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 Iran’s 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-top—given 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 invasion—Iraq—the 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 Iran’s nuclear facilities would have to suffice. But as shown by the failed 1998 Operation Desert Fox bombing campaign to impair Iraq’s WMD programs and the recent WMD intelligence debacle in Iraq, the United States likely does not know where all of Iran’s nuclear weapons sites are located (if there are any at all).

After Israel’s air strikes against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981, aspiring nuclear weapons states, including Iran, learned to bury, harden or hide such facilities or build them in populous areas—all making air strikes less effective in knocking out any country’s nuclear weapons programs. In fact, air strikes could ultimately accelerate Iran’s 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 Shi’ite 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 Iran’s 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 Iran’s 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 Iran’s 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 negotiations—not force—to end Iran’s nuclear program.