Regime Change Redux

At the end of April, U.S. President George W. Bush was asked at a Rose Garden question-and-answer session with the press about the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA’s) declaration that Iran’s nuclear program was not in compliance with the U.N. Security Council.

Bush answered, “It reminds the nations of the world that there is an ongoing diplomatic effort to convince the Iranians to give up their nuclear weapons ambitions. It should remind the Iranians that the world is united and concerned about their desire to have not only a nuclear weapon, but the capacity to make a nuclear weapon or the knowledge to make a nuclear weapon, all of which we’re working hard to convince them not to try to achieve.”

With both Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and John Bolton, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, stating that the United States could take action outside of the U.N. Security Council, the buzz in Washington speculates whether the United States might be willing to take military action to halt Iran’s nuclear program.

But there is evidence that another consideration is at play: to overthrow the Iranian government. U.S. leaders need to think hard about the strategic consequences of such a move before moving too far down that road.

Administration rhetoric would lead one to believe that the underlying motive for any potential action (including sanctions) against Iran is because of its nuclear program. The Iranians claim that their program is for peaceful energy purposes, but many analysts believe the real purpose – just as the North Koreans did with their nuclear program – is to build nuclear weapons.

Iran has declared that it has enriched uranium. While such a capability is not prohibited by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which Iran is a party, it is an inherent capability to produce weapon-grade uranium.

But the hand-wringing over Iran’s nuclear program, much like Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, needs to be put into perspective.

First, even if the Iranians acquired a few nuclear warheads (such as the North Koreans now have); they do not have the long-range military capability to deliver those warheads to targets in the United States. Thus, they are not a direct threat to America.

But even if they could reach the United States, they would not be able to ignore the realities of the vast U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal and deterrence, just like the Soviet Union and China before them and North Korea now. The so-called “mad mullahs” in Tehran have a return address, and a nuclear attack against the United States would be met with an overwhelming and devastating retaliatory response.

The country that would be most threatened by a nuclear-armed Iran would be Israel, which is within range of Iran’s Shehab-3 missiles. Indeed, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that “Israel must be wiped off the map.” But just as the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal is a powerful deterrent, so is Israel’s stockpile, thought to number some 400 deliverable weapons. Although Iranian rhetoric might call for wiping Israel off the map, the reality is that the price of doing so would be Iran wiping itself off the map.

So if Iran can be deterred, why would the Bush administration be willing to risk military action against Iran? The answer lies in the new National Security Strategy issued on March 16. As important as are these nuclear issues, the United States has broader concerns regarding Iran.

“The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism, threatens Israel, seeks to thwart Middle East peace, disrupts democracy in Iraq and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom,” said the strategy. “The nuclear issue and our other concerns can ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy.”

In other words, it is regime change redux.

The conventional wisdom, however, is that regime change is unlikely at best given that the U.S. military is still – three years after President Bush declared mission accomplished aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln – unable to put down the Iraqi insurgency.

But consider this scenario: The United States decides to take out Iran’s nuclear program with limited air strikes (much like the Israelis did when they attacked Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor in June 1981). But even limited air strikes would involve bombing hundreds of targets, and because many of those targets are located in urban areas (such as a research reactor in Tehran), even precision weapons likely would cause civilian casualties.

Unable to put forth a direct military response, the Iranians instead may decide to resort to terrorism via Hizbollah in Lebanon. The result is a terrorist attack that kills either American soldiers or civilians, which then makes the regime in Tehran a legitimate target in the global war on terrorism, just as the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was. This does not mean that the administration would deliberately attack Iran to invite a terrorist attack as a reason to engage in regime change. Yet it is easy to see how what started as air strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program could become something bigger and more dangerous.

The United States could make an unnecessary enemy out of Hizbollah, which has not actively targeted Americans since the Khobar Towers attack in 1996. Worse, Hizbollah and al-Qaida could overcome Sunni-Shiite divisions and form a tactical alliance against a common enemy: the United States.

And if regime change meant a U.S. invasion and occupation of Iran, many in the Muslim world would view this as confirmation that the United States is waging a war against Islam.

But if Iran’s nuclear program and its potential to build nuclear weapons – however undesirable – is not a direct threat to the United States, is risking any or all of these possibilities worth it?

CHARLES PEÑA is an adviser on the Straus Military Reform Project, a senior fellow with George Washington University’s Homeland Security Policy Institute and author of Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books).