When I was recently in Paris, a French diplomat explained to me why he--and many others in the French foreign ministry--thought the United States would, in the end, bomb Iran's nuclear-weapons facilities. Owing to Chinese and Russian obstreperousness, the United Nations would probably fail to agree on any sanctions, let alone a sanctions regime with sufficient bite to intimidate the mullahs. The Europeans--at least the French, Germans, and British if not the Italians--would do a bit better, primarily because the French, despite their laissez-passer cynicism and their Gaullist pride vis-à-vis the United States, have developed a strong distaste for the clerics. The mullahs did, after all, once bomb Paris and kill a slew of prominent Iranian expatriates on French soil; and the French don't particularly care for religious Third Worlders' joining the nuclear club. France might even lead the sanctions charge against Tehran--an astonishing historical moment for the Fifth Republic, which has usually aligned itself with Muslim Middle Eastern regimes or cultivated a profitable neutrality, especially when the United States was involved on the opposite side.
Resident Fellow Reuel Marc Gerecht
But Rafsanjani probably won't be able to corral Ahmadinejad. (He who triumphs at home is likely to triumph abroad, and the new president has been remarkably successful in replacing provincial governors and appears to be commencing a fresh purge of the country's universities.) In any case, the Americans will grow more anxious. Tehran will likely become even more bellicose toward the United States and Israel. Adding fuel to the fire, the clerical regime will continue to test new and improved ballistic missiles, extending range and payload.
The Iranian-American enmity will, my French friend reasoned, kick into high gear. The White House will admit that it can no longer diplomatically maintain the international processes designed to thwart the mullahs' acquisition of nuclear weaponry. George W. Bush, who has described a bomb for the terrorism-fond clerics as "unacceptable," will decide that further delay in attacking the known crucial facilities will only allow the mullahs to disburse clandestinely sufficient enriched uranium to fabricate nukes. The administration may well get a strong indication, either through its own resources or those of a foreign-intelligence service, that Iran is very near the red line in the production of weapons-grade uranium, and all the geostrategic and terrorist possibilities of a clerical nuke that now seem frightening but abstract will seem imminent. Therefore, so they reason, the Americans will let loose the U.S. Air Force and Navy even though George W. Bush, the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon really would prefer to do anything else.
So: The black-white rigor of French logic aside, does bombing the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities make sense? What are the downsides of such action? Do the negatives outweigh the good that would come from the demolition of Iran's facilities? The repercussions from an American strike, inside Iran and out, would surely be massive. The French are certainly right: The diplomatic process, no matter how hard the Europeans and the Americans may try, is coming to a close. Unless the Iranians prove more helpful than they have been since the election of Ahmadinejad and, as important, since the highly intelligent and tough former Revolutionary Guard commander Ali Ardeshir Larijani assumed responsibility for the nuclear portfolio in August 2005, it will take a near miracle to keep the diplomatic dialogue going on this subject for more than another twelve months.
To avoid thinking about preventive military strikes or a public avowal of failure against the clerics, the Bush administration may have one more "realist" moment, and attempt to bribe the clerical regime into giving up its uranium-enrichment capabilities. It does not appear that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, let alone the president, really believes that "carrots" could satisfy the mullahs' two-decade-old appetite for nukes. To believe in such "realism" when it comes to the clerical regime, you have to believe that economics trumps politics among the ruling elite. Yet modern Middle Eastern--and especially Iranian--history clearly shows that ideology has run roughshod over economic pragmatism.
Oil and natural gas aside--and in Iran, even counting oil and gas--the Muslim Middle East has been an economic basket case in great part because the region's political elites have been repeatedly enamored of toxic ideas: Marxism, socialism, communism, fascism, and now increasingly Islamism, but never Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, or even the illiberal state-driven capitalisms of East Asia. Economically oriented American and European "realists" usually cite Iran's chronic unemployment, especially among the young, as a driving catalyst for pragmatic change among the ruling elite. Yet it is distinctly odd, then, that Iran's last two presidents, Khatami and Ahmadinejad, have fairly ardently advocated socialist economics in their campaigns. The Islamic Republic's dirigiste, unproductive, and corrupt economy was in great part built by revolutionary mullahs, who are its largest political and economic beneficiaries. Freer and more open trade in Iran usually means someone I know--preferably someone I know in my family--gets rich. It does not mean political pragmatism, which is what Westerners, especially Americans, think it does.
