Charles V. Peña is an adviser to the Straus Military Reform Project, senior fellow with the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy and analyst for MSNBC. He is a co-author of Exiting Iraq: Why the United States Must End the Military Occupation and Renew the War against Al Qaeda (Cato Institute, 2004) and author of the forthcoming Winning the Un-War: A New Strategy for the War on Terrorism (Potomac Books, Inc.)
Recently, Iran broke the U.N. seals on uranium enrichment equipment at its Natanz nuclear facility. When North Korea removed seals in December 2001 from a reactor in Yongbyon, the result was the ability to harvest plutonium from fuel rods that could be used for nuclear weapons. The long pole in the tent in building nuclear weapons is fissionable material and, thus, Iran has taken one step closer to being able to credibly claim that it has the bomb. President Bush has previously declared that the U.S. position is that Iran “won’t have a nuclear weapon.” So is the clock ticking down to U.S. military action against the regime in Tehran?
At first glance, the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, the U.S. military is already stretched thin by the current occupation of Iraq. So military action—not necessarily an all-out ground invasion—against Iran looks like an unrealistic proposition. But it would be a mistake to believe that it is impossible. In September 2004, United Press International reported that the Special Operations Command of the U.S. military had conducted war games to practice regime change in Iran. The plan involved not full-scale war, but precision strikes combined with U.S. special forces’ collaboration with Iranian dissidents—including the Mujahadeen e-Khalq (MEK) opposition group, which was reportedly dropped from the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations only two months earlier.
If all this sounds like “déjà vu all over again,” it is: it's essentially a scaled-back variation of the war plan for Iraq, with the MEK in place of the Iraqi National Congress. And unlike Saddam Hussein’s Iraq there is actually a real democratic movement in Iran. So, advocates of military action will argue that the United States won't have to actually occupy the country to create democracy in the country.
But given current disillusionment over Iraq (a recent CBS News poll showed that 58 percent of Americans disapproved of the way President Bush is handling the situation in Iraq), would the public support an administration decision to use force against Iran? Just as it would be a mistake to assume that military action against Iran is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the public wouldn’t back such action—after all, it is much easier to paint Iran as a threat than it was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Unlike Iraq, Iran is engaged in a nuclear program and is getting closer to being able to build a nuclear weapon. Unlike Iraq, Iran has an active long-range ballistic missile program (although unable to reach the United States). Unlike Iraq, Iran is an active state sponsor of terrorist groups (although these groups do not target the United States). And unlike Iraq, Iran is ruled by a fundamentalist Islamic government (not to be confused with a radical Islamist regime). Because Al Qaeda's radical Islamist ideology is also fundamentalist, many people don't see any difference between the two. Finally, most Americans haven't forgotten the 52 Americans taken hostage after the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized in November 1979.
President Bush's rhetoric toward Iran has been strikingly similar to his rhetoric in the run-up to war against Iraq. For example, in July 2004 he said"
They're harboring Al Qaeda leadership there. And we've asked that they be turned over to their respective countries. Secondly, they've got a nuclear weapons program that they need to dismantle. We're working with other countries to encourage them to do so. Thirdly, they've got to stop funding terrorist organizations such as Hezbollah that create great dangers in parts of the world.
And don’t forget that Bush named Iran, along with Iraq and North Korea, as a member of the “axis of evil.”
Certainly, the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran is unsettling and unwelcome. But even if Iran is able to build a few weapons in the near future, the mullahs in Tehran can no more ignore the reality of deterrence and the vast U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal than could the Soviet Union before, or North Korea now.
So, striking Iran would be as big of a mistake as invading Iraq. Attacking another Muslim country would only reinforce the claim that the U.S. war on terrorism is a wider war against the Muslim world. And while the Iranians would unlikely be able to retaliate militarily, they could chose to use their ties to terrorist groups as a response. Worse yet, the result could be to push the terrorist groups that Iran supports into an alliance with Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups against a common enemy: the United States. So attacking Iran—even limited air strikes against its nuclear facilities—would make the terrorist threat against America worse.