Archive for September 4th, 2008

Iran: One More War?

Last year and earlier this year there was intense talk of a potential conflict with Iran.  I warned that this would be a potential disaster; not only is the US militarily weakened at this point, but Iran has a number of ways it could hit back.  While the US would want to limit the attack to alleged nuclear sites, there is no guarantee that these sites could be taken out, and uncertainty on how the Iranians would react.

At this point, most people seem content in the knowledge that certainly President Bush wouldn’t start one more war on his watch.  It’s September of his last year in office, he’s a lame duck, and the usual course of action is to wait on big issues until after the new President takes office.  While this is likely what will happen, it’s possible that the Bush Administration still has one more fiasco in store.

A couple of facts:

1) Israel has made it clear that they will not tolerate Iran having nuclear weapons, and essentially said that this is a decision they have made absolutely.   The obvious implication is that if the United States does not act against Iran, Israel will — perhaps with help from Georgia, whose wreckless President Shaakashvili has already shown lack of judgment in his South Ossetia invasion, giving the Russians reason to assert their role in the region.  But the bases Israel would need to attack Iran are in the south of Georgia, and Shaakashvili, already weakened, might feel befriending Israel is no problem — especially given the knowledge that the US is of limited value as an ally.  This would make a strike against Iran feasible from an Israeli perspective, and avoid having to cross a long swathe of territory to make the hit.

2) President Bush does not want the Democrats to take power.  When Russia invaded Georgia, there was an uptick in McCain’s poll numbers.  That faded with the Democratic convention, but there is reason to think that they may make a political calculation that there is no reason to wait; the political implications of doing this as a lame duck are minor (after all, Bush is still President), and may actually help the Republicans in the fall.   I don’t think that will be a reason for doing it alone — they also know the potential downside should things go south — but it would make it easier to defend acting so late in the term.

3) The US knows that as bad as the Iranian reaction to an American attack would be, there would be a regional uprising should Israel attack.  An Israeli attack would spark action from Hezbollah, Hamas, and could wreck havoc in Iraq and other states in the region.   The Bush Administration may not want to attack Iran, but if the alternative is an Israeli attack, they may see it as ‘better we do it then they do it,’ and figure they don’t have much of a choice.  Of course, Israel could be playing a game of trying to make the US think they’ll attack to goad the US to act that way; though the two are allies, they do not have the exact same interests.

4) President Bush may think he’s doing the next President a favor.  Bush’s popularity is in the dumps, and he knows he has little to lose.  If he strikes and is successful, it might help his legacy.  If it goes bad, then at least the next President can come in with a clean slate and perhaps find a graceful way to solve the conflict, not having to be burdened with the responsibility for having started it.  Cynically, Bush might believe that Obama is likely to win, and won’t have the nerve to do “what is necessary” against Iran.  The thing about being a lame duck is that the consequences of acting are minimal.  He can harm his legacy, but he doesn’t have much else to lose.

There are numerous things working against this.  First, the military is overstretched and has war gamed out scenarios with Iran and realizes that things could get very bad.  You can bet that the Pentagon and probably Secretary Gates is highly skeptical of a strike against Iran and if ordered, would insist on a plan that they believe would have the least chance of spiraling out of control.  Second, diplomacy involves disinformation and attempts to get the other side to think a particular way.  It’s possible that Israel and the US realize that there is little they can do against Iran, but believe that if Iran believes an attack may be imminent, they migth become more cooperative.  It’s hard from the outside to read the tealeaves, to differentiate posturing from preparation for an actual battle.   Other factors include lack of UN authority, close ties between Iran and countries like China and Russia, and the inability of anyone to really help the US should things get bad.

Perhaps the most important force working against a US strike on Iran is the possible implications.  Oil prices would rise dramatically.  If it’s a short strike and Iran doesn’t respond, they may go back down.  But if Iran maintains uncertainty about a response, oil prices could stay high, and put the world economy at greater risk.  Hezbollah and Hamas could be unleashed, risking all out war in the Mideast, and Iranian backed terror groups, now quiet, could become active world wide.  Finally, recall that Iran is really behind the improved  situation in Iraq. They could turn that around on a dime, and this would undercut any Bush or McCain claims that it’s the surge causing improvement.  In a worst case scenario, things could escalate into an economic and military disaster that would damage the US immensely.

So while it’s fun to speculate about the political shows on stage in the US now, and focus on hurricaines like Gustav, Hanna and Ike, we also need to be pay attention to world affairs.  Iran could be a very dangerous and risky October (or even September) surprise.

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