Joel Brinkley / San Francisco Chronicle – 2007-11-18 23:11:50
While many experts expect a limited Iranian response to an attack by the US, objects of retaliation seem vast.
SAN FRANCISCO (November 18, 2007) — How would Iran react if the United States attacked? It seems a valid question, given the heated rhetoric from President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney late last month. Bush warned of “World War III” if Iran developed nuclear weapons, and a few days later Cheney threatened “serious consequences.”
I have no inside information suggesting that an attack is imminent. But we seem to be reliving the campaign of accusation that led to the Iraq war. Four years of diplomacy to halt Iran’s nuclear program has failed, “which is why military force is close to a decision point,” John Bolton, the former United Nations ambassador, told me last week.
Americans are still demanding to know why the news media failed to warn the nation about the Iraq war — and the supposed weapons of mass destruction. Let’s not make that mistake again. If the United States did strike Iran, the attack would come with little warning. After all, most of the soldiers and equipment the military would need are already positioned in Iraq — right next door.
I think we can safely assume that an attack would largely come from the air. The military simply does not have any spare troops to send into Iran — even if Bush, incredibly, wanted to start another Middle East war.
So, how would Iran react? Would it sit by quietly, and then send in crews to sweep up the debris — as Syria did after Israel bombed a suspected nuclear development site in September? Or would Iran erupt in anger and strike back?
In recent days, I have spoken to a half-dozen Iran experts from across the ideological spectrum, including several Iranians. And while opinions diverge on some key issues, I found important areas of consensus. For one, Iran, unlike Syria, would face an unambiguous political imperative to strike back.
“They would feel a lot of pressure to respond — for their own political survival,” said Vali R. Nasr, an Iranian scholar with the Council on Foreign Relations.
What form that would take is a matter of debate, but most of the experts suggest it would be subtle, indirect. The mullahs who rule Iran would not want to give Bush a blatant excuse to launch a “shock and awe” bombing campaign over Tehran. And for all the bluster coming out of Iran right now, “I don’t think it would be anything like the Iranians are predicting,” Bolton added. On that point there is wide agreement.
In fact, in September, Iran appointed a new Revolutionary Guard commander, Gen. Mohammed-Ali Jafari. For the previous three years, Jafari directed the guard’s strategic research center where, the Pentagon says, he studied insurgency warfare. In recent days, he is reported to have said he is looking for “martyrdom-seeking individuals in society.”
The experts also generally agree that Iran, for all its threats to destroy Israel, would be unlikely to launch a direct attack, as Iraq did during the Persian Gulf War. Iran would not want to draw Israel into the conflict. After all, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, has already made himself a hero on the Arab street with his promise to destroy Israel and his denial of the Holocaust.
“We are popular,” Ahmadinejad boasted recently. He doesn’t need to do more. Iran may ask Hezbollah, its proxy force in Lebanon, to strike Israel, but most experts believe Hezbollah’s response would be limited. Hezbollah would not want to provoke another war with Israel. Still, given all the weapons and cash that Iran gives Hezbollah, “I would be extremely surprised if they did not do something,” said Abbas Milani, who directs Iranian studies at Stanford University.
Beyond attacking Israel, the options for retaliation seem vast. They could include terror attacks almost anywhere. Gary Sick, an Iran expert on the National Security Council during three presidencies, says Iran would also “mobilize forces inside Iraq and Afghanistan that would make our lives far more difficult than they are now.”
Particularly, he and others fear, Iran could push Shiite forces in southern Iraq to wage a serious guerrilla war, something they have not done before now — threatening the supply line for American forces, a truck convoy running up the road from Kuwait almost around the clock.
“Iran could make southern Iraq literally collapse,” Nasr said. “That would change the entire perception of the war.”
But I agree with Milani.
“Arabs won’t die for Persians,” he said. Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Iranian Time Bomb,” said a British military officer in Iraq recently told him that “the people of Basra don’t like Iran.”
By most accounts, Iran has thousands of its own agents in Iraq. They could cause a lot of trouble in the south, where the United States bases very few forces. But a large-scale uprising seems unlikely.
Whatever else Iran may do, any attack would probably double the price of oil, driving US gasoline prices well above $5 per gallon. Bolton and others say they believe Iran would protect its oil exports, the source of its currency. And he said that if Iran tried to block the Straits of Hormuz, through which most oil shipped from the gulf must pass, “we would already have naval assets in place that could handle it.”
True or not, it doesn’t really matter. Just the threat of a major disruption is more than enough to cause a huge leap in oil prices — as happened last month, when Turkey simply threatened to attack northern Iraq. In one day, prices shot up 3 percent.
Bolton and Ledeen say they believe Iran’s government is fragile, and an attack could lead to its collapse. “These people in Tehran are despised,” Ledeen said. “If we do attack, they will be shocked. I think the regime’s days are numbered.”
The weight of opinion and logic, however, falls on the other side.
“It would give a huge boost to Ahmadinejad,” Sick said. Milani, who, unlike Bolton and Ledeen, reads Farsi, says there’s already a debate among the political opposition in Iran over whether they would “help defend the regime if the United States attacked, or just sit it out.” No one is talking about rejoicing.
“An attack plays into Ahmadinejad’s narrative about a modern-day crusade,” Milani added.
Whoever’s view is correct, an attack on Iran is a supremely bad idea. It would only set back, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear program. Iran has already declared that, at the least, it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and openly push to acquire nuclear weapons. And Iran’s oil wealth makes the country nearly impervious to sanctions.
We were pulled into the Iraq war by the panglossian fantasy that Bush, Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and the others had concocted for themselves. Are we going to fall into that trap again? The signs so far are not encouraging. Told of the Bolton-Ledeen view of Iran, Milani shook his head and noted that many in the White House hold similar opinions.
“They have created an imaginary Iran,” he said, “and made it their reality.”
Joel Brinkley is a professor of journalism at Stanford University and a former foreign policy correspondent for the New York Times.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.
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