As president in the 1990s, Rafsanjani was encouraging greater European investment in Iran and his version of a "dialogue of civilizations" at the same time he was authorizing hit squads to knife and gun-down feared or disliked Iranian expatriates in Europe. If the Europeans had responded with anger, sanctions, or paramilitary actions against the Iranians and their allies who were involved with these black operations, it's conceivable the clerics would have become more pragmatic. But Europeans who believed in "engagement"--the idea that negotiation and trade produce political moderation--always won the day, so no machtpolitik lesson was ever delivered to Tehran. European engagement with Iran during Khatami's presidency certainly didn't moderate Iran's internal politics; Khatami became weaker each day after his election, and those more hotly faithful to Khomeini's vision became stronger. One can argue there was a limited "Khatami effect" on Iran's foreign policy: The killing teams stopped sojourning in Europe. But the political killings continued inside Iran, gaining in frequency.
If Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's successor, Ali Khamenei--the two great, purely political clerics of the Islamic revolution--had ever been really desirous of altering American attitudes and attracting significant U.S. investment to Iran, they would have used their subsidies to the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas--all three clients of Tehran--to restrain terrorism against the Jewish state. Longstanding Iranian support for terrorism against Israel and Jews worldwide has been one of the principal obstacles to détente between the United States and the Islamic Republic. If the Iranians had behaved somewhat better in this regard, it would have gone a long way--especially under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, who both were hoping at various times to see moderation among the mullahs--toward thawing U.S. trade with the Islamic Republic.
Yet the Iranians have never wavered in their support of anti-Israeli terrorists. Ideology has easily trumped commercial good sense, even when clerical Iran was at its most "liberal," when Khatami, Rafsanjani, and Khamenei regularly opined about how critical economic progress was for the health of the Islamic Republic. Furthermore, any honest review of Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's speeches and writings since 1979 would quickly reveal that both gentlemen hate the United States more than they hate Israel. Jews dominate America, of course: Rafsanjani, Khamenei, the ex-"Anonymous" CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, and the American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the authors of "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," might find chatting together about "Jewish influence" pleasant and insightful. But in the mullahs' eyes, Israel's evil is subordinate to America's "world-devouring arrogance." We're not the "Great Satan" just because three million Jews live in America. And Rafsanjani's and Khamenei's views on this subject are the coin of the revolutionary clerical realm.
All that said, the gut-wrenching nature of contemplating a preventive military strike against the mullahs' nuclear facilities may still be enough to push the Bush administration to explore secretly the possibility of a "grand bargain" with Tehran. There are those in the administration who really do believe that the clerics want the nukes primarily because they're scared of their neighbors, some of whom (the Israelis and the Pakistanis) have atomic weapons. This line of argument has become a trope for the geostrategic and dovish crowds. They don't see the mullahs' pursuit of power as the manifestation of God's will via nuclear weaponry in the hands of Iran's clerics, Islam's truest vanguard. Such "realists" are always irretrievably secular. Yet, it's a good bet that Secretary Rice doesn't share this perspective: She seems to think that Iran's ruling clerics see themselves in a good-versus-evil struggle where there is no possibility of permanent compromise. And Secretary Rice would be right in that assessment.
Even if the secretary still has strong "realist" instincts--she is, after all, a disciple of Brent Scowcroft, Bush One's national security adviser, and she is surrounded in the State Department by foreign service officers who live to negotiate--it won't matter. The Iranians won't play ball. If the Bush administration tries a Libyan or North Korean approach, it will look nearly as foolish as President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright did when they tried in 2000 to apologize their way into getting President Khatami to engage Washington and to cooperate with the FBI in its search for the Iranian culprits behind the deadly Khobar bombings in Saudi Arabia in 1996.
The Clinton administration's handling of that affair remains the single dumbest American approach to the mullahs since 1979. The hapless, not-so-secret negotiating efforts of Carter's national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski with the provisional Iranian government in 1979--which was a major factor behind the U.S. embassy's seizure and the collapse of the moderate government of prime minister Mehdi Bazargan--and the not-so-secret trip in 1986 to Tehran of Reagan's national security adviser Robert McFarlane both made more sense than Clinton's attempt through apologia to break bread with and divide the Middle East's premier power politicians. Although the Bush administration mercifully doesn't have the same penchant for apology as its predecessor, one should have enormous sympathy for the current national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, if he gets tasked with the job of reaching out to the Iranians one last time. The American ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad, has a less dangerous assignment.
Although the Bush Administration has no desire to have the Great Iran Debate--just mentioning a preventive military strike at the State Department or the Pentagon is not a socially acceptable, polite thing to do--the clerical regime will probably force the administration to have it soon. The recent reporting that suggests the Bush administration--or at least the dark side of it in the Pentagon and the vice president's office--is already gearing up for a possible military confrontation with the clerics is, to put it mildly, at odds with the diplomacy-centered, keep-the-handcuffs-on-hawkish-U.N.-ambassador-John-Bolton approach of the State Department, which dominates Iran policy. Although this may change, the Pentagon and the vice president's office seem to have little role in the administration's Iran discussions, and in neither place do you find bombing enthusiasts or strategists trying to game scenarios reminiscent of the run-up to the 2003 war against Saddam Hussein.
The Pentagon's Central Command, which handles the Middle East and is led by General John Abizaid, has no doubt begun to look at the theoretical question of what preventive military strikes might entail, as well as what might happen in the region if the Islamic Republic were to go nuclear. (For example, would the United States be obliged to change its deployments in the region to handle a more aggressive, nuclear-armed clerical regime?)
This is, of course, what prudent, farsighted generals do even if they know--as General Abizaid surely does--that his civilian bosses are as allergic to the use of preventive military strikes against the clerics as are probably most senior military officers in CENTCOM. It in fact would be negligent of Abizaid not to look down the road and realize that the sophisticated reflex to dismiss the possibility of preventive military strikes could change overnight if the United States were actually staring in the face a rabidly anti-American theocracy on the threshold of nuclear weaponry.
In any case, whether Abizaid thinks striking is a good or bad idea is irrelevant: Military men are obliged to think about the strategic ramifications of the Islamic Republic's going nuclear. It doesn't take great powers of prognostication to see that the Iran conversation will remain theoretical and easy until that point when the United States really believes that the mullahs are on the verge of obtaining the bomb. From that moment forward, the conversation in Washington, which really hasn't been that serious, will become deadly serious. (No one in the government or out ought to have much confidence in CIA estimates about when Iran will have weapons of mass destruction. The current five to ten-year estimate could die overnight.)
Critical point: The Iranians--not the Americans--control this discussion and are circumscribing the diplomatic avenues the Bush administration is still determined to pursue. Tehran's mullahs are unlikely to allow us any running room. Rafsanjani's and Ahmadinejad's recent statements about Iran succeeding in enriching uranium (level unspecified) and its readiness to begin industrial-scale production mean, among other things, that the clerical regime believes it now has the advantage (which it does).
The United Nations has again proven incapable of handling this challenge (the Russians and the Chinese will, so the Iranians believe, continue to block sanctions). And the Iranians have little reason so far to fear the Europeans. The Germans have repeatedly shown themselves uncomfortable with tough sanctions against Tehran, and the recent comments made by the German foreign minister recommending direct U.S.-Iranian talks signify, translated into Persian, that the Germans really don't like the sanctions approach, even when pushed by France. Rafsanjani and Ahmadinejad are also saying that it's too late; you can't bomb us now since we've crossed the enrichment threshold. This certainly isn't true--the Iranians don't have enough centrifuges constructed and running--but it could become true, much faster than the Bush administration would like.
The clerical regime may well be calculating that they cannot adequately maintain the secrecy of their nuclear-weapons program. The opposition group the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq exposed their highly secretive efforts in 2003 (and earlier warned foreign-intelligence services about it) and quite likely will do so again when Iran is farther down the road to weaponization. So the regime might as well be as public as possible about basic enrichment--that is, get as many centrifuges constructed, running, and enriching to non-weapons grade under IAEA observation though not control, and thus allow a very rapid break-out to weapons-grade enrichment whenever the ruling clergy chooses. By doing it so publicly, in an in-your-Western-face manner, the mullahs hope to reinforce public approval and tap into Iranian nationalism to buttress the regime. The mullahs are under no delusion about their small base of support in the population; Ahmadinejad, on a recent Caspian Sea meet-the-people tour, was blasted with popular dissatisfaction. The new president's honeymoon appears to be already over.
The Iranians are making the astute call that if they can get the West to acquiesce now--if they can get the West to believe they really are on the verge of industrial-scale enrichment--then they're much safer than if they drag this out. America is, so CNN says (and the Iranian English-speaking elite faithfully watch CNN), tied down in Iraq. Politically, President Bush is obviously weak. Down the road, circumstances might not be so propitious. And the Iranian nuclear-weapons program is now technically probably ready to advance. Add it all up, and the current Iranian push, coming from both Rafsanjani, who the Europeans had surreally hoped would stop this program, and Ahmadinejad, is tactically brilliant. Unless Rafsanjani's and Ahmadinejad's rhetoric and actions now provoke more intense European resolve (and if this doesn't do it, nothing will), no sanctions strategy is likely to congeal effectively.
And the Bush administration hasn't been helping. It has been loath to ramp up the specter of military strikes to reinforce a sanctions-threat in European-Iranian nuclear negotiations. The president would actually be wiser to allow Seymour Hersh's "wild speculation" in the New Yorker to be seen as acceptable contemplation in his White House. This might cause British foreign minister Jack Straw to go apoplectic, but it would send the correct signal to Tehran, with its finer appreciation of power politics. So given the exhaustion of diplomacy, should we prepare to bomb? Or should we give it up, admit we can't stop the clerics from getting the nuke, and try to contain and undermine the Islamic Republic's atom-armed theocracy as best we can?
The reasons not to bomb are many, and some are pretty compelling. The thoughtful anti-bomb critics believe such an action is unfeasible (too many possible sites to attack and therefore no guarantee of success without a land invasion), too convulsive (the Iranian people will rise in nationalist indignation; the Europeans and the rest of the "international community" will go ballistic), too dangerous (Iran will unleash a small army of clandestine agents to smite us in Afghanistan and Iraq, ending America's Iraq project and costing numerous American lives in both countries; reborn Persian terrorist holy warriors might strike us everywhere else), and politically unwise (we will silence the Iranians who want change in their country since the nation will rally around the mullahs). Let us look first at the arguments that really shouldn't scare us.
If we bomb, we will kill off the internal Iranian opposition.
This is perhaps the weakest argument against a preventive strike. Although it would be nice to have Iranian society evolve quickly into something more democratic than theocracy, the odds of this happening before the regime gets a nuke aren't good. It could be decades before this happens; preventive military strikes would have the immediate benefit of delaying Iran's possession of nuclear arms for a few, perhaps several, years. In any case, it is highly unlikely that an American strike would arrest Iran's intellectual progress away from theocracy. This process has been going on since the 1980s--Iran's loss to Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war was an important catalyst to questioning and dissent.
It's much more reasonable to assume that the Islamic Republic's loss to America--and having your nuclear facilities destroyed would be hard to depict as a victory--would actually accelerate internal debate and soul-searching. It's unlikely that many Iranians would feel any affection for an American attack--we would certainly see rampant nationalist and Muslim indignation from many quarters--but the discussion would be much more complicated than just anti-Americanism. It would be, as it was during and after the Iran-Iraq war, double-edged, and probably painful for the ruling clergy, who have not been beloved for a very long time. And the reasons they are not liked are felt each day.
This would not change with an American attack against nuclear facilities. Iranians' growing criticisms of their own society, especially those criticisms advanced by folks who were, or still are, loyal to the revolution--most famously Grand Ayatollah Ali Montazeri, the "defrocked" onetime successor to Khomeini--simply cannot be blown away by foreigners' actions, any more than, in an American context, left-wing intellectuals' concern about social justice, or American blacks' revulsion at the indignities of state-sanctioned racism, could have been stopped by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It's likely that an American attack on the clerical regime's nuclear facilities would, within a short period of time, produce burning criticism of the ruling mullahs, as hot for them as it would be for us. This is not to say that American attacks would produce a counterrevolution. Not at all. It's just to say that such attacks would not make most Iranians love the mullahs more.
An attack would surely introduce uncertainties into Iranian politics, something the clerical dictatorship has tried to avoid. It's worthwhile to remember what happened after the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down a civilian Iranian airliner in 1988. Iranians appeared furious. Even among those who hated the clerical regime--even among Iranian expatriates who'd been driven from their homeland by Ayatollah Khomeini and loved the United States profoundly--vengeful wishes were common. (More than a few astute folks in America's counterterrorist community have long believed that Pan Am 103's destruction above Scotland in 1989 had its origins in a clerical decision to strike back for the Vincennes action. Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, who had his own desire for vengeance against the Americans, entered the picture later.)
Yet within a fairly short time, you could see that many Iranians had flipped: They were almost thankful. Most seemed to assume America had blown the airplane from the sky intentionally, yet they were now giving credit to America for helping to break Khomeini's will to continue the war against Saddam Hussein. America had chosen sides--in most Iranian eyes, atrociously in favor of the Butcher of Baghdad--but the war had been stopped. The detested war-loving mullahs had been broken.
Mutatis mutandis, the emotions surrounding an American strike against the regime's nuclear facilities would be complicated. With or without an American strike on the clerics' nuclear sites, the advance of democracy in Iran will likely have many anti-American overtones (less perhaps than elsewhere in the Muslim Middle East, since theocracy has improved America's image in Iran enormously as the mullahs have failed to fulfill the promises of the Islamic revolution). A surge in anti-Americanism, even if it lasted long, would not save the regime from the intellectual aftershocks of a U.S. attack on its nuclear-weapons facilities. Iran's political and democratic dissidents, especially among the clergy and the left-wing lay crowd, have often been very anti-American. They would no doubt remain so even as they found themselves questioning whether the regime had lost its mind getting into a war with the world's only superpower.
If we bomb, the Iranians will rise in righteous indignation and a new generation of anti-American Shiite holy warriors will be produced (as if the Sunni terrorists weren't bad enough).
Iranians might rise in righteous indignation. Nations don't like to be bombed. But there is simply more to it than that. If we delayed Iran's acquisition of nuclear weaponry by even three years, that might turn out to be a great success--if in those three years something happened that would have been vastly worse if Tehran had had nuclear weapons. If Saddam Hussein had developed nuclear weapons by 1991, then he might still be in Kuwait, and we would have a rabid predator loose in the Middle East. This didn't happen, it strongly appears, because the Israeli attack on the Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981 and/or the American attack on Saddam in 1990-91 and subsequent sanctions derailed his plans for weapons of mass destruction. Some similarly dangerous situation could arise now, causing us to thank God that the Islamic Republic didn't have a nuke. Under such circumstances, whether the Iranian people were angry at us, short-term or even long, would really be a secondary issue.
And as explained above, anger at the United States is likely to be double-edged, cutting toward the ruling clergy as well as us. We shouldn't become paralyzed from fear of Shiite death-wish believers coming at us again. It's possible. What makes a terrorist Muslim holy warrior is usually complex and personal, and an American airstrike on Iranian nuclear facilities might provide that special explosive ingredient to some.
However, it's not likely, and it's especially not likely that the clerical regime would be able to produce and export these holy warriors as an automotive company does cars. The Islamic Republic ceased to produce holy warriors by the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988. (The death of Khomeini in 1989 also stole a charismatic element from the brew that had produced an amazing number of young men who lived to die.) Even in Lebanon, where Hezbollah is just across the border from Israel, Shiite holy warriors have receded--at least those who want to immolate themselves and others for the cause. This disease is obviously alive among the Sunnis, but it seems extinguished among the Shiites.
Blame Khomeini, the Iran-Iraq war, and nationalism. The type of millenarian hope that many faithful Iranian men had at the beginning of the revolution died out in the war and in the unjust and increasingly corrupt society the mullahs built. Millenarian despair--the recognition that God's perfect society isn't accessible on earth but just might be accessible through a gloriously violent and fraternal death--also burned itself out in the unending, pointless slaughter of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war and the increasing pettiness and deceit of an aging Islamic Republic. There are certainly diehard true believers in Iran--Ahmadinejad appears to be one--but the internal chemistry of Iranian society doesn't produce many anymore among men under 25, the key age group for marrying a killer faith with testosterone. The potential for chiliastic rapture--the fraternity of death that young men can have most easily in brutal combat--has just dried up.
Something so secular and adventitious as an American airstrike on a nuclear facility is very unlikely to bring back that magic, that love of God and man, that can send young boys across minefields on motorcycles. The rise of a less religious nationalism in Iran is a sign of declining jihadism. Nationalism in the Sunni radical world has been in retreat (even if it still often defines the contours of "globalized" radical Islamic thought) as holy warriorism has been increasing. An offended God is a vastly more important element in jihadism than an offended nation-state. If Ahmadinejad declares that thousands of young men will sign up to become martyrs in terrorist attacks upon Americans if the United States bombs Iran, don't believe him. He's dreaming. He's having a flashback.
If opponents of preventive bombing conjure up illusions of Sunni militants--or just the "one billion plus Muslims worldwide"--outraged at American actions against the Islamic Republic, then one should remind them of the Arab and Muslim streets that were supposed to rise in jihad a half dozen times against Westerners since 1914 but didn't. Imagining Arab and non-Arab Sunnis, particularly the truly violent Wahhabi set, who hate Shiites almost as much as they hate Americans, going on the warpath on behalf of a nuclear-defanged Shiite Iran is numbingly hard, though obviously not impossible for those who believe the Islamic Republic is only a menace because America--especially President Bush--is determined to demonize it.
