Former CIA analyst
Like many people, I find it extremely difficult to believe that President Bush could actually do anything so crazy as to launch a military attack against Iran, and that even if he wanted to, the Congress, the Pentagon, and the American public would ever countenance such action. But I remember in the spring of 2002 writing a “Dear Friends” memo just like this one predicting that the apparent intentions of the Bush Administration to invade Iraq would certainly turn out to be nothing but a bluff, and supporting that assertion by listing all the reasons why actually doing so would lead to utter disaster. Many of my friends told me at the time that I was missing the point — regime change was DEFINITELY going to happen, and I was exaggerating the downside consequences. The problem is that today the downside risks of attacking Iran seem even more horrendous —- and yet? (As George Will said last Sunday to George Stephanopoulos — “When was the last time this president ever worried about getting approval in advance from the Congress or the public?”) It makes me nervous when my president truly believes he is carrying out the will of God.
So this is why I reluctantly believe today that Bush will indeed launch an attack on Iran before the expiration of his term of office:
1. As expected, Iran has offered to enter negotiations, but has rejected the precondition that they discontinue uranium enrichment. Iran will continue to stall indefinitely in the expectation that the U.S. cannot summon the international political and economic clout to damage Iran to any critical degree in the near future. Meanwhile, Iran remains totally and sincerely convinced (with ample justification) that the U.S. is committed to overthrowing the Teheran regime on the tactical level, and waging a broader war against Islam on the strategic level. Rightly or wrongly, Iranian leaders interpret Israeli-US joint collaboration in Lebanon as the final proof of both suspicions. Nothing will shake that conviction. We can huff and puff, but the reality is that we will not succeed in either persuading or intimidating the Iranian leadership into doing what we want them to do. This is the nub of the problem in Washington: none of the principal decision-makers — Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld or Rice — (even Rice!) — understands and accepts this simple reality, and so all the expectations and calculations that go into the formation of U.S. policy start from a faulty premise.
2. The U.S. will fail to get the UNSC to establish (and then enforce) a regimen of sanctions that Washington considers tough enough — despite the unanimous concern of the larger powers, including China and Russia, that a nuclear Iran would be undesirable. The Bush Administration will fulminate about weakness of resolve and false friendship of its “allies”, but this will only exacerbate the divisions and further expose the enfeebled state of American political and moral leadership and the deterioration of its international credibility. Iran will watch this soap opera, smiling like a Cheshire cat.
3. Whatever sanctions are eventually applied will have zero chance of persuading Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions; most certain is the fact that Iran will continue its development program without any slowdown until it has passed the US-Israel “red line” of possessing the necessary raw material to produce a nuclear bomb whenever it chooses to do so. (As we all know, possession of an operational bomb may be as much as a decade or more in the future, but the “red line” of achieving all the necessary technology, equipment and ingredients could be crossed MUCH sooner than that — and almost certainly before Bush leaves office in January 2009.)
4. So this is the calculus facing Bush:
a. He has vowed that he will not leave office without first ensuring that Iran cannot become a nuclear power. He has probably given the leaders of Israel a similar promise — privately and perhaps explicitly. That means that he is effectively committed to attack Iran militarily before January 2009 if all other means of accomplishing the objective fail — which they will. He believes deeply that Iran poses an existential threat to our ally Israel and an extremely dangerous threat to the American people, as well. Bush also believes that Iran is determined to sabotage American hopes of establishing a “new Middle East” —- by covert support of anti-American terrorist elements such as Hizballah and Hamas — backed up by the added power implicit in its eventual possession of nuclear weapons. Given Bush’s overarching dedication to “winning the Global War on Terrorism”, the neutralization of Iran has become a sine qua non, equal if not higher on his list of priorities than “victory” in Iraq — another impossibility that he is stubbornly unwilling to recognize, even privately — much less acknowledge publicly.
b. Bush presently intends (with little faith or sincerity) to exhaust all opportunities to achieve his objectives by diplomatic means or through economic sanctions. Failing those, he will attempt to achieve his purposes by intimidation — by raising the threat of military attack. This will only stimulate more internal support for the regime inside Iran and more international opposition to U.S. policies, especially in the Muslim world. Without question, moreover, an escalating danger of US-Iranian military confrontation will greatly intensify internal and regional opposition to US objectives in Iraq. (Note: A mystifying disconnect in logic persists on this point in Bush’s mind.)
c. The best hope for avoidance of war with Iran (the catastrophic consequences of which are too numerous and wide-ranging even to catalog) will be opposition to the idea from the U.S. military and from American politicians of both parties who have an appreciation of the weakened state of U.S. defense forces. I am told, on the other hand, that Bush has been persuaded by some military advisers that STRATCOM (Strategic Air Command) has a workable plan for a comprehensive attack to be launched almost simultaneously against 1500 targets in Iran that will effectively prevent any Iranian retaliation, and will obviate the need for a major ground operation or post-conflict occupation. (The logic of this strategy apparently depends on the hope that destruction of Iran’s nuclear potential and its conventional military capabilities in a spectacular display of shock and awe will trigger an internal revolt against the present government, with moderate pro-western elements standing ready to seize power in the name of freedom and democracy. This must be another fantasy dreamed up in the twisted minds of people like Michael Ledeen and other neocon illusionists.)
5. I believe that Iran wants very much to be accepted as a respected member of the community of prosperous and influential modern states. And an Iran that was indeed a trustworthy member of that community would be an enormous benefit to America and to the world. That should be the objective of American policy, therefore — accommodating and eventually modifying the legitimate national aspirations of a self-interested and pragmatic Iran — not launching a potentially catastrophic preemptive war against a potentially powerful and influential Muslim nation of seventy million people. Coaxing Iran down a path leading toward successful achievement of international respectability and acceptance is the single most important “carrot” that we have to offer the Iranian leadership today. The potential value of that positive incentive has been completely squandered, however, by the pointless hostility and belligerence of American “diplomatic” language — starting with the “axis of evil” and proceeding downhill from there to the most recent offer of patently unacceptable ultimatums. This has greatly diminished our own bargaining power while making the job of arriving at a reasonable accommodation with Iran infinitely more difficult in every way.
6. In order of importance, however, the attraction from Iran’s perspective of moving toward desired international acceptance and respectability is completely overshadowed by two other dominant factors at this time: the need to reinforce and preserve Iran’s national pride (recently enhanced by the apparent success of its Hizballah surrogate in Lebanon) , and its conviction that the United States is an implacable enemy whose aggressive bullying must be resisted at all costs.
7. Adding up all those factors, it seems clear to me that Bush has laid out the following course for American policy, adding up to a Catch-22 from which I see no escape:
a. Continuing futile efforts to achieve Iranian capitulation through weak and ineffective economic sanctions, to the accompaniment of counterproductive vituperation and bombast;
b. Quickly followed by a period of rapidly escalating threats of military action, during which international and domestic opposition to American policy will increase dramatically, making Bush’s choices increasingly more painful and difficult in every respect;
c. A judgment by Bush that the immediate risks and costs of preemptive military action against Iran are, in the final analysis, less formidable than the risks and costs of tolerating Iranian nuclear possession — and the personal and national humiliation that would result from passive acceptance of that outcome.
d. Sometime before the end of his term, a massive air military attack on a wide range of carefully selected targets in Iran, in partnership with Israel, and against the advice of many of his advisers — justified by the conviction that a nuclear Iran would pose an intolerable threat to American national security, firm in his faith that God agrees with him on that point, and certain that history will eventually recognize and properly appreciate his courageous and visionary leadership.
RAY CLOSE was a top CIA analyst in the Near East Division. He is now a member of Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org