Wednesday, July 23, 2008

A war no one wants

"Right now I'm fighting two wars. I don't need a third one."
- Admiral Michael Mullen, U. S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, July 20, 2008.

This was Admiral Mullen's response to the question of whether Israel or the United States will launch tactical strikes against Iran's nuclear facilities. As the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns continue, it is wise to demur at the notion of a third conflict, especially when its implications could eclipse those of the other two combined. With the global economy already showing weakness, and oil at record-high prices, war with Iran would make these difficult days look like high times. Indeed, the fallout from an Israeli or U. S. attack would constitute the second-worst-case scenario imaginable. The worst, of course, would be a nuclear-armed Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad often speaks of his intention to wipe Israel off the map. Now, when a regime or a person spends decades promising to kill you, the prudent thing is to believe them. Consequently, one of the few conclusions on which Western politicians of all parties agree is that Iran cannot be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

The question becomes, then, how to prevent this?

The world owes Israel a debt for its 1981 strike against Iraq's Osirak reactor, which forever ended Saddam Hussein's nuclear weapons program. As ever, condemnation of Israel's unilateral and bellicose act poured in from elites and diplomats around the world. But when one considers how differently Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait might have developed if he had nuclear weapons, there can be no doubt the 1981 strike was justified.

Today, if the only fallout from a similar strike on Iran were United Nations gadflies spinning their bow ties with rage, Israel or the United States could put an end to this right now. Sadly, it is not so simple.

A plausible scenario for such a strike goes something like this: Israel hits Iran's known nuclear weapons facilities. The Iranians respond by closing the Straits of Hormuz, through which roughly 25% of the world's daily oil production travels. American military leaders in the region have stated that closing the Straits would constitute an act of war, and so they would overrun Iranian forces.

Assuming a complete, swift military victory, and that the Israeli strikes took out every single Iranian weapons plant, the world will still wake up to oil at $250 a barrel and global markets in collapse.

And these are fat assumptions we are making on the plus side. The early years of the Iraq war showed that even conflict with an overmatched enemy can be costly if the right strategy is not in place. As to taking out Iran's nuclear facilities, they are more numerous, less conspicuous and better protected than Osirak was. American and Israeli intelligence may have a good handle on where the sites are located but, as the Iraq war once again instructs, even that sort of information can be tragically flawed.

U. S. President George W. Bush has been criticized by fellow Republicans recently for sending State Department officials to meet with Iranian nuclear negotiators in Switzerland. This represents a reversal of the President's policy of the past several years, which was that no talks would take place until Iran agreed to suspend its uranium enrichment activities. Agreeing to meet now, when Iran has made no meaningful concessions, looks like weakness. But Bush's critics ought to keep the desired outcomes in mind: Iran cannot have a nuclear weapon, and no one wants a war. If face is lost but lives are saved, more power to him.

Yes, the West could go to war with Iran and, sooner or later, we would probably win. But considering the cost of such a conflict, men of good will must do all they can to keep that from happening.