Will the US Attack Iran?

Of course, if Seymour Hersh is right, in a pretty real sense the Bush administration has already attacked Iran. Under the auspices of a presidential finding promulgated last fall or winter, special operations forces and other operatives are inside Iran trying to stir up and capitalize on the kind of discontent that just might lead to regime change. It would be funny if it weren’t more tragic to consider that the United States, based on its actions, has evolved into some kind of bizarre caricature of the dying Soviet empire, blundering about, spreading money and weapons and operatives around to try to subvert (the acolytes would say "liberate," just as the Soviet ideologists and propagandists did) various regimes that we consider dangerous or vulnerable or both.

Because advocates of the policies the U.S. seems to be following would speak to him only of high degrees of classification or in generalities, Hersh ended up having his most fruitful conversations with critics of the apparently disjointed and ill-thought-out activities your tax dollars (or your grandchildrens’) are paying for. His perspective may be a little one-sided; there just might be a plausible strategy behind the expenditure of some $400 million. But critics of throwing it around among Ahwazi Arab, Baloch, and other dissident groups and seeking better intelligence about Iran’s nuclear programs make a pretty good case that, at best, it is most likely money wasted, and could have untoward consequences.

So the U.S. government is arguably, if covertly, already at war with the Iranian regime. It’s the kind of war that the other side can choose to avert its eyes from if it deems the threat trivial or if it wants to buy time to assemble the means of crushing it. If the covert war starts to do actual damage, the risk of incidents that could lead to serious military action rises, even if neither side really wants escalation.

For years I have been more skeptical than many antiwar people about the likelihood of a U.S. attack on Iran, and the fundamental disincentives still apply. Adm. Mike Mullen has let it be known that he would like more troops in Afghanistan, but for the time being he will have to extend tours of duty instead because so many troops are tied down in Iraq. Where is he going to get troops for action In Iran, unless the calculation is that some of the troops now in Iraq can be sent over to Iran without seriously destabilizing Iraq? (If so, it’s an argument that the Iraqis, who are starting at least to talk like an independent entity, have things well in hand enough that U.S. troop withdrawals could begin quickly without leaving behind too much of a mess or triggering a bloodbath – though, of course, U.S. strategists don’t have an especially impressive record of predicting unintended consequences in Iraq.)

Iran would be a much more difficult military target than Iraq was. The argument could be made that we could do enough just with bombing – not eliminate the threat forever of Iran getting a nuclear weapon but delay the likelihood by a decade or so – to make it a tolerable risk. But such an attack would not eliminate and might even increase the ability of Iran to respond in damaging ways – blocking the Strait of Hormuz, getting Hamas, Hezbollah, and maybe Syria to do damage to U.S. and Israeli interests and probably Israeli territory, not to mention mucking about much more extensively in Iraq. Killing civilians, especially scientists and technicians working on nuclear projects, would create an unpleasant backlash, but failing to do so would make it likelier that Iran could recover quickly and really get cracking on a nuke. Equipment can be replaced, but recovering specialized knowledge and experience might take a generation

All these fundamentals militate against starting a war, and it seems to be the case that a goodly number of military leaders are pushing back against the kind of rush to war most observers think Cheney would like to initiate. Still, in recent weeks we have seen a number of incidents that suggest the possibility of serious military action, whether we get there by design or by stumbling into it. For instance, there was the highly publicized Israeli exercise in which fighters and bombers flew toward the Mediterranean near Greece, the same number of miles in that direction as Iran is in another, as many pointed out.

Does that indicate that the Israelis are getting ready to strike, with or without U.S. cooperation? As Stratfor.com’s George Friedman has pointed out, it seems unlikely. For starters, an aerial foray to Iran would have to pass over Jordanian and Iraqi airspace; indeed, refueling would have to take place in Iraqi airspace, which the U.S. controls. In addition, rescue helicopters would almost certainly have to be based in Iraq to be useful, which would mean the U.S. would at least have to facilitate and provide ground services.

The most fundamental factor arguing against a unilateral Israeli strike, however, is that by publicizing the war games over Greece, Israel utterly eliminated the element of surprise. When Israel took out the Osirak reactor in Iraq in 1981, it took everybody, including the U.S. and other allies, completely by surprise. Giving the Iranians a warning makes it likely the Iranians could do more to move activities to places that would not be seriously affected by conventional bombing and missile strikes, or at least only marginally damaged. Moving people out of harm’s way would be easier and could be done more quickly than moving heavy equipment. Under most circumstances, you would think that if Israel were going to strike it would do everything possible to avoid signaling its intentions, and it has done the opposite.

Unfortunately, that might suggest that if the geniuses running the administration really think it would be useful to strike Iran before leaving office (and let the successor deal with the consequences), they might conclude that a unilateral U.S. strike is the least dangerous way to go. Sunni regimes in the region would be seriously upset if the Israelis struck, but they might be privately relieved and content with only token protests if the U.S. did it. At least one could make that calculation.

Consequently, while I still think the fundamentals, considered strictly in a coldly calculated realpolitik fashion, argue strongly against an overt U.S. military attack on Iran, it’s possible to imagine people on the other side of the argument making a case that the Bushlet just might buy. And he might even be more likely to buy into it (or even be signaling that he wants the case to be made more aggressively), fancying it will enhance his precious legacy as a visionary leader not afraid to take decisive action, even – especially? – if it’s not popular.

So here’s one observer who’s uncertain but a little fearful that what the late Gen. William Odom (and may his shade forgive me for not more publicly celebrating what he achieved in a life devoted to his country’s best long-term interests when he died recently) called "America’s Inadvertent Empire," might just blunder inadvertently into a conflict that could make the Iraqi debacle seem like a walk in the garden with plenty of time to smell the flowers.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).