Thursday, August 12, 2004

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - Wisdom discourages a US attack against Iran

The Daily Star - Opinion Articles - Wisdom discourages a US attack against Iran: "Wisdom discourages a US attack against Iran

By Charles V. Pena
Special to The Daily Star
Friday, August 13, 2004


When President George W. Bush first named the "axis of evil" in his January 2002 State of the Union address, almost everyone knew that he was laying the groundwork for military action against Iraq. But now that the United States has invaded Iraq, the question is whether Iran will be deja vu all over again.

It's worth noting that based on the Bush administration's charges against the Iraqi regime - its development of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorism - a better case can be made against Iran than Iraq. Prior to Dec. 2002, the focus of Iran's capability to develop nuclear weapons was on the Bushehr light water reactor. But at the time it was discovered that Iran was constructing two secret nuclear fuel cycle facilities at Natanz and Arak. Natanz was believed to be a uranium enrichment plant and Arak was thought to be a heavy water reactor. Iran denied any military purposes for these facilities and agreed to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections.

In August 2003, however, IAEA inspectors at Natanz found traces of highly enriched uranium, deemed questionable for non-military purposes. In February of this year, the IAEA found blueprints for building P2 gas centrifuges that are better suited for producing weapons-grade plutonium than the hundreds of P1 centrifuges that Iran already acknowledged possessing.

Subsequently, actual P2 centrifuge parts were discovered. And after the IAEA passed a resolution in June 2004 deploring the fact that "Iran's co-operation has not been as full, timely and proactive as it should have been" - which sounds eerily like the lack of cooperation provided by Iraq to UN weapons inspectors as claimed by the Bush administration - Iran announced that it was going to resume centrifuge activities, which are allowed for peaceful nuclear energy, but not for making weapons. Former CIA director Robert M. Gates thinks the Iranians can "go with a weapon whenever they want to."

According to "Patterns of Global Terrorism," published by the State Department, "Iran remained the most active state sponsor of terrorism in 2003." Iran provided funding, safe haven, training and weapons to anti-Israeli groups, such as Lebanon's Hizbullah and the Palestinian Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.

The Sept. 11 Commission Report implicated Iran in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that killed 19 Americans and wounded 372. And the commission cited "strong evidence" that Iran facilitated the transit of several Al-Qaeda members before Sept. 11, including perhaps eight or more of the hijackers. This left open the question of whether Tehran knowingly assisted Al-Qaeda operatives, but stopped short of claiming it was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

Bush said of the alleged Iran-Al-Qaeda connection: "They're harboring Al-Qaeda leadership there. And we've asked that they be turned over to their respective countries. Secondly, they've got a nuclear weapons program that they need to dismantle. We're working with other countries to encourage them to do so. Thirdly, they've got to stop funding terrorist organizations such as Hizbullah that create great dangers in parts of the world." It could just as easily have been one of the president's pre-war statements about Iraq.

Neoconservative pundits were quick to jump on the Iran bandwagon. The same day that news stories broke about a possible Sept. 11-Iran link, the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol wrote that a "serious policy" toward Iran included regime change. The American Enterprise Institute's Danielle Pletka, David Frum (the former Bush speechwriter who coined the phrase "axis of evil") and Michael Ledeen all wrote harsh commentaries against Iran in the weeks after the Sept. 11 report was released. Columnist Charles Krauthammer asked: "Did we invade the wrong country?" Former CIA Director James Woolsey and a host of other usual suspects revived the Committee on the Present Danger, taking out full-page ads in the New York Times and the Washington Post that cited "rogue regimes" - a euphemism that surely included Iran - as part of the grave threat facing America.


So is the United States heading down the path to war with Iran?

A front-page Aug. 8 New York Times headline proclaimed: "Diplomacy Fails to Slow Advance of Nuclear Arms" in Iran. And a Washington Post article the next day quoted National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as saying: "We cannot allow the Iranians to develop a nuclear weapon." Thus, it seems that the stage has been set for a confrontation.

Many consider the notion of invading Iran absurd, especially with 140,000 American troops bogged down in Iraq. Although the Iranian military is not comparable to the US military, it is larger and better equipped than Iraqi forces that were dispatched in less than four weeks. The Iranians also have the benefit of learning from US military operations in Iraq to adapt their tactics accordingly (for example by adopting a more organized and better-equipped insurgent resistance). And unlike Iraq, Iran has not been subject to 12 years of aerial bombardment of its air defenses and other military targets. Finally, even though Iran is sandwiched between Afghanistan and Iraq, the security situation in both countries is not conducive for either to be a jumping off point for a military operation.

A ground invasion, then, seems unlikely - at least in the near term. But precision bombing of Iran's nuclear sites is certainly a possibility. After all, neither the US Air Force, with its JDAMs and laser-guided bombs, nor the US Navy, with its cruise missiles, is mired in Iraq. The risk would be how good the intelligence is on the locations of Iran's nuclear facilities. After all, Washington was surprised to discover that Iran's nuclear activities were not limited to Bushehr, so are there other unknown sites? There is also the issue of how many facilities are located in urban areas and the potential for civilian casualties even with precision weapons. For example, one of Iran's nuclear research centers is located in Tehran.

Finally, there is the question of the wisdom of military action against Iran - just as there was in Iraq. Attacking another Muslim nation after Afghanistan and Iraq would likely be interpreted as a war against Islam by the rest of the Muslim world, which would be playing right into the hands of Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists seeking to polarize the over 1 billion Muslims around the world against the US. Like Iraq, without clear evidence that the regime in Tehran was involved in Sept. 11, or is otherwise supporting or harboring Al-Qaeda, attacking Iran would only make the terrorist threat to the US worse.


Charles V. Pena is director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute (www.cato.org), a member of the Cato Institute Special Task Force that produced the book "Exiting Iraq: Why the US Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War Against Al-Qaeda," and a terrorism analyst for MSNBC (www.msnbc.com). He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR"

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