Are we about to attack Iran? That's the impression conveyed by Time magazine's latest cover story. A "prepare to deploy" order has been sent out to U.S. Navy submarines, an Aegis-class cruiser, two minesweepers, and two mine-hunting ships. The chief of naval operations, the nation's top admiral, has ordered a fresh look at contingency plans for blockading Iran's oil ports.
Michael Duffy, who wrote the story, tempers his scoop with prudent caveats. The order called on the crews to be ready to deploy by Oct. 1, not to go ahead and actually deploy. And, as he notes, "The U.S. military routinely makes plans for scores of scenarios, the vast majority of which will never be put into practice." As one Pentagon official tells him, "Planners always plan."
And yet, Duffy writes, the two orders, coupled with the mounting tension over Iran's nuclear program, "would seem to suggest that a much discussed—but until now largely theoretical—prospect has become real: that the U.S. may be preparing for war with Iran."
Even that sentence is hardly definitive ("would seem to suggest … may be preparing for war"). [Emphasis added.] Still, something is happening, we don't quite know what it is—and that may be the intention.
I have no idea who Duffy's sources are, but there are at least two possibilities: The Bush administration really is gearing up for war, and some dissenting officers want to sound the alarm and rouse opposition. Or the administration wants to make the Iranians think an attack is brewing in order to pressure them into a diplomatic solution.
The second scenario seems the saner of the two. That doesn't necessarily mean it's the more likely, but let's roll it out.
If the Iranians are open to a deal that involves suspending their enrichment of uranium (as U.N. Security Council Resolution 1696 demands), it will take a combination of sticks and carrots to coax them into doing so. President Bush and several European leaders have put a package of carrots on the table, but the sticks have gone limp. The Security Council had agreed to impose sanctions if Iran was still enriching uranium by Aug. 31. The deadline passed; the enrichment continued. But key players on the council—especially Russia, which has major investments in Iran, and China, which is heavily dependent on Iran's oil—stepped back from the enforcement clause, announcing they would veto sanctions as long as negotiations were still possible. In other words, they were saying: Forget about sanctions.
So, the Iranians are sitting pretty. Whatever deal they're offered in exchange for halting enrichment, they can always hold out for a better deal still—and they can hold out for as long as they want, knowing that defiance carries no penalty.
But this calculation changes if the Iranians believe—if they see tangible signs—that George W. Bush is getting set to attack them. This is a classic gambit of "coercive diplomacy." The question is whether the Iranians a) believe it; and b) alter their behavior as a result.
Richard Nixon tried a version of this gambit on the North Vietnamese. He put out the word that he was so crazy, he'd nuke Hanoi if Ho Chi Minh didn't come to the peace table. (The plan was dubbed "the madman theory.") Ho didn't believe it, even though Nixon did drop practically everything short of nuclear bombs.
Ho Chi Minh had been fighting a brutal colonial war for over 20 years at that point, first against the French, then against the Americans. His cadres were battle-hardened and loyal, his leadership secure. Would Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs believe Bush's gambit, if that's what it is? We know little about the status of Iran's regime—not even about who's really in charge or the depth of support (at top governmental levels, much less among the population) for Ahmadinejad's stormy rhetoric on the "right" to enrich uranium.
Still, if Bush is looking for sticks to balance carrots, threatening to attack Iran is the only potent stick he's got.
There is a danger to playing this game. Once you switch on a plan to mobilize for war, it's hard to switch it off—or, at the very least, it's easy to let it keep flowing.
This leads to a third possibility: that the Bush administration is trying to pressure the Iranians and really preparing to attack. The two are not mutually exclusive, especially since various factions within the administration are split on the issue. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice seems genuinely to be doing what secretaries of state tend to do—seek a diplomatic solution. Vice President Dick Cheney seems to be doing what he tends to do—heighten the confrontation.
Faced with internecine conflicts of this sort, President Bush has a striking tendency to avoid making a decision and to let the factions fight it out. It's possible, in other words, that the administration is playing both approaches—mobilizing as a tool of diplomatic pressure and mobilizing as an act of impending warfare—not as a coordinated strategy but as parallel actions, each of which will follow its inexorable course.
Once the weapons are in place, the airstrikes wouldn't follow automatically; the president would have to give the order. But if the attack is ready to go, and if the Iranians are still thumbing their noses, would this president call it off and start over? It's best not to face the situation to begin with. An attack, however tempting, would be a huge mistake, for several reasons.
The Iranians learned their lesson from Israel's 1981 lightning strike against Iraq's nuclear reactor. They've dispersed their nuclear facilities and buried some of them deep underground. According to the Time story, Pentagon officials have identified 1,500 "aim points"—that is, 1,500 distinct targets—in Iran's nuclear complex. Hitting them all, or even most of them, would require hundreds, if not thousands, of sorties. Mistakes would be made; casualties would be unavoidable, perhaps considerable.
More than that, the Iranian people—who, by all accounts, hate their government and like much about the United States—would regard the attack as an act of terror, a violation of sovereignty, a far more destructive replay of the nightmare of 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow the democratic government of Mohammad Mossadegh and installed the shah. Even if the attack somehow unseated the present regime, the new one might be no less anti-American, no less intent on acquiring nuclear weapons—an ambition that the attack would set back by only a few years in any case.
And, of course, there are the possible side effects: the confirmation, in the eyes of the Muslim world, that the United States is hell-bent on a crusade; the consequent surge in Islamist terrorism and subduing of Muslim moderates; and the further alienation of U.S. allies throughout the Western world.
In an interview published in the same issue of Time, Scott MacLeod asks Ahmadinejad: "How far will Iran go in defying Western demands? Will you wait until you are attacked and your nuclear installations are destroyed?"
Ahmadinejad replies: "Do you think the U.S. administration would be so irrational?"
MacLeod shoots back: "You tell me."
Ahmadinejad answers: "I hope that is not the case. I said that we need logic. We do not need attacks."
There are all sorts of logic, including the logic that leads to war. Bush and Ahmadinejad, who share a boastful confidence in their sense of destiny, seem on a collision course in the logic of highway chicken—the game where two drivers speed their cars toward each other, head-on, late at night. The winner is the one who doesn't veer off the road. If both drivers get nervous and veer off, it's a tie. If they both keep driving straight on, pedal to the metal, certain of victory, opposed on moral principle to backing down, the outcome is mutual catastrophe. And in this case, we're all sitting in those cars.