Even talking about bombing Iran is a bad idea.
If the United States were to ratchet up military threats—and, worse, make actual war preparations in the Persian Gulf—a cascading series of bad consequences would likely result. Iran might suspend talks entirely, withdraw from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, kick out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency and hide its nuclear program. Many supporters of Iran's opposition Green Movement, as well as reformists and the rebellious business class, would find it much harder to oppose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. Russia and China, which have skeptically signed on to Washington's economic and diplomatic pressure on Iran, would back away from cooperation. Support among other allies would erode, as it did over Iraq in 2003. And the United States and Iran would be set on a path of confrontation that could lead to war.
But as the following incomplete survey shows, that hasn't stopped many Republicans, neoconservatives and liberal hawks from demanding that President Obama start talking tough. Echoing Israel's longstanding calls for military action against Iran—calls reiterated just last month in a speech by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and spurred by recent WikiLeaks revelations of support for an attack from rulers of the Arab Gulf states—the hawks have once again started pressing Obama for action. According to the New York Times, a debate has started in the White House over whether Obama ought to start emphasizing the military option. During a break at a recent conference, I asked Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard what he wants Obama to do, since the president repeatedly says force is "on the table." Said Kristol: "It's on the edge of the table. I want it more on the table." Some, such as former Senator Chuck Robb and think tank neocon Michael Makovsky, have laid out a series of escalating steps, including a naval embargo, that Obama might take.
If talk about war is bad enough, an actual assault against Iran would be far worse, even catastrophic. Even an Israeli attack, far smaller than what the United States is capable of carrying out, would be a "disaster," according to Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution. He believes Iran would retaliate against US forces and allies in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. And Iran would have the advantage of greater radicalization among Palestinians and the Arab world in general, along with Shiites in Lebanon and minority Shiite populations in the Arab Gulf states. Instantly, the United States would be engaged in three contiguous wars spanning Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. According to former US officials who have seen the contingency plans for an attack on Iran, the United States would carry out many weeks of bombing and missile strikes, not just against Iran's fifty-plus nuclear sites but against air defenses, military bases, army command centers, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the paramilitary Basij, many in dense urban areas.
At present, many of the people listed below do not believe Obama would ever order an attack on Iran, and the Pentagon—from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the military commanders—is opposed. But the hawks hope that if Obama's current policy of engagement plus sanctions doesn't show results, he'll order a military buildup around Iran to show he's serious. In that atmosphere, even a small incident—say, at sea—could touch off a war. And troops, once deployed, usually get the green light.
Lindsey Graham, Joe Lieberman
Along with John McCain, Graham and Lieberman constitute a neoconservative triumvirate in the Senate, and both have spoken irresponsibly about going to war against Iran. In late September Graham declared that war with Iran should be aimed at changing the regime, not merely halting its nuclear program. "From my point of view, if we engage in military operations as a last resort, the United States should have in mind the goal of changing the regime...ot by invading [Iran] but by launching a military strike by air and sea." A few weeks later, speaking at a security forum in Canada, Graham elaborated, saying such a war would be designed "not to just neutralize their nuclear program but to sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard; in other words neuter that regime."
Lieberman, echoing Graham, has called Iran "extreme," "expansionist" and "terrorist," and he has expressed impatience with Obama's policy of using sanctions to compel Iran to bargain over its nuclear program. Ignoring the fact that sanctions, by their very nature, take years to have an effect, Lieberman argued that Iran has only until the end of 2010: "We have now come to the moment in this long struggle when the Iranian regime must understand that we will not wait indefinitely for sanctions to work. If [sanctions have] not produced meaningful change in Iran's nuclear weapons policy by [December], we will need to begin a national conversation about what steps should come next. This inevitably will involve consideration of military options.... It is time to retire our ambiguous mantra about all options remaining on the table."
See also: John McCain
Editor and co-founder of The Weekly Standard and director of the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI), Kristol is emerging as Richard Perle's successor as dean of the neoconservative movement. Writing in the Standard, Kristol dismissed critics of bombing Iran who "argue that it would open up a third front for American forces in the Middle East," saying, "If we carried out a targeted campaign against Iran's nuclear facilities, against sites used to train and equip militants killing American soldiers, and against certain targeted terror-supporting and nuclear-enabling regime elements, the effects are...likely to be limited." He added, "It's now increasingly clear that the credible threat of a military strike against Iran's nuclear program is the only action that could convince the regime to curtail its ambitions."
