A question I’m often asked is whether military action against Iran is still an option for the Bush administration. The short answer is "yes." Last week, when a reporter raised the issue of "a spate of recent stories about possible military action against Iran before the end of the year" President Bush responded that "the first option for the United States is to solve this problem diplomatically" but that "all options are on the table."
Yet many people (many of whom did not believe that the United States could or would invade Iraq) share an utter disbelief that the United States is in any position use military force against Iran. After all, even if one is willing to believe that we are making progress, there are still some 140,000 U.S. soldiers deployed in Iraq which has put a great strain on the U.S. military (particularly the Army and Marine Corps, as well as the National Guard and reserves). And things appear to be taking a turn for the worse in Afghanistan (earlier this week a suicide bomber killed 41 people in an attack on the Indian embassy). So if our hands our tied in Iraq and Afghanistan, how could we possibly do anything in Iran?
To begin, it is important to remember that advocates for military action against Iran both inside and outside of the administration do not necessarily adhere to the same logic and reality that the rest of us do. As Ron Suskind wrote in an October 2004 New York Times Magazine article:
"The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality judiciously, as you will we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’"
Moreover, military action does not necessarily mean a ground invasion. If the primary target is Iran’s nuclear program, then the U.S. Air Force and Navy (both not strained by the deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan) could conduct air strikes. The number of targets and requisite aimpoints to destroy those targets ranges from a very few (perhaps just the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz which is key to the Iranians ability to produce highly enriched uranium that could be used in nuclear weapon) to according to retired Air Force Col. Sam Gardiner as many as 24 nuclear-related facilities consisting of 400 aimpoints. But whether the number is small or large, it is well within the capability of the U.S. Air Force and Navy that orchestrated the complex air strikes for Operation Iraqi Freedom.
And while the target of air strikes might be Iran’s nuclear program, the nuclear issue is not the only rationale for taking action. The administration has taken almost every opportunity to link Iran to the violence in Iraq. More importantly, Iran has been blamed for the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq largely by claims that the Iranians are responsible for supplying parts and expertise to build improvised explosive devices (IEDs) used in roadside bombings that have killed American soldiers. (According to Gardiner, the Bush administration believes in seven key truths in making its case against Iran: Iran is developing weapons of mass destruction, Iran is ignoring the international community, Iran supports Hezbollah and terrorism, Iran is increasingly inserting itself in Iraq and beginning to be involved in Afghanistan, the people of Iran want a regime change, sanctions are not going to work, and you cannot negotiate with these people.)
Finally, there is the Israeli "wild card" to consider. According to Shaul Mofaz, a former Israeli defense minister who is now a deputy prime minister, "If Iran continues with its program for developing nuclear weapons, we will attack." Mofaz’s comments were made shortly after an Israeli military exercise that had all the makings of a rehearsal for bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities. Gardiner believes otherwise: "The signal I received is that Israel does NOT have the capability to effectively attack Iran’s nuclear facilities." Even if Gardiner’s military assessment is correct, it is important to understand that the Israeli government’s worldview is different. Iran particularly a nuclear-capable Iran is seen as a mortal threat to Israel (which is only reinforced by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory rhetoric). Survival of the Jewish state may trump all other considerations including skyrocketing the price of oil past $200 a barrel. And in a classic case of the tail wagging the dog, Israeli insistence on taking military action against Iran could cause the United States to do its bidding particularly if Gardiner’s assessment of Israel’s military capabilities is correct.
So with less than four months to go until the presidential election, an October surprise is still very much within the realm of possibility.