Collision Course With Iran

On Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad sent a letter to President Bush intended to offer "new ways to of getting out of the current delicate situation in the world." It was the first direct correspondence from an Iranian president to a U.S. president since the 1979 Islamic revolution, when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was stormed and Americans were held hostage for 444 days. The White House received the letter, but it is not clear that it was read by President Bush. Outgoing White House spokesperson Scott McClellan would only say, "I would just leave it at what I said: We’ve received it." According to news reports, the president was briefed on the contents of the letter. Apparently, Ahmadinejad’s letter is considered as important as the news – in a September 2003 interview with Fox News’ Brit Hume, President Bush said, "I glance at the headlines just to [get] kind of a flavor for what’s moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably [sic] read the news themselves."

The most candid comments about the Ahmadinejad letter have so far been by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. According to Rice, "This letter is not the place that one would find an opening to engage on the nuclear issue or anything of the sort" and that it "isn’t addressing the issues that we’re dealing with in a concrete way." But more to the point: "There’s nothing in here that would suggest that we’re on any different course than we were before we got the letter."

Which means the United States and Iran remain on a collision course for eventual U.S. military action because both parties have mutually exclusive objectives. Although Iran’s nuclear program is the public reason for U.S. concerns, the new National Security Strategy issued on March 16, 2006, reveals the real U.S. motives:

"As important as are these nuclear issues, the United States has broader concerns regarding Iran. The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom. The nuclear issue and our other concerns can ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy."

In other words, it’s not just about nuclear weapons – so Iran giving up its nuclear aspirations would only be a necessary, but not sufficient, condition. Rather, it’s about regime change – which is exactly what the Iranians are trying to prevent by seeking to acquire a nuclear weapons capability. So the Iranians have no incentive to give up their quest for nuclear weapons since doing so will not result in a guarantee that the regime will remain in power. Thus, although President Bush has repeatedly claimed that he wants to resolve the dispute with Iran diplomatically, the reality is that there is no diplomatic solution to be had.

The conventional wisdom, however, is that regime change in Iran is an impossible undertaking. After all, the U.S. military is still – three years after President Bush declared an end to combat operations underneath a "mission accomplished" banner aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln – unable to put down a persistent insurgency in Iraq. And with some 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the Army is stretched thin – using stop-loss orders to prevent soldiers from leaving when their enlistments are over, extending deployments to maintain troop levels, and with recruiting lagging behind last year (when the Army missed its recruiting goals for the all-volunteer force for the first time since 1999).

But if the Army is bogged down in Iraq, the Air Force and Navy are not. So consider this plausible scenario. The United States decides to take out Iran’s nuclear program with limited air strikes (much like the Israelis did when they attacked Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981). But even limited air strikes would involve bombing hundreds of targets (in addition to Iran’s suspected nuclear facilities, other targets would likely include chemical and biological facilities, air defense sites, and ballistic missiles), and because many of those targets are located in urban areas (such as a research reactor in Tehran), even with precision weapons there would likely be civilian collateral damage. Unable to put forth a direct military response, the Iranians instead decide to resort to terrorism via Hezbollah. The result is a terrorist attack that kills either American soldiers or civilians, which then makes the regime in Tehran a legitimate target in the global war on terrorism – just as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was.

This does not mean that the administration would deliberately attack Iran to invite a terrorist attack as a reason to engage in regime change. Yet it is easy to see how likely it is that what would start as air strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program could result in something much bigger and more dangerous. The United States could make an unnecessary enemy out of Hezbollah, which has not actively targeted Americans since the Khobar Towers attack in 1996. Worse yet, Hezbollah and al-Qaeda could overcome Sunni-Shi’ite divisions and form a tactical alliance against a common enemy: the United States. And if regime change meant an eventual United States invasion and occupation of Iran, many in the Muslim world would view this as confirmation that the United States is waging a broader war against Islam (which is actually a real risk of even just limited air strikes). As such, it could be a tipping point that inclines the rest of the Muslim world to sympathize with and side with the radicals, plunging us into a clash of civilizations.

Strangely enough, this may be exactly what the Iranians want and could explain why their rhetoric and actions seem to almost be inviting a U.S. attack. Perhaps they feel such a clash is an inevitable product of U.S. policy and that it would be better to start a war on their terms rather than ours. Consider that any U.S. military action would be against Iran’s nuclear program – declared to be for peaceful energy purposes – before Iran actually acquires nuclear weapons. Indonesia – the country with the single largest Muslim population (over 200 million) – supports Iran’s right to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful means. So Iran could play to Indonesian support to convince Muslims to join the struggle against an America that has embarked on a war against Islam.

But if Iran’s nuclear program and its potential to build nuclear weapons (however unwelcome and undesirable) is not a direct threat to the United States – and the Iranians can be deterred just like the Soviet Union and China before them and North Korea now – is risking any or all of these possibilities worth it?

Author: Charles V. Peña

Charles V. Peña is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, a senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, a former senior fellow with the George Washington University Homeland Security
Policy Institute
, an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, and an analyst for MSNBC television. Peña is the co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the U.S. Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against al-Qaeda and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism.