Sunday, January 15, 2006

Iran and Nukes: The Options, from Bad to Worse

EveryoneI've read thus far about the situation in Iran unites around one common point: there seem to be no good options available, and we don't know what to do.

Military historian Victor Davis Hanson summed it up in an article with this subtitle: "Our bad and worse choices about Iran." Here is an excerpt, with the four options Hanson sees, marked by me in bold:

When a supposedly unhinged Mr. Ahmadinejad threatens the destruction of Israel and then summarily proceeds to violate international protocols aimed at monitoring Iran’s nuclear industry, we all take note. Any country that burns off some of its natural gas at the wellhead while claiming that it needs nuclear power for domestic energy is simply lying. Terrorism, vast petroleum reserves, nuclear weapons, and boasts of wiping neighboring nations off the map are a bad combination.

So we all agree on the extent of the crisis, but not on the solutions, which can be summarized by four general options.

First is the ostrich strategy — see and hear no evil, if extending occasional peace feelers out to more reasonable mullahs. Hope that “moderates” in the Iranian government exercise a restraining influence on Mr. Ahmadinejad. Sigh that nuclear Iran may well become like Pakistan — dangerous and unpredictable, but still perhaps “manageable.” Talk as if George Bush and the Iranians both need to take a time out.

I doubt that many serious planners any longer entertain this passive fantasy, especially after the latest rantings of Ahmadinejad. Pakistan, after all, has some secular leaders, is checked by nuclear India, and has a recent past of cooperation with the United States. Most importantly, it is more than ever a lesson in past laxity, as the United States and Europe were proven criminally derelict in giving Dr. Khan and his nuclear-mart a pass — which may well come back to haunt us all yet.

Alternatively, we could step up further global condemnation. The West could press the U.N. more aggressively — repeatedly calling for more resolutions, and, ultimately, for sanctions, boycotts, and embargos, energizes our allies to cut all ties to Iran, and provides far more money to dissident groups inside Iran to rid the country of the Khomeinists. Ensuring that democracy works in Iraq would be subversive to the mullahs across the border. Some sort of peaceful regime change is the solution preferred by most — and, of course, can be pursued in a manner contemporaneous with, not exclusionary to, other strategies.

It is a long-term therapy and therefore suffers the obvious defect that Iran might become nuclear in the meantime. Then the regime’s resulting braggadocio might well deflate the dissident opposition, as the mullahs boast that they alone have restored Iranian national prestige with an Achaemenid bomb.

A third, and often unmentionable, course is to allow the most likely intended target of nuclear Iran, Israel, to take matters into its own hands. We know this scenario from the 1981 destruction of Saddam’s French-built Osirak nuclear reactor: the world immediately deplores such “unilateral” and “preemptory” recklessness, and then sighs relief that Israel, not it, put the bell on the fanged cat.

But 2006 is not 1981. We are in war with Islamic radicalism, at the moment largely near the Iranian border in Iraq and Afghanistan. The resulting furor over a “Zionist” strike on Shia Iran might galvanize Iraqi Shiites to break with us, rather than bring them relief that the Jewish state had eliminated a nearby nuclear threat and had humiliated an age-old rival nation and bitter former enemy. Thousands of Americans are in range of Iranian artillery and short-term missile salvoes, and, in theory, we could face in Iraq a conventional enemy at the front and a fifth column at the rear.

And Iran poses far greater risks than in the past for Israeli pilots flying in over the heart of the Muslim world, with 200-300 possible nuclear sites that are burrowed into mountains, bunkers and suburbs. Such a mission would require greater flight distances, messy refueling, careful intelligence, and the need to put Israeli forces on alert for an Iranian counterstrike or a terrorist move from Lebanon. Former Israeli friends like Turkey are now not so cordial, and the violation of Islamic airspace might in the short-term draw an ugly response, despite the eventual relief in Arab capitals at the elimination of the Iranian nuclear arsenal.

If the Israeli raids did not take out the entire structure, or if there were already plutonium present in undisclosed bunkers, then the Iranians might shift from their sickening rhetoric and provide terrorists in Syria and Lebanon with dirty bombs or nuclear devices to “avenge” the attack as part of a “defensive” war of “striking back” at “Israeli aggression”. Europeans might even shrug at any such hit, concluding that Israel had it coming by attacking first.

The fourth scenario is as increasingly dreaded as it is apparently inevitable — a U.S. air strike. Most hope that it can be delayed, since its one virtue — the elimination of the Iranian nuclear threat — must ipso facto outweigh the multifaceted disadvantages.

The Shiite allies in Iraq might go ballistic and start up a second front as in 2004. Muslim countries, the primary beneficiaries of a disarmed Iran, would still protest loudly that some of their territories, if only for purposes of intelligence and post-operative surveillance, were used in the strike. After Iraq, a hit on Iran would confirm to the Middle East Street a disturbing picture of American preemptory wars against Islamic nations.

Experts warn that we are not talking about a Clintonian one-day cruise-missile hit, or even something akin to General Zinni’s 1998 extended Operation Desert Fox campaign. Rather, the challenges call for something far more sustained and comprehensive — perhaps a week or two of bombing at every imaginable facility, many of them hidden in suburbs or populated areas. Commando raids might need to augment air sorties, especially for mountain redoubts deep in solid rock.

The political heat would mount hourly, as Russia, China, and Europe all would express shock and condemnation, and whine that their careful diplomatic dialogue had once again been ruined by the American outlaws. Soon the focus of the U.N. would not be on Iranian nuclear proliferation, or the role of Europe, Pakistan, China, and Russia in lending nuclear expertise to the theocracy, but instead on the mad bomber-cowboy George Bush. We remember that in 1981 the world did not blame the reckless and greedy French for their construction of a nuclear reactor for Saddam Hussein, but the sober Israelis for taking it out...