The US will act alone if it has to
The confrontation between Iran and the United States over Iran's nuclear program is likely to end in US air strikes against Tehran's nuclear facilities.
There is little room for doubt that Iran, despite pro forma denials, is working to develop nuclear weapons and not just nuclear energy. Of course, many people in the Middle East are skeptical of American claims about this because of Iraq. But the answer to this is that while the US was grievously wrong about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Washington did not lie. After all, it was the US that announced that no WMDs had been found in Iraq. If we were lying, we could have claimed otherwise or even planted things in Iraq once we occupied it.
In the case of Iran, there are several powerful reasons to believe that its nuclear program is intended for weapons:
* After its hand was forced by revelations by an opposition group, the Iranian government confessed that it had filed false reports to the International Atomic Energy Agency for 18 years.
* It still refuses to give the IAEA complete cooperation.
* Iran has stonewalled long, patient European efforts to negotiate an end to the crisis as well as Russia's compromise proposal to enrich nuclear fuel for Iran.
* Some of its acknowledged activities have no technological purpose except for weapons.
* President Mahmoud Ahmadinezhad alluded to other Iraqi nuclear programs in a recent speech.
* Iran was involved with the nuclear weapons proliferation activities of the Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan.
The US views Iranian nuclear weapons as especially threatening. Iran is an unusually barbaric regime. It has organized death squads to murder its own dissidents at home. It has sent "hit" teams to murder dissidents abroad. It is the single most active government in the world in funding, supporting and organizing terrorist activity.
Moreover, it is uniquely virulent. Repeatedly, Ahmadinezhad has called for the destruction of Israel. He has also called for the destruction of the United States. Less attention was paid to this, probably because people thought it less likely to be acted upon. But the Iranian regime has sponsored the murder of Americans where it can. Also, "death to America" is the official slogan of that regime, painted on walls and chanted at Friday prayers.
For these reasons, President George W. Bush and members of his administration have said they will not tolerate a nuclear armed Iran. Is this inconsistent, since we do tolerate nuclear weapons in the hands of other states? Only slightly. We have tried to discourage nuclear proliferation everywhere and have been instrumental in persuading several states to abandon their weapons programs. Others we have not been able to stop. But there is no other regime on earth whose conduct so traduces the norms of civilized behavior.
The United States, as everyone knows, finds itself in a great mess in Iraq, where we have made many mistakes and are stretched thinly. For that reason Washington will be reluctant to undertake military action in Iran.
Should Washington go down that route, the US will surely pay a heavy price. By this I do not mean the various ways in which Iran will try to strike back at us in Iraq or Afghanistan or on American soil. I mean we will intensify anti-American feelings that are already far too high in the Middle East and elsewhere. We may also strengthen the Iranian regime. We know its undemocratic rule is quite unpopular in Iran, but people may rally around the regime if we bomb their country.
For all these reasons, Washington has taken a low-key approach, backing the Europeans and even the Russians, hoping that their diplomatic initiatives will work. So far, they have not worked, and their sponsors have undermined themselves. When Javier Solana, the EU leader, declares that the military option against Iran is absolutely "off the table", he is telling Tehran that it need not negotiate in good faith. And when Moscow refuses to support stern sanctions in the Security Council, it is making it more likely that Tehran will continue to brush aside Russia's proposal.
In the end, if Tehran continues its obdurate refusal to back down from its drive for nuclear weapons, I believe the US will act on its own. There is zero possibility of an Iraq-style invasion. But the US could conduct a bombing campaign that would destroy much of Iran's nuclear facilities. We would not have to destroy it all to set back by years Iran's acquisition of "the bomb". Perhaps that would buy enough time for the Iranian people to take their country back from their benighted rulers.- Published 27/4/2006 © bitterlemons-international.org
Joshua Muravchik is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.