Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker reports that the Bush administration is actively planning for military action against Iran:
The Bush Administration, while publicly advocating diplomacy in order to stop Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon, has increased clandestine activities inside Iran and intensified planning for a possible major air attack. Current and former American military and intelligence officials said that Air Force planning groups are drawing up lists of targets, and teams of American combat troops have been ordered into Iran, under cover, to collect targeting data and to establish contact with anti-government ethnic-minority groups. The officials say that President Bush is determined to deny the Iranian regime the opportunity to begin a pilot program, planned for this spring, to enrich uranium.
American and European intelligence agencies, and the International Atomic Energy Agency (I.A.E.A.), agree that Iran is intent on developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. But there are widely differing estimates of how long that will take, and whether diplomacy, sanctions, or military action is the best way to prevent it.
There is a growing conviction among members of the United States military, and in the international community, that President Bush’s ultimate goal in the nuclear confrontation with Iran is regime change.
One former defense official, who still deals with sensitive issues for the Bush Administration, told me that the military planning was premised on a belief that “a sustained bombing campaign in Iran will humiliate the religious leadership and lead the public to rise up and overthrow the government.” He added, “I was shocked when I heard it, and asked myself, ‘What are they smoking?’ ”
“This is much more than a nuclear issue,” one high-ranking diplomat told me in Vienna. “That’s just a rallying point, and there is still time to fix it. But the Administration believes it cannot be fixed unless they control the hearts and minds of Iran. The real issue is who is going to control the Middle East and its oil in the next ten years.”
A senior Pentagon adviser on the war on terror expressed a similar view. “This White House believes that the only way to solve the problem is to change the power structure in Iran, and that means war,” he said. The danger, he said, was that “it also reinforces the belief inside Iran that the only way to defend the country is to have a nuclear capability.” A military conflict that destabilized the region could also increase the risk of terror: “Hezbollah comes into play,” the adviser said, referring to the terror group that is considered one of the world’s most successful, and which is now a Lebanese political party with strong ties to Iran. “And here comes Al Qaeda.”
The truth is that there are no good options in dealing with Iran, and that war always has unintended consequences--a notion that I worry our country has lost its understanding of since the historic success, in terms of meeting our objectives, of the first Gulf War. But what this looks like to me is a repeat of almost all the mistakes that these armchair warriors made in the runup to Iraq. It's just that this time, the target country has a real military, a government with some measure of popular support (which, in all likelihood, would shoot up to near-universal support upon the first news of American airstrikes), and deep, effective, operational ties to terror groups.
Any attack on Iran at this point will have three sets of consequences that I can see, unrelated to whatever happens in terms of the war itself. (Battlefield outcomes are not something I feel I can discuss with anything like expertise; I'm certain we'd "win," but I'm also sure that casualty levels would make Iraq look like Grenada. The Iranians have a bigger, better-equipped, and much better-led military than did Saddam, and haven't had the burden of sanctions holding them back as Iraq did in the 12 years between Gulf Wars.)
Here they are, in descending order of importance:
1) Economic disaster. The day the first bombs hit, where do you think the price of oil might go? Iran obviously won't sell to us at that point, and even the Saudis wouldn't be able to do too much in opening their reserves (which is the usual method of cushioning a price shock) because their public won't exactly be supportive of the U.S. bombing fellow Muslims. So where do we turn? Venezuela?
(On the other hand, Sen. Stevens probably will get his ANWR drilling. So I guess that's something...)
It's difficult to overstate how bad the economic hit might be. Right now the price of oil is a bit over $67 per barrel. My wife and I recently flew to Italy and back; we were told that oil costs accounted for about $200 each of our tickets. That's with the price in the $60s. Care to speculate what the spillover effects will be when we hit three digits? (Later in Hersh's piece, he cites one government consultant who observes that U.S. strategic reserves would suffice for 60 days, but also notes that those in the oil business were much less optimistic: "one industry expert estimated that the price per barrel would immediately spike, to anywhere from ninety to a hundred dollars per barrel, and could go higher, depending on the duration and scope of the conflict." I can't imagine that this would be a particularly short war; 60 days won't be enough.)
2) Security crackdown. Unlike what was said about Saddam and al Qaeda, Iran's ties to Hezbollah and other terror groups are real. Read Robert Baer; these guys know what they're doing. There will be attacks.
(To be fair, Baer is quoted in Hersh's article and says that Iran's government is "capable of making a bomb, hiding it, and launching it at Israel. They’re apocalyptic Shiites. If you’re sitting in Tel Aviv and you believe they’ve got nukes and missiles—you’ve got to take them out. These guys are nuts, and there’s no reason to back off.” Of course, we're not sitting in Tel Aviv. The distinction between America taking action directly, and supporting Israel in a limited strike, is a very important one; if Israel made the determination that Iran was close to going nuclear and attacked, I would hope and expect the U.S. to show support. Admittedly, a big part of this is that I trust the judgment of the Israelis on these questions vastly more than I do the Bush administration, given respective track records.)
Because of this, events that are now conducted with no or minimal security checks will become a lot more burdensome. Imagine cameras everywhere; imagine going through metal detectors every time you enter an office building, public school, sporting or entertainment event. And then imagine all the damage that will be done to First Amendment rights and civil liberties. All the abuses libertarians and liberals (and principled conservatives) worry about now will be far easier for whoever is in power once a much tighter "security regime" is in place. Again, I grant that safety concerns will necessitate higher scrutiny; I'd just prefer to avoid facing the question if at all possible.
3) More loss of face in the international community. It's bad enough now, but an attack on Iran while diplomatic efforts are still ongoing, in advance of winning support or even grudging recognition of the need from the EU and other powers, will alienate many of the friends we have left. Again, economics is the core issue here: nations thinking about changing their reserve currency from dollar to Euro will have one more reason to do so, and the creditor nations who have financed the Bush debt these last five years might reconsider the wisdom of continuing to do so.
And this is even before we get into the possible consequences of using nuclear weapons--which per Hersh, at least some in the administration are strongly contemplating.
As I said, I don't know what the right action is. The questions are, one, whether all these consequences add up to a worse set of outcomes than those that would follow if Iran got the bomb; and two, what we consider the possibilities of either forestalling Iran from getting the bomb through diplomacy and negotiation, or otherwise pushing for regime change through non-military action. (I concede that one feels like a real longshot, though toward the end of the story Hersh quotes a European intelligence official who observes: "The Iranian economy is in bad shape, and Ahmadinejad is in bad shape politically... He will benefit politically from American bombing. You can do it, but the results will be worse. ...If there was a charm offensive with Iran, the mullahs would be in trouble in the long run.” If this is a valid read, it should inform our policy.)
It might be that all these consequences would be worth it. Sometimes you have to fight, for reasons of both principle and safety. The question here is whether we yet have to fight, and whether you trust this group of decision-makers to make the decision, based on their judgments to date.
Here's the summary graf, as I see it, from Hersh:
The Pentagon adviser on the war on terror said that “allowing Iran to have the bomb is not on the table. We cannot have nukes being sent downstream to a terror network. It’s just too dangerous.” He added, “The whole internal debate is on which way to go”—in terms of stopping the Iranian program. It is possible, the adviser said, that Iran will unilaterally renounce its nuclear plans—and forestall the American action. “God may smile on us, but I don’t think so. The bottom line is that Iran cannot become a nuclear-weapons state. The problem is that the Iranians realize that only by becoming a nuclear state can they defend themselves against the U.S. Something bad is going to happen.”