The average American seems to have learned nothing from our misadventure in Iraq. Many of us thought that attacking Iraq would deal a critical blow to global terrorism. But an International Institute for Strategic Studies report found that the war boosted Al Qaeda membership, and a classified CIA study determined that Iraq is now a training ground for terrorists. If you haven’t learned that intervening in the Middle East is like sticking your hand in a hornet’s nest, you haven’t been paying attention. But a recent Fox News poll revealed that if diplomacy fails, 51 percent of Americans would support air strikes to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and 46 percent would support “air strikes coupled with a ground invasion.” This is just depressing. How can so many Americans not have learned a single thing from the Iraq War?
It appears that President Bush hasn’t learned a single thing from the Iraq war either. In his State of the Union address, he asserted “the nations of the world must not permit the Iranian regime to gain nuclear weapons.” His administration has not ruled out the use of military force to achieve that end. Bush is probably far too willing to use the military force option, and the American people are far too willing to let him.
But don’t we have to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, using any means necessary? In a word, no. For one thing, there is no conclusive evidence that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. It has a nuclear program, yes, but we should not discount the possibility that it is only for peaceful purposes. Iran has a solid rationale for developing nuclear energy plants: if it can use nuclear energy instead of oil for its energy needs, it can export that oil and make more money.
We can’t just assume, based on flimsy evidence and suspicion, that Iran is trying to obtain weapons of mass destruction. We did that before with Iraq, remember? We shouldn’t let ourselves get fooled again — we should demand very strong evidence that risky military intervention is necessary before we go through with it. And even if Iran is pursing nuclear weapons right now, the experts say it will take 3 to 10 years before it actually gets them. We have time to explore other options.
A military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities shouldn’t even be considered right now. Just the talk of it encourages Iran to try to obtain nukes if it isn’t trying already. Iran, like North Korea, knows that the U.S. won’t lay a finger on it once it has nuclear weapons. If it is threatened, it has more of an incentive to obtain nuclear weapons as quickly as possible in order to defend itself.
Besides, military action is a very bad idea. A ground invasion is out of the question — our military is already stretched pretty thin, and Iran would be a much larger and formidable opponent than Iraq. But even an air strike alone is bad enough.
Such a strike doesn’t seem that unreasonable at first glance — just fly in there, blow stuff up, and come back right? It won’t be that easy. According to Richard Russell, a Middle East specialist at the Defense Department, striking Iran’s nuclear facilities would first require destroying their air force, anti-aircraft weaponry, and much of their military support infrastructure.
He estimates that doing that would take at least “a couple of weeks.” Such sustained bombing is likely to kill many innocent civilians, and it would probably result in increased support for Ahmadinejad’s radical, anti-American regime. Support for the nuclear program is widespread in Iran, and Iranians will take any attack on that nuclear program personally. They will rally around Ahmadinejad and against the United States. A very anti-American Iran will make Al Qaeda recruiting there that much easier.
An air strike wouldn’t be guaranteed to be completely successful either: Iran’s nuclear facilities are numerous and some are underground, sheltered from bombardment. A strike would likely only delay, not destroy, Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In addition, Iran is not helpless. It has the ability to retaliate in several ways: One, it could stir up a Shiite insurgency in neighboring Iraq. That is a strong possibility, since many Iraqi Shiites support Iran, and some believe that Iranian agents have already infiltrated into Iraq. Currently, our troops mostly just have to deal with a Sunni insurgency, but if they have to deal with a significant Shiite insurgency as well, things could get very bad.
Two, Iran has some very deadly and advanced missiles that it could use against Israel or U.S. forces in the Gulf. It possesses Russian-made SS-N-22 Sunburn anti-ship missiles. According to the missile’s manufacturers, one or two of those missiles can cripple a destroyer. Iran also possesses the Shahab 3, which has a range of 1200 miles.
Three, Iran could cause a global economic shock by cutting off oil exports. One expert, James Batris, says that “even if Iran pulled a small amount of its oil off the market, say it pulled a half million barrels a day, I could see oil prices literally jumping over the $100 per barrel mark.” I don’t even want to imagine how disastrous it would be if Iran pulled all of its oil off the market.
Diplomacy should be the only option on the table right now. Although Iran has been aggressive, it has also been rational. Diplomacy can work, and even if it doesn’t and Iran ends up obtaining nuclear weapons, deterrence could also work. Those options should be fully explored before we even consider any sort of military action.
Michael Hugman is a student at Virginia Tech.