If you can do it, forget Fallujah for just a minute. Think Iran. A productive way to do this is to read James Fallows in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The title of the article is, “Will Iran Be Next?” The subtitle gives away the conclusions, and so will here be suppressed.
Not so the structure of Mr. Fallows’s extraordinarily ingenious exploration of the challenge. We all know that “war games” are conducted at many levels. At the most rudimentary level, you and your constant companion can have agreed to basic rules: You will agree to act as Peerless Leader Kim Jong Il, your partner as President of the United States. Peerless Leader moves aggressively, you counter the move; the colloquy proceeds, and in the end — something happens, as in chess.
Imagine a war game in which there are seven actors, each one of them hugely experienced in government, whether as sometime head of the CIA, National Security Adviser to the President, U.S. representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Secretary of Defense — and so on.
The meeting among these gentlemen has the objective of formulating a recommendation to the President on how to cope with the advances in Iran toward aggressive nuclear armament.
The plot thickens at a great and readable pace.
Assumptions are sought and accepted. The question was asked: “Should Iran be likened to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in whose possession nuclear weapons would pose an unacceptable threat, or to Pakistan, India, or even North Korea, whose nuclear ambitions the United States regrets but has decided to live with for now?” The immediate answer: The United States cannot “tolerate Iran’s emergence as a nuclear power.”
Here is another postulate in the war game. “At some point, relatively soon, Iran will have an arsenal that no outsiders can destroy, and America will not know in advance when that point has arrived.”
Think back, as everyone in the room did, to Israel in 1981, when Begin sent planes to destroy the nuclear reactor Saddam Hussein was building at Osirak. That set back Saddam’s nuclear program what proved to be indefinitely. Why couldn’t Israel do the same thing against Iran?
But in the current scenario, Israel doesn’t know where exactly the nuclear laboratories are, any more than we do. Add to that, the problem of Israel’s military in getting to those we reasonably suspect as warranting destruction. “Israeli planes would have to fly over Saudi Arabia and Jordan, probably a casus belli in itself given current political conditions; or over Turkey, also a problem; or over American-controlled Iraq,” which would require (and signal) U.S. approval of the mission. Add this: There isn’t any way Israeli air demolitionists could get back from their mission. The targets are too far away.
So, the war-gamers conclude, a strike would need to be undertaken by the United States. Here three stages are envisioned. The first, a bombing mission targeting Revolutionary Guard concentrations. That, actually, is easy to do, a 24-hour assignment using existing resources.
Next in gravity would be taking on the destruction of known and likely nuclear sites. To do this comprehensively would mean targeting 350 points, and to execute such an operation would take days.
To move on to Stage 3, a regime change, we would have to use U.S. ground troops. And to do either the second or the third stage, you would need air bases far beyond anything now available. “Compared with Iraq, Iran has three times the population, four times the land area, and five times the problems,” one gamesman pointed out.
Pause and think retrogressively. “About Iran’s intentions there is no disagreement. Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, and unless its policy is changed by the incentives it is offered or the warnings it receives, it will succeed.”
Moreover, if we undertook preliminary military moves — the construction of air fields, the aggregation of troops and aircraft, what makes us certain that the Iranians would sit still for it? “‘We never “red-celled” the enemy in this exercise’ (that is, let him have the first move) [one participant warned]. ‘What if they try to pre-empt us? What if we threaten them and the next day we find mines in Baltimore Harbor and the Golden Gate, with a warning that there will be more?’”
Resolved: 1) Israel can’t handle the challenge. 2) The U.S. can’t abjure military action — there must be the threat that we will act. 3) Gaining time does not necessarily enhance our leverage.
So? What happens is going to depend on a quick judgment by the President of the United States.
What we can learn from Iraq is that he needs to be counseled on the consequences of alternative actions. He needs to avoid such as what we are contending with in Iraq.