If we bomb, the international community will go ballistic.
They probably would. And this is certainly a more serious limitation on American action. Americans really don't like acting alone, braving the censure of other, particularly Western, nations. Taken individually, most Americans probably don't care much what France or Germany or Spain or Italy thinks. Great Britain is the exception, especially in perilous times. Americans, particularly liberal Americans, do care, however, when "the West" isn't with us, and it probably wouldn't be with us in a bombing run on Iran's nuclear sites. As Robert Kagan tirelessly points out, the inability to project much military force inevitably starts to alter the ethics that sanction the use of force. Europe's relative military weakness now makes anti-Americanism the natural state. Would the anger be worse than what we went through with the Iraq war? Hard to tell.
America's contracting-out of its Iran policy to the British, French, and Germans--the so-called EU-3--since 2003 has made the foreign-policy elites in those countries somewhat more sensitive to American concerns and more alarmed by the clerical regime's nefarious behavior. It's hard to love the mullahs. Westerners try now and then, especially, if they can find a cleric like Khatami, who is personally appealing, at least more than Rafsanjani and Khamenei. The Islamic Republic long ago would have captured Europe's undying Third World love if it had not been for the regime's treatment of women. Although some Western female journalists have tried to depict Iranian women as liberated under their headscarves and veils, these sentiments have an uneasy time with other reporting that shows Iranian women, however strong-willed and independent, being severely abused by the regime's Islamic-law system. The phenomenal global success of Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran has also made it more difficult to view the Islamic Republic's internal ethics, particularly regarding women, benignly.
The clerical regime's behavior and rhetoric has been too dark for too long for it easily to gain sympathy in the West as an innocent Third World Muslim country being picked on by a warmongering George W. Bush. But anti-Americanism is deeply rooted in Western Europe, especially in Germany. Much of Europe came very close to sympathizing with Saddam Hussein. It's a decent bet that the longer European and American diplomacy continues on the Iranian nuclear question, the more condemnation the United States will encounter when it abandons this process, even if the process has been without content for months.
The real question remains, Is a nuclear weapon under the control of Ali Khamenei "unacceptable"? If it is, then enduring the heat of hostile European opinion ought to be sustainable. Living through the Iraq war has been an unhappy experience--for those who see the world first and foremost through a transatlantic lens, downright nerve-wracking. But the sky has not fallen. It would probably not fall--at least not in Europe--if we attacked the clerics' atomic-weapons programs.
If we bomb, the mullahs will hit us in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Using its Revolutionary Guard and intelligence-ministry forces, the Islamic Republic could strike us in both countries. You don't need to imagine reborn Iranian Shiite holy warriors running amok to see cause for concern. If you had to pick one reason that the Bush administration would not strike the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities, this would probably be it.
It's impossible to overestimate the Iraq fatigue that now afflicts the administration. The American military is stressed out. Although it's difficult to say what Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's view is--his entire civilian staff seems to have recused itself from giving a forceful opinion on the Iranian nuclear issue--the military brass will likely fight any preventive military strike against Iran for fear of the repercussions in Iraq. Their views may be unfounded, but it seems likely President Bush would hesitate to dismiss these concerns.
Ultimately, the clerical regime itself will determine whether the United States strikes its nuclear facilities. If it acts in a rash manner, deploying frightening language and new ballistic hardware, if it gets caught engaging in serious nastiness in Iraq or terrorism abroad before it has enough centrifuges up and running, then it's certainly possible to imagine the president, even the senior officers of the U.S. Army, deciding America has no choice. As we get closer to the "red line" for Iran's atomic-weapons programs, it's not at all unlikely we will concentrate on Iran's threat independent of Iraq.
Viewed calmly, Afghanistan and Iraq shouldn't make or break the decision on whether to strike Iran's facilities. In both countries, the Iranians are only as good as their proxies. It seems highly unlikely that the clerical regime would try to deploy large numbers of Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officers in open combat in either place. The Iranians would be operating without benefit of cover. (They stick out like sore thumbs in both countries.) They would be inviting U.S. attacks on Iran--and not on nuclear facilities, but on Revolutionary Guards Corps camps, military installations, and intelligence facilities. Such things are critical to the regime's survival. The regime certainly remembers that the U.S. Navy essentially annihilated the Iranian regular and Revolutionary Guard navy in one day at the end of the Iran-Iraq war. It's doubtful the clerical regime would like to repeat the experience. Indirect terrorism is the clerical way, and that's what one would expect in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
The mullahs could certainly find Iraqi and Afghan recruits to help, but whether these attacks could reach and maintain an amplitude sufficient to change the political or military fate of either country is open to question. Terrorism against Americans in either place is likely to kill the natives as well, perhaps lots of them. If the Iraqi Shia discovered that the Iranians were blowing up their women and children, there would be hell to pay for those Iranians so unfortunate as to be working in or visiting Iraq.
