January 20, 2006
As suggested yesterday, military options to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons cannot be ruled out. But land war?? It sounds like imperial overstretch run amuck, but that's what Thomas Holsinger suggests at Winds of Change. He refers to a war plan outlined in the December 2004 Atlantic Monthly (not exactly "recent," contrary to what he wrote) that foresaw an invasion force of three U.S. divisions aiming to topple the Islamic regime and destroy Iran's nuclear facilities. They would not wait around to police the aftermath, however. Indeed, Iran's population is nearly three times that of Iraq, far beyond our capacity to manage. Even my gung-ho buddy Chris Green grants the possibility that such an operation may be going "a country too far." Holsinger believes that Iran must have acquired some additional capability very recently to warrant President Ahmadinejad's escalation of rhetorical defiance. Sales of nuclear components or fully assembled bombs from North Korea? His estimate that Iran will have deployable nuclear weapons by the end of the year may be unduly alarmist, but the thrust of his argument that there is a fast-closing "window of vulnerability," after which Iran will have a deterrent capacity, is certainly correct. He is also right to say that the danger is not that Iran would necessarily use its bombs, but that it would keep them as a reserve deterrent against the United States while it escalates its campaign of fomenting international terrorism. In that case, "The invasion of Iraq will have been a complete waste of effort, and our dead in Iraq will have died in vain."
In today's Washington Post, David Ignatius discusses options for "Containing Tehran." In one sense, the analogy of containment of the Soviet Union during the Cold War is appropriate: In neither case was direct military confrontation desirable, but backing down was not a workable option either. Hence, the prudent middle option of containment: applying steady political-economic pressure to resist the Soviet Union's geopolitical advances, giving free societies time to develop and waiting for the enemy's totalitarian system to rot, while making preparations for all-out war if worse came to worse. There is a huge, obvious difference between the situation in 1950 and today, however: time is not on our side. Iran would benefit by dragging things out, which puts the pressure on our side to act right away. But toward what end? I seriously doubt that "bend[ing] Iranian radicalism back toward an acceptable norm," as Ignatius puts it, is a realistic goal, but I would agree with him that the Bush administration should "look ... before they leap."
Since we don't have any good options, the key is to pick the least bad option. The point is to avoid rash actions. As long as we keep in mind the nature of Iran's theocratic government -- in which the president's power is limited, while top mullahs on the "Revolutionary Council" reign supreme in the background -- we can avoid panicking over the belligerent rhetoric of Ahmadinejad, which may be just for show. As with Iraq, the U.S. goal must be regime change, and the Bush administration must make crystal clear the connection between the fascist aspirations of the "rogue" theocracy in Tehran and their promotion of terrorism and pursuit of a nuclear arsenal. The first step should be to encourage pacifist, reform-minded forces in Iran, who were on the rise until a year or two ago. They are our best hope for avoiding the nightmare scenario. Given the shaky political situation in this country, it would also be useful to get all of our legalistic cards in order by issuing formal demands to the government of Iran, with carbon copies to the U.N. Security Council. If Iran fails to meet those demands, the President should ask Congress for a formal declaration of war; such a gesture alone would have a greater effect than sending 100,000 more troops to the Persian Gulf. Don't muck it up with ambiguous resolutions as we did during the showdown with Saddam Hussein in late 2002.
Apart from the appeasement-minded minority, hardly anyone in this country takes Osama bin Laden's offer of a truce at face value. The real question is what to make of his threat to attack us again. I don't dismiss the possibility that Al Qaeda may have infilitrated another terrorist attack cell into the United States, but I think his message is more likely a sign that he is desperate to rebuild his fading prestige within the Muslim world. Donald Sensing interprets that message by referring to the de-limbed defeated knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail: "All right then, we'll call it a draw!" The fact that the tape recording from Ayman Zawahiri released today was not recent suggests he may have been killed or wounded in last week's missile attack on the Pakistan border after all. Either that, or he is hiding in some rat hole.