Last week, in a scene strikingly reminiscent of the lead-up to America's current foreign policy disaster in Iraq, we saw President Bush blustering against Iran, threatening to use force unless that country ended its nuclear program. Ignoring the ethical question of whether the US can consistently try and deny to another country a right it insists upon for itself, is this even possible? James Fallows considered this question in an article titles Will Iran Be Next? in Atlantic Monthly last year - and the answer is not encouraging for the hawks.
In an effort to get at the issues underlying an attack on Iran, Fallows got together with a group of foreign policy experts and a simulations expert from the US Army's National War College. They conducted an exercise based on a "principals meeting", with experts cast in the roles of CIA director, Secretaries of State and Defence, and White House Chief of Staff, and the simulation controller representing variously the National Security Advisor and top-ranking military staff. In other words, they ran a LARP - but one played by experts, who knew what they were doing, and with the aim of illustrating issues rather than having fun. The issues chosen were the level of threat posed by Iran, and what specifically military options should be presented to the President, rather than whether they should consider going to war at all. The material presented was
as accurate, realistic, and true to standard national-security practice as possible. None of it was classified, but all of it reflected the most plausible current nonclassified information he could obtain. The detailed plans for an assault on Iran had also been carefully devised. They reflected the present state of Pentagon thinking about the importance of technology, information networks, and Special Forces operations. Afterward participants who had sat through real briefings of this sort said that Gardiner's version was authentic.
I'll skip past the discussion on uncertainty and whether Israel should be discouraged from making a pre-emptive strike to the meat of the discussion: what could America actually do? Here, they were presented with three options: puntive airstrikes against Iranian military units, pre-emptive air-strikes on suspected nuclear facilities, and "regime change". The participants were asked to recommend that the preparatory steps to make all three possible be authorised.
As mentioned above, the options were based as closely as possible on contemporary military thinking. The regime-change options relied on using bases in Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Iraq, which had to be expanded, as well pre-positioned equipment. They also
minimized "stability" efforts-everything that would happen after the capital fell. "We want to take out of this operation what has caused us problems in Iraq," Gardiner of CentCom said, referring to the postwar morass. "The idea is to give the President an option that he can execute that will involve about twenty days of buildup that will probably not be seen by the world. Thirty days of operation to regime change and taking down the nuclear system, and little or no stability operations. Our objective is to be on the outskirts of Tehran in about two weeks. The notion is we will not have a Battle of Tehran; we don't want to do that. We want to have a battle around the city. We want to bring our combat power to the vicinity of Tehran and use Special Operations to take the targets inside the capital. We have no intention of getting bogged down in stability operations in Iran afterwards. Go in quickly, change the regime, find a replacement, and get out quickly after having destroyed-rendered inoperative-the nuclear facilities." How could the military dare suggest such a plan, after the disastrous consequences of ignoring "stability" responsibilities in Iraq? Even now, Gardiner said after the war game, the military sees post-conflict operations as peripheral to its duties. If these jobs need to be done, someone else must take responsibility for them.
The reaction to this was unanimously negative. The US military may not have learned from Iraq, but foreign policy experts have. They went through the obvious glaring flaws; the preparations could not be kept secret, and would almost certainly provoke a response (such as an oil embargo, provoking unrest in Iraq and Afghanistan, assisting al-Qaeda, or even a pre-emptive strike) from the Iranian regime; the lack of planning for a postwar government or US exit would lead to mess like Iraq (unmentioned was the wholesale leakage of nuclear material and expertise); any moves in this direction would rule out attempts to resolve the issue diplomatically if they became public. In the words of one participant,
"One, it will leak. Two, it will be politically and diplomatically disastrous when it leaks ... I think your invasion plan is a dangerous plan even to have on the table in the position of being leaked ... I would throw it in Tampa Bay and hope the sharks would eat it."
As for the other options, there was little objection to keeping the option of random bombing of military units open. But most participants did not consider pre-emptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities feasible:
The United States simply knew too little about which nuclear projects were under way and where they could be destroyed with confidence. If it launched an attack and removed some unknown proportion of the facilities, the United States might retard Iran's progress by an unknown number of months or years-at the cost of inviting all-out Iranian retaliation. "Pre-emption is only a tactic that puts off the nuclear development," Gardiner said after the exercise. "It cannot make it go away. Since our intelligence is so limited, we won't even know what we achieved after an attack. If we set it back a year, what do we do a year later? A pre-emptive strike would carry low military risk but high strategic risk."
The long and the short of it is that there is no military solution to the problem of Iran's nuclear programme. The only effective tool the US has at its disposal is persuasion.