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.