Will the newly energized President Bush interpret his narrow election win as public approval for his spaghetti Western–”style shoot-’em-up foreign policy? Many neo-conservatives outside the Bush administration have made noise about going after Iran. Could the swaggering sheriff be convinced by these pundits to take on the black-hatted mullahs of Iran? Let’s hope not; attacking Iran would be a bigger folly than invading Iraq.
The Iranians only got serious about getting a nuclear bomb after a U.S. military presence was established on the ground in the nearby Persian Gulf region prior to the first Gulf War. Even Iran’s long, brutal eight-year war with neighboring Iraq during the 1980s was not an impetus toward becoming a nuclear power.
In fact, it was the U.S. invasion of Iraq that caused the Iranians to accelerate their efforts to build the bomb. The Iranian leadership watched the invasion and harsh treatment of the non-nuclear Iraq by the U.S. and compared that to the more respectful U.S. negotiations with North Korea, which likely already has nuclear weapons. If you were Iran, what would you do? Certainly, given the possibility of a U.S. invasion, many other so-called “rogue nations” with inclinations to develop such weapons may do exactly what the Iranians have done.
Although the Bush administration probably has difficulty empathizing with an autocratic, fundamentalist Islamic regime, it should consider that Iran might feel threatened by the cordon the U.S. had created around Iran’s borders. The United States has a significant military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq, new military bases in Central Asian nations, and a formal alliance with Turkey. In the wider region, the U.S. also has informal security relationships with Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf kingdoms. Asked what he learned from the Persian Gulf War in 1991, the Indian Chief of Staff replied, “don’t fight the United States without nuclear weapons.” Similarly, the Iranians have obviously learned that the only way to ensure that the United States doesn’t invade Iran is to develop the ultimate deterrent.
But neo-conservatives inside and outside of the administration might ask: why not launch an Iraq-style preventative attack before the Iranians can get these weapons? The answer is that according to U.S. military planners, nuclear facilities are now hard to find and target from the air. During Operation Desert Fox in 1998–”an air campaign designed to cripple Iraq’s capability to produce nuclear weapons–”it became apparent that the United States had no idea where such Iraqi weapons facilities were located (later the Bush administration found out the hard way that they didn’t have any). The Iranians have learned from Israel’s successful surprise attack on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981. They have hidden, hardened, buried or placed their nuclear facilities in heavily populated areas. For this reason, according to the New York Times, U.S. military planners admit that the Iranian nuclear program is best dealt with by diplomacy rather than by military force.
The only way to find and eliminate Iranian nuclear weapons using military action would be to launch a full-scale invasion of Iran. If the Bush administration even began to contemplate this course of action, however, the U.S. military would probably be near open revolt. Invading Iran would likely make the bloody quagmire in Iraq look like a picnic. Iran has nearly four times the territory and three times the population of Iraq. Also, Iran’s terrain is much more mountainous than Iraq’s and even more ideal for guerrilla warfare. Any U.S. invasion would quickly change the youthful Iranian population from opponents of the governing mullahs to supporters of their efforts to fight off an invading foreign superpower. Rather than facing armed resistance from one faction of the population–”as in Iraq–”the U.S. military would likely face zealous opposition from the entire population. Finally, the already overstretched U.S. military has too few forces to pacify Iraq, let alone invade Iran simultaneously. The U.S. military and even the Republican Congress would probably be squeamish about invading yet another country while battling a guerrilla insurgency in one of the invasion’s likely launching pads.
With no viable military options, even the aggressive Bush administration will probably be forced to give peace a chance. If the United States can negotiate with the erratic Kim Jong Il in North Korea, it can certainly do so with the authoritarian mullahs in Iran. The secret in both sets of negotiations might be to recognize that these “rogue states” might be genuinely frightened of a U.S. invasion and willing to accept a non-aggression pact with the United States in exchange for a verified elimination of their nuclear weapons. If that doesn’t work, the United States may just have to live with unfriendly nations having nuclear weapons. The U.S. allowed the Soviet Union to obtain nuclear weapons in the 1940s and radical Maoist China to get them in the 1960s. No matter how quirky or radical a nation’s leaders, if a government has a home address that can be incinerated by the most capable nuclear arsenal on the planet, that government can be deterred from attacking the United States.