Winston Churchill said that a decision not taken was nonetheless a decision. The decision to bomb Iran has not been taken, and President Bush’s tightening of sanctions against Iran may be a decision not to decide.
Here in Washington, debate about Iran is dominant. Unlike the debate that preceded the invasion of Iraq, this one features a much greater emphasis on what happens after striking as many as 20 Iranian nuclear sites. Ergo, lessons have been learned.
The hawkish argument is pretty simple: If you delay Iran’s production of an indigenous weapon for decades, you will not only protect Israel from a future horror, but you will also send a categorical message to other proliferators that there will be consequences for defying the United States. It is an argument about the future.
The dovish argument is about the day after. It is an argument over what happens immediately, and how catastrophic the consequences will be in the months after a unilateral aerial assault. With the Iranian street aflame, will Iran send its conventional forces across the Iraq border to engage the U.S. forces in formal warfare, even as they are fully engaged in fighting the insurgency? Will Iraq succeed in disrupting tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz, pushing world oil prices to $150 a barrel? Will Iran endeavor to engage Israel directly rather than through its surrogate Hezbollah?
Then there is the unknown reaction of Russia and China, both of which are cozy with Iran. And again, will Turkey take advantage of the chaos to invade Northern Iraq to suppress Kurdish terrorists, even to commandeer Kurdish oil? Will the whole of the Middle East go up in flames, as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarack has warned?
The administration has sent every warning to Tehran that it will not abide continued uranium enrichment. While Bush talks diplomacy, Vice President Dick Cheney continues to beat the war drums with tough rhetoric. Additionally, the administration has asked for money from Congress to modify B-2 stealth bombers to carry “bunker-buster” bombs. Because Iranian air defenses are fairly good, this says two things: We’re preparing to come after your underground facilities, but not before we modify our weapons. A strong signal, but a mixed one.
Inside the administration, it is believed that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates are dovish, while Cheney and those outside the government but with influence in decision-making, and who supported the Iraq invasion, are keen on striking Iran. The military is known to believe that it has its hands full, and is concerned about the safety of its forces in Iraq should conventional Iranian divisions pour across the border.
Another wild card is Saudi Arabia. Its armed forces are well-equipped with American gear, but it has no record in serious combat. The Saudis do not like the Iranian strength in the region, and Saudi Arabia is predominantly Sunni while Iran is Shia. The Saudis have told Cheney that if the United States withdraws from Iraq, Saudi Arabia will go in to bolster the Sunni minority, but they would not want to be at war with Iran. There are only about 5 million Saudis, but there are 80 million Iranians.
A small but not insignificant light on the state of play in the administration and the military comes from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. When journalist Juan Williams said on “Fox News Sunday” that Petreaus was seeking permission to follow Iranian insurgents across the border into Iran, Petraeus had his spokesman call Williams to say that the general did not want that authority and had not sought it. In other words: I have got enough war to manage, I do not need to add hot pursuit.
The problem comes back to Iraq. If there were no U.S. troops on the ground in Iraq, we could probably bomb Iranian nuclear installations with little consequence. As it is, we would have to bomb the nuclear targets and if Iran reacts by invading Iraq, escalate the air war, bombing conventional military targets like missile silos. If things continued to deteriorate, we would have to go after infrastructural targets like bridges, power plants and oil installations.
There is third line of argument that says the Iran bombing could be carried out by Israel, which, after all, took out Saddam Hussein’s reactors in l981 and has just taken out a presumed nuclear target in Syria. The problem is that Israeli bombers, and fighters, do not have the range to reach Iran and get back without in-air refueling. That would require U.S. tankers flying from U.S. bases in places like Qatar, Kuwait, Iraq, etc. And that would not sit well with those countries and would Americanize the attacks anyway.
No wonder a third bird has joined the hawks and doves of old. It is the ostrich.