An Iranian offensive in Iraq would certainly stress the entire Shiite community. If the Americans were to alienate seriously the Shiites--something we have not yet done--then we could be in serious trouble. If the young radical Moktada al-Sadr were forced from the political process (there was a time for this, but that time is now past), we might see him take up arms for Iran. If he remains inside the political system, then it's unlikely he will destroy the system in which he's a player. There just isn't that level of affection, certainly not fealty, between him, his men, and the Iranians.
The same is true, probably more so, for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the dominant Shiite political party within the United Iraqi Alliance. Though formed under Iranian patronage, and no doubt still benefiting from Iranian largesse, SCIRI is an Iraqi Arab Shiite party with stronger ties now to the holy Iraqi city of Najaf than to Tehran.
The Iranian press sometimes carries stories about how the Iraqi Shia are no longer theirs. The former exiles, whom Iran once saved, are becoming adult ingrates. The Iranians are right. If in 12 to 24 months, the Iraqi political system isn't functioning and Shiite Iraqis are not committed to the system in place, then the Iranians really won't be able to hurt us in Iraq, since the country in all likelihood will have collapsed. If we bomb by then, it might be difficult to tell the difference between Iraqi-and Iranian-inspired mayhem. If the political system is working, then the Iranians will probably be, for most nasty purposes, operating alone. They will certainly be able to cause us pain, but they won't be able to bring down the Iraqi political system. And if they can't do that, then they can't really hurt us.
Which brings us to the last and most stultifying concern:
If we bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, we cannot fully verify the damage we've done without a land invasion. And Iranian terrorist reprisals against our troops, if sustained and deadly, might force us to consider the unthinkable: a large-scale land invasion of the Islamic Republic.
The EU-3 negotiations and the IAEA inspections and deliberations have certainly made it easier to contemplate an aerial bombardment of Iran's nuclear facilities. By their actions and words, the Iranians have told us that there are certain sites that are critical to their program--especially the enrichment and conversion facilities at Natanz and Isfahan. If the Iranians had backup facilities, their dogged efforts to free these sites from IAEA control would make no sense whatsoever. We didn't know this 24 months ago, but we do now. Taking out a handful of sites such as these, even when underground, is feasible. We would have to be prepared to bomb these facilities more than once, but the United States certainly has the capacity to stop the Iranian government from continuing any substantial work on these premises. (Even if we couldn't completely collapse underground facilities using conventional bunker busters, we could certainly paralyze any above-ground efforts to repair them.)
It's also reasonable to assume that, given the enormous effort the clerical government has put into building up its program over the last 15 years (this is truly the clerical regime's Manhattan Project), if these sites were wiped out, they could not be replicated overnight. It would probably take a few years to rebuild them and their machinery. That delay might be critically important down the road, depending on events in Iran and elsewhere. It might not. The only thing for sure is that the United States would have to be prepared to bomb the clerical regime's facilities again, and the second time round, the regime would try much harder to hide these places, which would likely mean that it would take the Iranians several years to rebuild their nuclear program more securely. Overhead satellite cameras and Iranian opposition groups--especially the unpleasant but occasionally insightful Mujahedeen-e-Khalq organization, the group that publicly revealed the Natanz facility--would dog them. The CIA, too, might on occasion contribute something of value. Though this is certainly no guarantee of accurate, constant intelligence coverage, it's probably enough to make things difficult and time-consuming for the mullahs.
Bombing the nuclear facilities once would mean we were declaring war on the clerical regime. We shouldn't have any illusions about that. We could not stand idly by and watch the mullahs build other sites. If the ruling mullahs were to go forward with rebuilding what they'd lost--and it would be surprising to discover the clerical regime knuckling after an initial bombing run--we'd have to strike until they stopped. And if we had any doubt about where their new facilities were (and it's a good bet the clerical regime would try to bury new sites deep under heavily populated areas), and we were reasonably suspicious they were building again, we'd have to consider, at a minimum, using special-operations forces to penetrate suspected sites.
