What Would It Take to Launch a War With Iran?

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the Seattle Times

What Would It Take to Launch a War With Iran?

Bruce Ramsey

Iraq should have cured President George W. Bush of any further itch for starting a war. And yet there comes a rumble for an attack on Iran. Opposing this, the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation sends out emissaries, several of whom visited The Seattle Times.

Among them was Brig. Gen. John H. Johns (ret.), who was assistant commander of the 1st Infantry Division and a lecturer at the Army War College. Like other generals, Johns opposed the invasion of Iraq, and he now opposes an attack on Iran.

Is such an attack possible? It is Bush's last year in office. There is no time for a land war, and anyway, says Johns, "We don't have the ground troops to do it." But an air war is possible. Johns says it might destroy 1,200 to 1,600 targets.

Johns is not a spokesman for the government. Whether that makes him less credible will depend on your point of view. He lives near Washington, D.C., and socializes with retired generals and CIA officers and others from the security world. He speaks on behalf of a peace group. Take that for what it is worth.

Here is what he says: Last year, there was a push in the administration for an air war against Iran. The given reason was Iran's plan to build an A-bomb. Then came the National Intelligence Estimate that said Iran had given up on it five years ago.

Says Johns, "The intelligence community intended that to be public to lessen the president's chance of going to war. They wanted to avoid being complicit in another war. That's the story I get."

Johns says a struggle is under way in Washington, D.C. Those opposed to an attack include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff. Those wanting an attack, he says, are the deputy national-security adviser for global democracy strategy, Elliott Abrams; Vice President Dick Cheney, "and the hard-line Israel lobby."

Bombing Iraq is how Israel scotched Saddam Hussein's A-bomb, in 1981. Israel is much admired for that, but preventive air attack is a high-risk strategy. It stirs hatred, and it has a large downside if it fails.

Diplomacy is lower-risk, especially if there is time for it. Johns goes further, arguing against an attack even if diplomacy fails. "Even if Iran got nuclear weapons," he says, "they're not going to commit suicide by using them."

There may be other pretexts for war. On Jan. 6 came an incident of Iranian speedboats zipping around U.S. Navy ships in a provocative way. It could have been another Gulf of Tonkin incident.

What would it take to have a war with Iran? Stephen Kinzer, a former New York Times correspondent and author of "All the Shah's Men" (2003), was also part of the peace delegation here. He says it might just take a decision. "The possibility of an attack is real," he says, and notes that President Bush would not need a vote of Congress.

Air attack is an act of war. At least, Americans thought so in 1941. But despite the Constitution granting the war power to Congress, in Vietnam (1964), Kuwait (1990) and Iraq (2002) our presidents have asked Congress for permission to make war only when they expected major fighting on the ground. Even to invade Iraq, George W. Bush said he did not need permission and asked for it only after Congress, and the public, raised an outcry.

In 1999, President Clinton conducted a 78-day air war against Serbia even though the House deadlocked 213-213 on a resolution supporting it, and the Senate never voted at all. Clinton didn't care; his position was that he didn't need permission for an air war.

What matters is not only the Constitution; it is the outcry. Government does what it can get away with - and in the last year of the Bush presidency, it is still an open question how much that is.

Bruce Ramsey's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is bramsey@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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