In a recent article in The New Yorker, investigative journalist Seymour Hersh reports that the Bush administration has conducted missions using military special forces on Iranian territory in an attempt to find Irans nuclear facilities for possible later targeting with air strikes or commando raids. Such military actions would have dire consequences for the United States and the Middle East.
As unbelievable as it might seem, despite its disastrous martial adventure in neighboring Iraq, the administration appears to be once again leaning toward using the military option to deal with a country that it believes is attempting to get nuclear weapons. U.S. government intelligence agencies believe that Iran is still three to five years from getting such a weapon, but given their recent track record of failure on the Indo-Pakistan nuclear tests, the September 11 attacks, and Iraqi weapons of mass destruction (WMD) programs, no one can be sure if they are correct. Using this information, however, as the government must, targeting of Iran is over-the-topgiven that an Iranian nuclear weapon is not imminent.
Even if an Iranian bomb were in the offing, the only way to make sure that all Iranian nuclear facilities are located and destroyed would be to invade the country. With a guerrilla war raging in one of the staging areas for an invasionIraqthe U.S. military would probably pop a vein at even the thought of invading a larger, more populous, more mountainous, and more radical Iran. Thus, surgical air strikes or commando raids on Irans nuclear facilities would have to suffice. But as shown by the failed 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign to impair Iraqs WMD programs and the recent WMD intelligence debacle in Iraq, the United States likely does not know where all of Irans nuclear weapons sites are located (if there are any at all).
After Israels air strikes against Iraqs Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, aspiring nuclear weapons states, including Iran, learned to bury, harden or hide such facilities or build them in populous areasall making air strikes less effective in knocking out any countrys nuclear weapons programs. In fact, air strikes could ultimately accelerate Irans nuclear program. Iran saw that a nuclear North Korea received much more respect from the United States than a non-nuclear Iraq. The United States is trying to entice the North Koreans to give up their nuclear weapons through negotiations; it invaded Iraq. The message to Iran was to develop nuclear weapons fast, in secret and in deeply buried and hardened facilities. Furthermore, after the Israeli bombing of Osirak in Iraq, an alarmed Iraq actually accelerated its efforts to get nuclear weapons. Similarly, in the wake of surgical U.S. attacks on some of its nuclear sites, an unnerved Iran would likely accelerate a clandestine nuclear weapons program.
Surgical attacks on Iran could also have other negative consequences in the region and around the globe. The Iranians could retaliate by making the U.S. occupation of Iraq even uglier than it is at present. They could feed money, arms, and fighters into the Iraq war or stir up Shiite populations against the U.S. occupation. In addition, attacks by a foreign superpower could cause a rally around the flag effect among a restive, young Iranian population that might eventually throw out the ruling theocratic mafia. Finally, attacking a third Islamic country after the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could spike retaliatory terrorism on U.S. targets around the world by newly energized radical Islamists. Iran might even begin sponsoring such anti-U.S. attacks.
In conclusion, military action against Irans nuclear facilities would be both ineffective and counterproductive. Instead, the United States should reverse course, pledge to remove economic sanctions, and offer a non-aggression treaty to ease Irans anxiety, if Iran agrees to a verifiable end to its nuclear program. The Iranian anxiety is not unfounded, given the U.S. occupation of neighboring countries of Afghanistan and Iraq, and it contributes to Irans desire to have nuclear weapons. Although the Bush administration crows about its militaristic foreign policy causing Libya to give up its WMD programs, the real breakthrough occurred when the carrot of the removal of international economic sanctions was offered. With military options so counterproductive, the United States has no choice but to use negotiationsnot forceto end Irans nuclear program.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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