See also: Eric Edelman (FPI, Johns Hopkins), Robert Kagan (FPI, Brookings Institution)
Robb, a former Democratic senator from Virginia and member of the board of directors of a think tank called the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC), co-wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in July arguing that Washington ought to begin "open preparation for the military option," adding, "We cannot afford to shirk this debate or dismiss it as warmongering." The BPC has issued an alarmist report about Iran's nuclear program, co-written by Robb, that emphasizes the need for overt war preparation, saying "the Pentagon should begin augmenting its military capabilities in the region—particularly air and naval forces—to protect the Strait of Hormuz, reassure U.S. allies and prepare to respond to possible Iranian retaliation." Michael Makovsky, foreign policy director of the BPC and co-author of the report, has called for a cascading series of actions, from a US military and naval buildup in the Persian Gulf to military exercises near Iran to a naval blockade of Iran's ports to, finally, a "strike on Iranian nuclear and military facilities."
See also: Michael Makovsky (BPC), Dennis Ross (White House, ex-BPC)
President Bush's belligerent ambassador to the United Nations has settled in at the American Enterprise Institute, which led the charge for war in Iraq in the early 2000s and today is home to a flock of Iran hawks. Writing in the Wall Street Journal in February, Bolton repeated his long-held view that sanctions and negotiations won't work and that an attack on Iran is necessary. "America's central focus must be to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons in the first place. Doing so requires decisive, and likely military, action now." Three months later, concluding that Obama won't attack Iran, Bolton announced that his job is to prepare US public opinion to support an Israeli attack. "There is no possibility the Obama administration will use force, despite its confused and ever-changing formulation about the military option always being 'on the table,'" he wrote in the Journal in May. "An Israeli use of military force would be neither precipitate nor disproportionate, [and] the intellectual case for that strike must be better understood in advance by the American public and Congress in order to ensure a sympathetic reaction by Washington."
See also: Newt Gingrich (AEI), Richard Perle (AEI), Paul Wolfowitz (AEI)
Reuel Marc Gerecht
"I've written about 25,000 words about bombing Iran," said Gerecht at a recent Washington debate. "Even my mother thinks I've gone too far." He is a former CIA officer who spent several years at AEI before moving to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). A neoconservative iconoclast with a wickedly sardonic sense of humor, Gerecht wrote in The Weekly Standard, "An Israeli bombardment remains the only conceivable means of derailing or seriously delaying Iran's nuclear program and—equally important—traumatizing Tehran." Gerecht has long favored bombing Iran as a way of forcing regime change, and in the Standard piece he argued, "While there is no guarantee that an Israeli raid would cause sufficient shock to produce a fatal backlash against Khamenei and the senior leadership of the [Revolutionary] Guards, there is a chance it would, and nothing else on the horizon offers Israel better odds."
See also: Michael Ledeen (FDD), Jeffrey Goldberg (The Atlantic)
Woolsey, President Clinton's first CIA director, routinely uses hyperbolic rhetoric about Iran. The country's leaders, he says, are "theocratic, totalitarian, and genocidal maniacs" whose purpose, like Adolf Hitler's, is to "kill all the Jews and conquer the region." Speaking at a conference in mid-November, Woolsey said it "may well be too late" for sanctions to work, adding, "If force is used, it needs to be used to destroy the Revolutionary Guard...as thoroughly and decisively as it is possible to do so." Woolsey is a leading member of United Against Nuclear Iran (UANI), a hawkish group organized to shut down nearly all forms of commerce with Iran. Its former co-chairs, Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross, hold top posts in the Obama administration. Among its leadership are Fouad Ajami, a neoconservative Arab-American scholar, and Alan Solow, chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Though alarmist, UANI avoids calling for war, and its mission statement says its goal is to warn Americans about Iran's "desire and intent to possess nuclear weapons."
A hardline pro-Likud ideologue and leading Islamophobe, Pipes is the co-founder and director of the Middle East Forum (MEF) and author of a February piece in National Review titled, "How to Save the Obama Presidency: Bomb Iran." On the eve of President Obama's meeting earlier this year with Israel's Netanyahu, Pipes explicitly called for an American military attack on Iran. Saying that it is "too late for resolutions, agreements, or sanctions," Pipes wrote in National Review, "The only decision left is whether or not to take out the nuclear infrastructure." If the United States doesn't do so, warned Pipes, Israel "should do the job," and he added that "only Israel's submarine-based nuclear weapons can assure operational success." So radical are Pipes's views that he's often dismissed by fellow conservatives as an extremist, but he's a prolific writer and columnist and has establishment credentials. In 2003 President Bush named him to the board of directors of the US Institute of Peace.
See also: Michael Rubin (MEF, AEI), Patrick Clawson (MEF, Washington Institute for Near East Policy)