps including nuclear-tipped bunker-buster bombs to crack the underground installations. The threat of escalation is enormous. Iran would certainly respond by any means it has, including a doubling of oil prices, leading to a global economic crisis and a worldwide terror campaign.

Most hawks insist that their preferred option for stopping the Iranian bomb is still a diplomatic one. Some even suggest that the war talk is a scare tactic, meant to pressure Tehran and its enablers in Moscow and Beijing. Still, they ask, what are the real alternatives? How long can the democratic world rely on the uncertainties of fallible diplomacy? What could be worse than the terrifying uncertainty of a world in which Iran possessed a nuclear weapon?

The answer is alarmingly simple. Worse than those uncertainties would be the very certain consequences of an American attack on Iran. Begin with an unwinnable quagmire in a Muslim nation three times the size of Iraq. Then consider a global wave of Islamic rage against America that would make our current diplomatic predicament look like a honeymoon. Add to that the destabilization and likely collapse of unpopular pro-American regimes in places like Egypt, Pakistan and perhaps Saudi Arabia.

Instead of one Islamic republic that threatens to develop a nuclear bomb down the road, we would then face three or four — one of which would be in possession of a fully developed nuclear arsenal from day one.

Fantasy? No: the nightmare that haunts the days of most of the world’s democratic leaders right now as they watch the Bush administration bumble forward in horrified fascination.

How compelling is the military option against Iran? Jack Straw, the foreign minister of Great Britain, our most reliable ally, has for months been calling the idea “inconceivable.” This week, after the reports of escalating war plans began surfacing, he went a step further and called it “completely nuts.” And that’s our closest ally.

Another highly respected European foreign minister, speaking last week on condition of anonymity, told a small group of Jewish community leaders in New York that the idea of an American attack on Iran would produce “a catastrophe — an absolute calamity.” He was speaking at a convivial dinner party, lubricated with wine and good cheer, until he was asked about the prospect of Iran war. At that point, his face turned white.

“Imagine the current situation in Iraq,” the minister said, ticking off the unwinnable quagmire, the collapse of a strategic nation into chaos, the turning of Iraq into an incubator for global terror and growing worldwide rage against America. “Then multiply it by 25, by 30. The implications are almost unimaginable.”

There’s one more consequence that the foreign ministers might have added, if not for considerations of tact. Consider, they might have said, the growing tendency in the West, including America, to blame the worsening world situation on Israeli and Jewish conspiracies. Just a decade ago, such talk was heard only on the far reaches of the lunatic fringe. Over the past three years, since the invasion of Iraq, it’s become de rigueur in the finest circles. It’s claimed with growing frequency, from leading magazines to the floor of the Senate to Harvard University, that the war was foisted on America by Jewish and Israeli pressure.

Given this war’s disastrous consequences, its growing unpopularity even among Republicans and the hopelessness of any decent exit, anger is building. The anger is misdirected, of course. The very notion that this war was fought for Israel’s benefit is a delusion. But it is a popular notion.

The looming war against Iran is a different story. This time, Jerusalem’s role is not fantasy. Israel’s sense of alarm has been at the center of the story from the get-go. Both The Washington Post and The New Yorker reported this week that Israeli strategists and intelligence experts were playing a serious role in building support for war. President Bush himself said in Cleveland last month that Israel’s safety was a central concern, if not the main one, in assessing the Iranian threat.

What will they say when the Iran war turns sour — multiplied by 25, by 30?

Let us be fair. It is possible that a surgical strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, executed with competence and precision, could avoid the worst of these nightmares. But that assumes a competence in Washington that we know, based on the record, is absent. Nothing is more certain than that.

The world faces terrifying choices right now. No options are good ones. Some carry a high risk of calamity. Others carry a certainty.






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