Foreign Policy

When Hawks Play Chicken

Mutually Assured Destruction and Iran

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On Tuesday, President George W. Bush repeated that "all options are on the table" in dealing with Iran's nuclear program. Bush's Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who last week announced that Iran had enriched uranium, is using more inventive language, warning that the Iranian army was like a "meteorite" that would "cut off the hand of any aggressor and leave the enemy covered in shame."

For the moment, it's the international community that is covered in shame, particularly the so-called 5 + 1 group of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany. In a meeting in Moscow this week, the six once again failed to find a consensus on how to deal with the Iranians. In Bosnia and Iraq, when international agreement was lacking, the result was American-led military action. This time around, however, many a former official or analyst is advising the Bush administration to avert war, because Iranian blowback could be calamitous for American interests.

That's sound advice, but Iran, too, would come out of a conflict with the U.S. bloodied. The implications of this are significant. Brinksmanship is quickly narrowing options for both sides, and increasing the likelihood of a war from which neither side would benefit.

William Arkin, host of The Washington Post's Early Warning blog, cites U.S. military sources to the effect that a "global strike war plan" to attack Iran currently exists in draft form. Beginning in May 2003, the U.S. Army began a core analysis for a full-scale war with Iran called TIRANNT (for "theater Iran near term"). A major worry, Arkin's sources say, is that if U.S. Strategic Command planners "were called upon to deliver 'prompt' global strikes against certain targets in Iran under some emergency circumstances, the president might have to be told that the only option is a nuclear one."

This echoed what a former senior intelligence official told investigative reporter Seymour Hersh's for an earlier New Yorker article that fed cautious impulses on both the American and Iranian sides. Hersh wrote that the lack of reliable intelligence about the bunkers protecting Iranian nuclear facilities "leaves military planners, given the goal of totally destroying the sites, little choice but to consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons." As the unnamed former official put it: "Every other option, in the view of the nuclear weaponeers, would leave a gap."

The image of Bush as a nutty, Strangeloveian figure could be just a put-on in the ongoing game of chicken between Washington and Tehran. Arkin chides the administration for failing to talk about military planning, arguing that diplomatic efforts directed at Iran would be "mightily enhanced" if the Iranians thought the U.S. was serious about going to war. But at what stage does the machinery of war overtake the mind games?

On Sunday, Richard Clarke, the former national coordinator for security and counterterrorism who left the Bush administration, and Steven Simon, a senior director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council in the Clinton administration, warned that such ambiguity might lead to a clash that would be devastating for the U.S. Clarke and Simon recall that the Clinton administration also contemplated bombing Iran, but backed off because "the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favorably for the United States."

The authors outlined three major problems the U.S. would face (though the prize for apocalyptic prophecy went to former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, who thinks a war with Iran will be "the ending of America's present role in the world"). First, Iran could retaliate by attacking Persian Gulf oil facilities and tankers, causing oil prices to rise above $80 a barrel. Second, and more likely, it could use terrorist networks, including Hezbollah, to strike at American targets around the world, including inside the U.S. And third, the Iranians could make the American position in Iraq far more difficult than it already is, by ordering the Badr Brigade and other Shiite militias to launch a deadly campaign against American and British soldiers.

Each of these concerns is valid, but their impact is also double-edged from an Iranian perspective. Take the oil weapon. Under Ahmadinejad's predecessors, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammed Khatami, Iran gradually broke out of its international isolation, particularly in its relations with Europe. It also improved ties with the Gulf Arab states, following the mutual antagonisms of the Iran-Iraq war years in the 1980s. Iranian retaliation against Persian Gulf oil facilities and tankers could be the equivalent of killing a fly with a sledgehammer. Not only would most major oil consumers suffer from the abrupt rise in oil prices (particularly China, which has opposed sanctions against Iran), so too would those Gulf suppliers who export their oil through the Straits of Hormuz, and who would regard any Iranian effort to limit such flows as an ominous case of oil-market hegemony. Iran would turn overnight into a global threat, isolated once again.

Clarke's and Simon's warning about an Iranian riposte through terrorism may also prove true. However, in the post-9/11 world, that, too, would only guarantee Iran's isolation. What sympathy Tehran garnered as a result of American military action would swiftly evaporate amid bombings in the U.S. or the United Kingdom. Nor is the United States without resources to hit back harshly against Iran.

As for Hezbollah, Clarke and Simon did not explain that the party's ties to Iran are a source of considerable friction inside Lebanon, where most non-Shiites (and perhaps even a large number of Shiites) have no desire to see their country turned into a proxy in an Iranian-American fight. Hezbollah has resisted disarming in recent months, but the party can no longer ignore the domestic cost of that unpopular refusal, which may induce political groups from other Lebanese religious communities to rearm out of suspicion.

Ahmadinejad would face even larger complications if he stirred up trouble in Iraq. There is no assurance that all pro-Iranian Shiite groups, particularly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, whose military wing is the Iranian-influenced Badr Brigade, would readily abandon the substantial political gains they have made in recent years by turning against American and British troops. Like the Lebanese, most Iraqis don't want to be utensils in Tehran's or Washington's hands, and would disapprove of their countrymen who do.

Some groups, such as Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army might initiate an uprising against the Anglo-American coalition, but the end result would much more likely be chaos than anything else. Iran has no wish to see Iraq collapse into a civil war that would dismantle what Iran has spent three years building up. That's one reason why it has agreed to a dialogue with the U.S. over the country's future.

These Iranian constraints are no doubt well understood in Washington, which must also have an appreciation of the rifts within the Iranian leadership. This may encourage further brinkmanship by the Bush administration, just as Iranian expectations of American vulnerabilities will lead to similar behavior in Tehran. The higher the expectation that the other side will buckle, the greater each side's hardness, making war more certain.

But largely absent from this discussion of nods and winks and threats and retreats is the basic question of whether an Iranian nuclear weapon would substantially change the balance of power in the Middle East, beyond the transformations projected for the coming decade. That's where the debate should really be located. The fact that it is not speaks to a lack of imagination on the part of the Bush administration, which has constrained itself by defining the conflict in ominous existential terms.