Attack Iran? Or Allow It? No and No

Attack Iran? Or Allow It? No and No

More huffing and puffing about war with Iran, this time from Anne Applebaum of the hawkish Washington Post,
but first some words of caution from Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman
of the Joint Chiefs. At a news conference with Secretary of Defense
Gates yesterday, Mullen once again reiterated his long-standing caution
about a military attack on Iran, even as he laced it with concern about
Iran's nuclear program and Iran's "hegemonic" goals in the area of the
Persian Gulf. Said Mullen:

"I maintain my conviction that Iran remains on a path
to achieve nuclear weaponization, and that even this very pursuit
further destabilizes the region.

"But like us, it isn't just a nuclear-capable Iranian military our
friends worry about -- it's an Iran with hegemonic ambitions and a
desire to dominate its neighbors. This outcome drives many of the
national security decisions our partners there are making, and I
believe we must be mindful of that as we look to the future, post-Iraq
and post-Afghanistan.

"Let me be clear: We owe the secretary and the president a range of
options for this threat. We owe the American people our readiness. But
as I've said many times, I worry a lot about the unintended
consequences of any sort of military action. For now, the diplomatic
and the economic levers of international power are and ought to be the
levers first pulled. Indeed, I would hope they are always and
consistently pulled. No strike, however effective, will be, in and of
itself, decisive."

Applebaum, not exactly an Iran expert, used her ink in the Post today to
warn that President Obama had better start preparing for an Israeli
strike on Iran. In fact, that was the title of her op-ed: "Prepare for
war with Iran." In it, she suggests that "at some point" Israel's
restraint vis-avis Iran could evaporate, partly because President
Ahmadinejad "makes(s) the Israelis paranoid." An Israeli strike, she
says, "would be followed by retaliation, some of which would be
directed at us, our troops in Iraq, our ships at sea." And she adds:

"I do hope that this administration is ready,
militarily and psychologically, not for a war of choice but for an
unwanted war of necessity."

That, of course, is exactly what Obama should not be doing. Instead, as
I suspect they've done already -- indeed, even during the Bush
administration, Admiral Mullen did this -- is make it clear to the
Israelis that under no, repeat no, circumstances will an Israeli strike
on Iran be tolerated by the United States. Bombing a would-be reactor
in Syria, as Israel did three years ago, is one thing, but attacking
Iran, a powerful regional actor and oil exporter with lots of muscle in
Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gulf, is another. The United States simply
has to let Israel know that attacking Iran would be considered an act
of unprovoked aggression by Washington, resulting in a suspension of
military assistance and a vote to condemn Israel at the UN.

Iran, meanwhile, isn't helping things along by blustering about its
intent to build another ten nuclear enrichment sites, including two
inside mountain redoubts. Analysts argue back and forth about whether
or not Iran is determined to become a military nuclear power. On this,
I'm an agnostic, but it does appear foolhardy to assume the best about
Iran's goals, especially given the ascent of the Iranian Revolutionary
Guard Corps in Tehran. It's another thing, of course, to panic, for two
reasons: first, Iran does not appear to be that close to acquiring the
bomb, and its research is running into important snags, at least some
of which may involve covert technological sabotage by the US, Israel
and the Europeans; and second, because even if Iran does manage to
acquire a small number of bombs, it can be contained and deterred.

As Fareed Zakaria wrote the other day:

"Can we live with a nuclear Iran? Well, we're living
with a nuclear North Korea (boxed in and contained by its neighbors).
And we lived with a nuclear Soviet Union and Communist China.

"The most significant recent development in Iran has been the
displacement of the clerical elite by the Revolutionary Guards, a
military organization that is now the center of power. Clinton
confirmed this when she warned of an emerging 'military dictatorship'
there. I'm not sure which is worse for the Iranian people: rule by
nasty mullahs or by thuggish soldiers. But we know this: Military
regimes are calculating. They act in ways that keep themselves in
power. That instinct for self-preservation is what will make a
containment strategy work."

Other thinkers, including relatively hawkish ones, are already thinking
ahead about a strategy to contain a nuclear Iran. James Lindsay and Ray
Takeyh, no doves, have a piece in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs entitled: "After Iran Gets the Bomb." Summarizing their argument in the Post,
Lindsay and Takeyh say that a containment policy, backed up by a
credible threat of US military action, could contain Iran even after it
gets a bomb. In my view, they seem to regard the use of force against a
nuclear Iran with less than the dread that such a scenario implies, but
in any case their argument bolsters the case for rejecting military
action against Iran, now. They say:

"It would take considerable American political skill
and will to contain [Iran's] regional pretensions. Washington would
need to be explicit about its red lines: no initiation of conventional
warfare against other countries; no use or transfer of nuclear weapons,
material or technologies; no stepped-up support for terrorist or
subversive activities. Washington would need to be just as explicit
about the consequences of crossing those lines: potential U.S. military
retaliation by any and all means necessary."

And they conclude:

"If Tehran remains determined to go nuclear and
preventive attacks prove too risky or unworkable to carry out, the
United States will need to formulate a strategy to contain Iran."

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