Tuesday, October 9, 2007

An Imminent Attack on Iran?

Thomas Joscelyn has an interesting essay up at the Weekly Standard calling out Seymour Hersh for his alarmist reporting the Bush administration's Iran policy. Hersh's most recent article in the New Yorker is one in a line of pieces warning of an imminent U.S. attack on Iran. Joscelyn notes that Hersh's warnings have been wrong (the urgency dates back to early-2006), and thus the tone of this most recent piece ("Shifting Targets") has backed off a bit from the earlier dire tocsins:

IN THE LATEST EDITION of the New Yorker, Seymour Hersh returns to one of his favorite themes: The Bush administration is preparing for war with Iran. Well, that is, may be preparing for war with Iran.

Anyone familiar with Hersh's writing these last couple of years knows that he has been fixated on claims from anonymous spooks and foreign policy luminaries concerning the Bush administration's supposed dastardly designs on Iran. His latest piece does not disappoint. Former and anonymous CIA officials opine on the Bush administration's gameplan for attacking Iran. The suddenly once-again-in-demand foreign policy guru Zbigniew Brzezinski, who has never shown any particular proclivity for diagnosing Iran or the Middle East correctly, tells Hersh's readers what he has heard about "limited bombing plans for Iran." And, in a new twist, David Kay, the chief weapons inspector in Iraq for the UN, tells Hersh that he thought General Petraeus exaggerated the extent of Iran's nefarious activities inside Iraq.

All in all, one is left with the same impression as after having read any of Hersh's previous contributions to the "neoconservatives vs. Iran" genre. Hersh and his sources believe that the Bush administration is hyping the threat from Iran in preparations for a war (of some sort), which will be disastrous for the U.S. and the Middle East.

Perhaps feeling a bit like the boy who cried wolf once too often, however, Hersh takes a half-step back in his latest piece. He still believes "there has been a significant increase in the tempo of attack planning," which he does not really explain. But, Hersh tells us, he "was repeatedly cautioned, in interviews, that the President has yet to issue the 'execute order' that would be required for a military operation inside Iran, and such an order may never be issued."

Hersh has good reasons for this newfound hesitancy. In April of 2006, he wrote that the Bush administration "has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack." In November 2006, in the wake of the midterm elections, Hersh pondered: "Is a damaged Administration less likely to attack Iran, or more?" He found ample reasons to think that Vice President Cheney and his attending neoconservatives would remain undeterred. And then in March of this year, Hersh told his readers that the Bush administration's new strategy for the Middle East "has brought the United States closer to an open confrontation with Iran."

So, in Seymour Hersh's world, the war with Iran has been imminent for at least 18 months now.

Joscelyn notes that while Hersh's claims may indeed prove correct, there's a deeper maliciousness infecting Hersh's project:

He is so myopically focused on exposing malfeasance--both real and imagined--on the part of the executive branch that he ignores legitimate concerns about Iran's ongoing role in the terrorists' worldwide war.

This last point is a basic problem among left-wing critics of the administration's foreign relations with Iran: Many lefties evince very little willingness to consider the real stakes involved in preventing Iranian acquisition of nuclear capability. While Iran's nuclear development program is years from maturity, the severity of the growing challenge in not dismissed by analysts. As Colin Dueck and Ray Takeyh noted in their recent article, " Iran’s Nuclear Challenge":

Once Iran completes the necessary infrastructure, from mining to enriching uranium at the suitable weapons-grade level, and masters the engineering skill required to assemble a bomb, it could cross the threshold in a short period of time. All this would depend on the scope and scale of the program and the level of national resources committed to this task. Iran today does have an accelerated program, but not a crash program similar to Pakistan’s in the early 1970s, when the entirety of national energies was mobilized behind the task of constructing a nuclear device. In this context, Iran’s persistent determination to complete the fuel cycle — which it has a right to do under the NPT — is ominous, because doing so would bring the country close to a weapons capability.

Joscelyn's piece goes even further in elucidating the Iranian danger. It turns out that Robert Baer's 2002 book, See No Evil, made a powerful case tying Iranian-backed proxy group Hezbollah to the 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington. Hersh himself endorsed Baer's reporting by writing the introduction to the book, and a Hezbollah/al Qaeda link was corroborated in the investigations of the U.S. government's 9/11 Commission.

What's also interesting is that contrary to Hersh's recent reporting, the Washington consensus indicates that the administration is in fact highly averse to a military solution to the Iranian crisis (in other words, despite all the doomsday scenarios, the incessant warnings of an attack dramatically overestimate the likelihood of such).

Note also the strategic and logistical obstacles to an Iranian military strike. According to Peter Galbraith, a former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, and son of the late liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith, writing in the New York Review, the U.S. is limited in its ability to rein in Iran's nuclear program:

The United States has two options for dealing with Iran's nuclear facilities: military strikes to destroy them or negotiations to neutralize them. The first is risky and the second may not produce results. So far, the Bush administration has not pursued either option, preferring UN sanctions (which, so far, have been more symbolic than punitive) and relying on Europeans to take the lead in negotiations. But neither sanctions nor the European initiative is likely to work. As long as Iran's primary concern is the United States, it is unlikely to settle for a deal that involves only Europe.

Sustained air strikes probably could halt Iran's nuclear program. While some Iranian facilities may be hidden and others protected deep underground, the locations of major facilities are known. Even if it is not possible to destroy all the facilities, Iran's scientists, engineers, and construction crews are unlikely to show up for work at places that are subject to ongoing bombing.

But the risks from air strikes are great. Many of the potential targets are in populated places, endangering civilians both from errant bombs and the possible dispersal of radioactive material. The rest of the world would condemn the attacks and there would likely be a virulent anti-US reaction in the Islamic world. In retaliation, Iran could wreak havoc on the world economy (and its own) by withholding oil from the global market and by military action to close the Persian Gulf shipping lanes.

The main risk to the US comes in Iraq. Faced with choosing between the US and Iran, Iraq's government may not choose its liberator. And even if the Iraqi government did not openly cooperate with the Iranians, pro-Iranian elements in the US-armed military and police almost certainly would facilitate attacks on US troops by pro-Iranian Iraqi militia or by Iranian forces infiltrated across Iraq's porous border. A few days after Bush's August 28 speech, Iranian General Rahim Yahya Safavi underscored Iran's ability to retaliate, saying of US troops in the region: "We have accurately identified all their camps." Unless he chooses to act with reckless disregard for the safety of US troops in Iraq, President Bush has effectively denied himself a military option for dealing with the Iranian nuclear program.

Galbraith's obviously a member in good standing of the left-wing diplomatic establishment (and thus largely predisposed against a military option), yet the basic notion of an overstretched military is supported by some members of the Army general staff.

Despite the dire warnings of Hersh (and the endless legions of hard-left bloggers denouncing the administration's "rush to war"), the current strategic and logistical situation makes a preventive strike unlikely at this time.

Yet even Hersh himself has recognized the gravity of Iran's threat to international security. So, make no mistake: Given Iran's dismissal of the Security Council's antiproliferation sanctions, its continued support for terrorist proxies around the world, and its avowed rejection of Israel's right to exist, ending the threat from Iran may eventually warrant exercizing the military option.