Thursday, April 20, 2006
I have argued for quite some time that the talk of a US military attack on Iran was essentially bluster, and that it could not occur because it would be totally irrational from the point of view of the United States, and because of the strong opposition of the leadership of the armed forces. Yet just recently, Seymour Hersh wrote an article in the New Yorker in which he lays out the worries and fears of US military leadership that such an attack is actually envisaged by President Bush. And even worse, he says that, in direct response to military objections, the president would not rule out the use of tactical nuclear weapons to penetrate deeply into the bunkers where nuclear apparatuses are stored.
This article has attracted an astonishing amount of coverage. Stories have appeared in the Washington Post and the Associated Press. Immediately, the President said this was “wild speculation,” although he did not say that this option was unthinkable. The Foreign Minister of Great Britain, Jack Straw, did however say that an assault on Iran was “inconceivable” and plans to use nuclear weapons “completely nuts.”
So whom are we to believe? Hersh, it is well-known, has cultivated long relationships with senior military figures (as well as with senior CIA figures), and has had a very good record about revealing things which turned out to be true. The President has had a very bad record about telling the truth in the past five years. And Jack Straw’s record is not that much better. So, it is incumbent on us at least to review the arguments.
Why an attack would be irrational—I insist, from the point of view of the United States—seems very clear to me. First, at a moment in time when US military energy seems insufficient to do what the United States is trying to do in Iraq and Afghanistan, an attack on Iran would stretch military resources still further, and perhaps well beyond a snapping point. Secondly, according to all the analyses I’ve read, the Iranian defenses are so well-constructed and distributed geographically that no aerial assault (however massive) could wipe it out.
Then, there’s the Iranian response. Even if they aren’t in a position yet to drop their own nuclear devices anywhere, they have a strong influence in Afghanistan and especially Iraq. They can wreak further havoc there, and the attack can tilt moderately pro-American elements, like some of the Shi’a in Iraq, into a militantly negative attitude.
And then there’s the fallout. Clearly, such an attack will not intimidate potential nuclear proliferators. It will make them all speed up. Iran can rapidly move from a state held at distance by Arab states to being the hero of the Muslim world, with all the consequences that will have in the Gulf states, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Palestine, and even Egypt.
Let us not forget oil. The disruption of Iranian supply—a major portion of the world’s oil—would almost certainly raise oil prices. And that will have untold and unpredictable negative consequences for the world economy, not least of all for the US economy.
The allies? Even the faithful ally, Great Britain, has indicated very strongly to the United States that they do not favor a military attack, however much they are committed to trying to stop Iran’s acquiring nuclear bombs.
And finally there is the overall impact on the US position in the world. Just this week, France’s think tank on foreign affairs, IRIS, did a balance-sheet on the US invasion of Iraq. It was called “quasi-catastrophic” for the US, resulting in the “hyperpower” having become “hyperentangled and hyperunpopular.”
Yet, despite all this, it seems US senior military officers are deeply worried. Hersh says that the Joint Chiefs of Staff are considering a formal letter of opposition to the President. This past month a series of senior retired generals who served in Iraq have called for the resignation of Secretary Rumsfeld. The timing cannot have been accidental.
Why then are these officers afraid? Hersh gives us one explanation. They think that President Bush has a “messianic” complex. As we know, people with messianic complexes are dangerous, especially if they have their finger on nuclear weapons and control the strongest military machine in the world.
Still, is this enough? Whatever the case with Bush, we also need to know the motivations of those around him—the militarists and the neo-conservative intellectuals. What can they be saying to themselves that counters all the obvious arguments against a military intervention? One is that they have nothing to lose. If the United States does not intervene, Iran will indeed have nuclear weapons sometime soon. They are not at all resigned to this prospect, because it would undoubtedly reduce the political clout of the US in the region. But is a reduction of US clout worth Armageddon?
Then some of them may be thinking in narrow electoral terms. An attack, if properly timed, might lift Bush’s approval ratings temporarily, rattle the already too pro-war Democrats, and be enough to ensure Republican victory in the Congressional elections of 2006, thereby ruling out the idea of impeachment.
And there is Israel. The Israeli government and their friends in the United States state openly that they cannot accept the idea of a nuclear Iran and have long threatened an air attack if necessary. They have been concentrating on getting the United States to do it. And why is Israel so fearful? Do they really think Iran is going to bomb them? I doubt it, but they do think that if they are not the very strongest military power in the Middle East, their political strength is diminished. And of course they are right.
So, will the United States attack or won’t it? In general, I tend to think that rationality wins out in most political decisions, but sometimes it doesn’t. Or maybe some people don’t have a messianic complex, but a Samson complex.
IMMANUEL WALLERSTEIN, Senior Research Scholar at Yale University, is the author of The Decline of American Power: The US in a Chaotic World.