Knowing Why Not To Bomb Iran Is Half the Battle

By Martin Van Creveld

Published April 21, 2006, issue of April 21, 2006.
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One of my teachers, a former chief of Israeli military intelligence, used to say that going to war is not like asking a girl out on a date. It is a very serious decision, to be made on the basis of carefully crafted answers to even more carefully crafted questions.

Some serious questions, then, about whether the United States should bomb Iran’s nuclear installations.

The first and most obvious question is whether it is worth doing in the first place. Starting right after Hiroshima, each time a country was about to go nuclear Washington went out of its way to sound the alarm, warning of the dire consequences that would surely follow. From 1945 to 1949 it was the Soviet Union which, once it had succeeded in building nuclear weapons, was supposed to make an attempt at world conquest.

In the 1950s it was America’s own clients, Britain and France, who were regarded as the offenders and put under pressure. Between 1960 and 1993, first China, then Israel (albeit to a limited extent) and finally India and Pakistan were presented as the black sheep, lectured, put under pressure and occasionally subjected to sanctions. Since then, the main victim of America’s peculiar belief that it alone is sufficiently good and sufficiently responsible to possess nuclear weapons has been North Korea.

As the record shows, in none of these cases did the pessimists’ visions come true. Neither Stalin, Mao nor any of the rest set out to conquer the world. It is true that, as one country after another joined the nuclear club, Washington’s ability to threaten them or coerce them declined.

However, nuclear proliferation did not make the world into a noticeably worse place than it had always been — and if anything, to the contrary. As Europe, the Middle East and South Asia demonstrate quite well, in one region after another the introduction of nuclear weapons led, if not to brotherhood and peace, then at any rate to the demise of large-scale warfare between states.

Given the balance of forces, it cannot be argued that a nuclear Iran will threaten the United States. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fulminations to the contrary, the Islamic Republic will not even be a threat to Israel. The latter has long had what it needs to deter an Iranian attack.

Should deterrence fail, Jerusalem can quickly turn Tehran into a radioactive desert — a fact of which Iranians are fully aware. Iran’s other neighbors, such as Russia, Pakistan and India, can look after themselves. As it is, they seem much less alarmed by developments in Iran than they do by those thousands of miles away in Washington.

The main countries to feel the impact of a nuclear Iran will surely be those of the Persian Gulf. This is not because Tehran is likely to drop a bomb on Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates; rather, the Iranian regime may feel less constrained in dealing with its neighbors across the Gulf.

With Iraq in pieces, thanks to President Bush, the United States is now the only country that can safeguard the Gulf States — and with them the flow of oil — from Iran. America’s armed forces, therefore, will have to remain in the region regardless of whether or not Iran goes nuclear.

The second question that needs to be asked is whether bombing Iran’s nuclear installations can successfully be accomplished. Israel’s strike in 1981 against Iraq’s Osirak reactor was successful and is often cited as a model of its kind. But since then, of course, many things have changed.

As the world’s sole superpower, the United States has at its disposal forces and weapons far superior to anything that existed a quarter century ago. On the other side of the coin, the Iranian nuclear program is much larger, more dispersed, better protected and better camouflaged than Iraq’s program was.

Most important of all, the vital element of surprise will be absent. The Israeli strike owed much of its success to the fact that it came like a bolt from the blue. By contrast, Washington has been publicizing its intentions for months, if not years. A precision-guided surgical air strike may take out some vital installations and set back the program — or it may not.

Perhaps more troubling than either of these outcomes is the possibility that the attackers, trying to hit camouflaged targets said to be buried deep underground, will not know whether or not they have succeeded. As a result, they may have to go on bombing for much longer than the few days Pentagon sources say the operation might last.

The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that there will be losses in the form of aircraft downed, pilots killed or captured (and, of course, displayed on television) and the like. Remember, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq were not supposed to last years either.

The third question for Washington to consider is what Iran can do in response to the bombing of its nuclear installations. In essence, there are three possibilities: Tehran can step up aid to the Iraqi insurgents, strike out at the Gulf States and Israel, or send terrorists to commit acts of sabotage around the world.

Militarily all such measures, the last two in particular, are likely to be symbolic and unable to seriously obstruct the American operations. On the other hand, what they will do to public opinion — on whose support any prolonged campaign depends — remains to be seen.

Last but not least, before deciding to bomb Iran’s nuclear installations the Bush administration must seriously question whether the intelligence on which its decision is based is reliable. Those of us who have followed reports on the development of Iran’s nuclear program know that the warnings from American and other intelligence agencies about Tehran building a bomb in three and five years have been made again and again — for more than 15 years.

For 15 years, the intelligence agencies have been proven dead wrong. And to this gross exaggeration of Iran’s true intentions and capabilities must be added the fairy tales the same intelligence agencies have been feeding the world regarding Saddam Hussein’s alleged weapons of mass destruction.

The Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and the rest of the American intelligence community may know where Iran’s nuclear installations are located. Or they may not. They may know how those installations are inter-connected, which ones are the most important, and how they can be hit and destroyed. Or they may not.

If their past record is any indication, the intelligence agencies may not even know how to tell whether they know enough about Iran’s nuclear installations — or whether or not they are lying to their superiors, or to themselves. Anybody who believes one word they are saying — let alone uses the “information” they provide as a basis for decision-making — must be out of his or her mind.

These, then, are the questions. Whatever George W. Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and Condoleezza Rice decide to do, they must make up their mind soon. Failing to do so, they run the risk that, by attacking a program that is already well under way, they will enable radiation to escape and cause heavy casualties not just in Iran but in some of the neighboring countries as well. What such a scenario will do to America’s standing in the region may well be imagined.

Perhaps my teacher was wrong after all. Deciding whether or not to bomb Iran is a bit like taking a girl out on a date: One knows where one begins, but one never knows where one ends up.






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