Remember that in 1990–91 and then again in 2003 the very fact that the United States assembled a formidable array of forces in the Gulf region became an argument for using those forces and launching wars. The United States will soon have two carrier task forces on station, and perhaps a third carrier task force will soon be deployed. It will be difficult for the United States to step down from its combative perch without Iran accepting some fairly significant concessions.
While many leading Iranian officials fully understand the gravity of the situation, it is nonetheless possible to imagine a series of real or contrived clashes that lead, perhaps unintentionally, to a serious aerial and naval campaign against Iran. Or—to put it simply—to yet another U.S. war of choice.
Surveying U.S. history, one is hard-pressed to find presidential decisions as monumentally ill-informed and counterproductive as the decision to invade and occupy Iraq; however, a decision to go to war against Iran would arguably surpass the Iraq war as the worst foreign policy decision ever made by an American president.
I am extremely wary of a military campaign against Iran's nuclear infrastructure. If military action is taken against that infrastructure, there would be nothing “surgical” about the proceedings. The airstrikes associated with contingency planning suggest that such maneuvers, in addition to hitting a number of widely dispersed atomic-development targets, would have to take out much of Iran's air defenses in order to clear paths to the targets. It would be a very large operation, probably spanning many days. In addition, Iran would strike back with whatever it could—for example, by attacking U.S. fleet elements and commercial ships with any anti-ship missiles that escaped destruction during the first wave of air strikes. It might also launch whatever ballistic and medium-range missiles survive the U.S. assault at various targets in the Gulf region, countries Tehran would likely view as complicit in such an attack. This would generate a major crisis in the Gulf—and, perhaps most importantly, one without a clear endgame.
As insane as the prospect for war might seem to those of us who have spent parts of our lives in the shadow of a mosque, it is impossible to ignore the drumbeats for war with Iran. Yes, I think Americans should be prepared to wake up one morning and find themselves at war with Iran
Anonymous Former CIA Official #1:
I don't think the administration is about to carry out military action. The military does not want to do this. We will lose planes if there is a massive air strike over Iran, we'll have pilots killed and captured. Iran has a lot of ways to hurt us. If they decide to come after uniformed personnel in Iraq, or more easily, civilians and contractors, things could quickly get out of hand. You could have kidnappings or a mass casualty attack—they drove us out of Lebanon in the 1980s; a mass casualty attack like the Marine barracks bombing would likely be the end in Iraq.
But the administration's actions are increasing the chances for an accidental confrontation.
...I think we're “locked and loaded” for an attack.
That said, the barriers to action are formidable. The President's party has lost control of the legislature and is in trouble over war in the Middle East. Interestingly, the last Iranian elections showed that the Iranian President is also in trouble, mostly over botched economic performance, but his opponents have linked the troubled economy to Ahmadinejad's confrontational foreign and nuclear policies. So, no matter how much the national executive on both sides might want a fight, they are both constrained. Moreover, it's difficult to come up with a “target deck” that, if struck, would make a strategic difference worth the political price.
My bottom-line guess is that we don't have the intelligence or military capability that would justify an attack on Iran that would be worth the significant cost. With the President politically constrained, that makes me bet against it, but the spread isn't big.
Anonymous Former CIA Official #2
The administration is unlikely to embark upon military action immediately, but it's trying to squeeze Iran, to egg on the government, and hoping that Iran commits some sort of military action that the Bush Administration can use as justification for a strike. The administration was hurt by the accusation that it conducted a war of choice against Iraq, so it's trying to create a situation where it can say this is a war of necessity against Iran. But its actions are essentially the same thing as planning to go to war.
If I were in Tehran I'd be looking at U.S. words and actions for strategic warning of an attack. I'd probably take into account Bush's worldview and leadership style, too. As is typical in these situations, the facts don't provide a clear picture of U.S. intentions... Bush has also portrayed himself as a man willing to make hard decisions to eliminate risks to American security, even if the threat won't mature until some point in the future.
If I were in Tehran, my indicator lights would already have burnt out. That said, some senior Iranians see the United States as a paper tiger, mired in a hopeless fight in Iraq, and they don't really believe the United States will attack. This raises the possibility that Iran will feel free to poke Washington in the eye with a stick, thereby heightening the risk of war.
To work, diplomacy requires the implicit threat of force. But to avoid an accidental war, the threat has to be tacit—just apparent enough for the other guy to know it's there and that you're prepared to use it when all else has failed. If it's too blatant, you risk inviting a preemptive attack and, in this case, even reinforcing the other guys' incentive to pursue a weapons program.
Some type of preventive or preemptive air and missile strikes on Iran's nuclear and missile facilities are possible in the future, but from a pragmatic viewpoint they make no sense at this point given the diplomatic situation and the need for a lot more United States credibility and international support if it decides to act. Furthermore, such strikes don't make sense until Iran has much larger and more valuable nuclear assets. All the strikes would accomplish would be the collapse of two underground facilities. Why do it now, rather than wait until Iran creates truly high-value targets and has convinced the international community there is no peaceful alternative?
Far too many people are crying wolf. It's an awkward coalition of people with very different positions. For example, you have people on the antiproliferation side saying we have to do this now and urgent calls for action from people alleging to speak on behalf of Israel. There are bloggers rushing to exaggerate every word from United States and Iranian officials. There are political activists who oppose the Iraq War or the Bush Administration who see Iran as a coming war almost regardless of the lack of evidence. Some of these people have been saying for years that the United States was about to attack Iran. Some of this is bordering on the theater of the absurd.
There is every indication that the Bush Administration has decided that now is not the time for military action because it believes diplomacy offers a better way to get Iran to back off from its nuclear ambitions. There are signs that could be interpreted as preparations for military action, but it's important to note that the United States spends billions and billions every year preparing for global thermonuclear war with Russia.