All of this would probably transpire over many years, perhaps a decade or more, and it certainly could go in a different direction. The regime could fall, or it could evolve in a healthy direction, from internal convulsions, but it would be unwise to allow a bloodied clerical regime to get a nuclear weapon. The United States obviously does not want to get in the same place that it was with Iraq in the 1990s, launching periodic air attacks but not knowing whether the mullahs' nuclear activities had escaped our detection. There is no way the Europeans would have the stomach for this--and probably few Americans would, either.
Terrorism is in the ruling clergy's DNA--which is one of the reasons we don't want them to get the nuke; it's even a bigger reason we don't want them to get a bomb after we've been pummeling them. And if the mullahs responded to a successful U.S. attack against their nuclear facilities with a lucky terrorist strike against a big American target overseas or on the mainland--again, it's unlikely the clergy would do this without pretty good camouflage through non-Iranian terrorist groups, and such large-scale terrorist operations are always very difficult to execute, especially with the United States and others surveilling the Iranians and their allies closely--the United States would have to respond massively against the Islamic Republic. A land invasion might not be necessary, but if the regime were to kill thousands of Americans it's hard not to envision a U.S. president asking Congress for a declaration of war and an all-out invasion of Persia.
All of this is frightening. It reinforces the temptation to accept the status quo rather than going on the offensive. Inaction is the default position of "realists," which explains their staying power. However, one significant terrorist attack by an Islamic Republic protected by nuclear weapons, and many might view as necessary what had seemed reckless. If the Iranians even carried out a "minor" terrorist act--for example, blowing up a U.S. embassy and killing and maiming one hundred officials--the United States in a post-9/11 world would have to unleash hell against the clerical regime. To absorb such a hit without a massive reprisal would be to invite much worse nuclear-protected terrorism.
If the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees the Islamic Republic's nuclear weapons program, were to give a wing of al Qaeda material for a dirty bomb, what would the United States do in response? The regime's past fondness for Ayman al-Zawahiri, the occasional movement of al Qaeda members through Iran both pre-and post-9/11, and the "arrest" and "detention" of some al Qaeda members in the Islamic Republic to this day are, to say the least, disconcerting. What would we do if we were pretty sure they'd ordered a terrorist attack--say, 80 percent sure--but we were 100percent sure they had nuclear-armed ICBMs?
If either Rafsanjani or Ahmadinejad were ever to follow through on their wild rhetoric against Israel with a nuclear strike--and this is certainly a possibility unprevented by either man's ethics--then the path now deemed reckless might seem, even to the dovish Europeans, in retrospect like a morally compelling course.
Deterrence theory may well work against the clerical regime, but it ought to be admitted that we have never before confronted a regime where anti-Americanism, violence, terrorism, and God's writ have been so intermarried. The Soviets in their hatreds were positively ecumenical. What we are dealing with in the Islamic Republic's ruling revolutionary elite is a politer, more refined, more cautious, vastly more mendacious version of bin Ladenism. It is best that such men not have nukes, and that we do everything in our power, including preventive military strikes, to stop this from happening.
The opponents of military strikes against the mullahs' weapons facilities say there are no guarantees that we can permanently destroy their weapons production. This is true. We can't guarantee the results. But what we can do is demonstrate, to the mullahs and to others elsewhere, that even with these uncertainties, in a post-9/11 world the United States has red lines that will compel it to act. And one nonnegotiable red line is that we will not sit idly and watch a virulently anti-American terrorist-supporting rogue state obtain nukes. We will not be intimidated by threats of terrorism, oil-price spikes, or hostile world opinion. If the ruling clerical elite wants a head-on collision with a determined superpower, then that's their choice.
No matter what happens, it is long overdue for the Bush administration to get serious about building clandestine mechanisms to support Iranians who want to change their regime. This will take time and be brutally difficult. And overt democracy support to Iranians--which is the Bush administration's current game plan--isn't likely to draw many recruits. Most Iranians probably know that this approach is a one-way invitation to Evin prison, which isn't the most effective place for expressing dissent. However we go about assisting the opposition, the prospects for removing the regime before it acquires nuclear weapons are slim.
So we will all have to wait for President Bush to decide whether nuclear weapons in the hands of Khamenei, Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad, and the Revolutionary Guards Corps are something we can live with. Given the Islamic Republic's dark history, the burden of proof ought to be on those who favor accommodating a nuclear Iran. Those who are unwilling to accommodate it, however, need to be honest and admit that diplomacy and sanctions and covert operations probably won't succeed, and that we may have to fight a war--perhaps sooner rather than later--to stop such evil men from obtaining the worst weapons we know.
Reuel Marc Gerecht is a resident fellow at AEI.