Are we going to attack Iran?
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.
Fred Kaplan is Slate's "War Stories" columnist and author of the book, The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Photograph of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hugo Chavez on Slate's home page by JuanBarreto/AFP/Getty Images.