Bush’s Iran Options Limited by Iraq, Perils of War


Jan. 23 (Bloomberg) — “Grave threat” is how U.S. President George W. Bush described Iraq three years ago. Today he uses that same phrase — to characterize Iran.

The resemblance between these two standoffs ends with the rhetoric, analysts say. Iran and its nuclear program today are far more dangerous than Iraq’s was, and U.S. options are far more limited.

As a result, the Bush administration is pursuing a markedly different approach than it did in 2003, when its diplomacy was aimed at lining up allies for a war. This time, U.S. diplomats are seeking an international consensus on how to proceed.

“This administration is forced to follow this route because of the failures of Iraq,” says Joseph Cirincione, director for nonproliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based policy-study group.

Cirincione says there “was a lot of talk” among supporters of the Iraq war in the spring of 2003 about “moving on to Tehran” after the U.S. overthrew Saddam Hussein. Now, because of the “bloody quagmire” in Iraq, “we have no really tough option with Iran, certainly none that could be implemented unilaterally,” he says.

Military Obstacles

With 140,000 troops tied down in Iraq, the U.S. military can’t support another invasion and occupation, analysts say. Moreover, Iran’s nuclear sites are dispersed throughout the country and deeply buried, and pinpoint military strikes would inflame anti-Americanism in the Middle East while only delaying, not eradicating, the program.

Because of Iran’s size, a ground invasion may require twice as many troops as in Iraq, says Richard Russell, a Middle East specialist at the National Defense University in Washington. While an air campaign could take out Iran’s air defenses, it could also trigger retaliatory Iranian missile strikes on Israel or U.S. troops in the region, terrorism and oil disruptions, experts say.

And that retaliation, said retired Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni, “would require us to counterattack and escalate.”

“When do we get to the point when we put boots on the ground? That would make Iraq look like a cakewalk for sure,” Zinni, the former commander-in-chief of the U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. security interests in the Persian Gulf, said in a telephone interview today.

Zinni estimated that a ground invasion of Iran would require “500,000 troops or more.”

Missiles, 900,000 Troops

Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, is ringed by mountains, is roughly four times the size of Iraq and has almost three times its population. Its military numbers almost 900,000 soldiers and reservists and has long-range missiles that can reach Israel.

Iran dominates the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway through which at least 35 percent of the world’s oil is shipped, and could threaten that commerce with its anti-ship cruise missiles, U.S. military officials say.

Despite such obstacles, some of the same people who pushed most forcefully for action against Iraq are warning today that the administration must ready a similar option for Iran. The editor of the Weekly Standard magazine, William Kristol, wrote last week that the U.S., while pursuing diplomacy, should “prepare for various forms of military action.”

Air-Strike Targets

Michael Eisenstadt, a reserve army officer and a Persian Gulf military specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says U.S. planners have undoubtedly begun to think seriously about possible targets for air strikes, especially since the election last year of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iran’s president.

Before then, says Eisenstadt, the military option was “really off the table.” Now he says, “the calculus has changed.” At the same time, Eisenstadt says that no one in Washington is considering a ground invasion, and that the likely Iranian response to air strikes would be terrorism.

Bush cited the need for diplomacy and global consensus at a news conference in Washington on Dec. 19. “Of course we want this to be solved diplomatically, and we want the Iranians to hear a unified voice,” he said. “I know this: People know that an Iran with the capacity to manufacture a nuclear weapon is not in the world’s interest. That’s universally accepted.”

Credibility Problems

Bush acknowledged that America’s faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq has undermined its credibility. “People will say, if we’re trying to make the case on Iran, well, the intelligence failed in Iraq, therefore, how can we trust the intelligence on Iran?” he said.

The U.S. found little evidence of weapons of mass destruction after the Iraq war, including the equipment and materials used to make nuclear weapons. Investigators concluded the nuclear program was largely dormant after the 1991 Gulf war.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heads to Europe later this week for talks ahead of a Feb. 2 meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency. At that session, the U.S., U.K., Germany and France will seek a resolution referring the Iran issue to the United Nations Security Council for possible imposition of economic sanctions.

L. Paul Bremer, the former U.S. diplomat who was administrator of Iraq after the invasion, said the Iran situation presents a fresh test for the UN. “Whether the Security Council will be able this time to do more than simply pass resolutions that are ignored by the Iranians remains to be seen,” he said in an interview Jan. 20.

Critics Unassuaged

Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. “Our nation doesn’t need nuclear weapons,” Ahmadinejad said in a televised press conference in Tehran Jan. 14. “You can use nuclear technology in several ways, and we want to do so peacefully.”

Such assurances don’t assuage Iran’s critics. A report last month by the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, which generally supports the Bush administration, said Iran “remains determined to develop a full nuclear fuel cycle that would eventually give it a nuclear weapons capability.” The report said that the ascension of Ahmadinejad, “who has publicly criticized past Iranian concessions, has further undermined the prospects for diplomatic success.”

How Long?

Estimates vary on how long it would take for Iran to develop a functional nuclear weapon. U.S. officials have predicted it may take five years, while Israeli officials say it will happen within one — depending in part on whether sanctions are imposed on Iran and whether they have an impact on its nuclear program.

In 2003, U.S. allies resisted the Bush administration’s push for war against Iraq. Now, there is agreement that Iran must be pressured to halt its nuclear research. Mohamed ElBaradei, the IAEA chief who publicly expressed doubts about U.S. prewar claims on Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, has said that Iran’s “full transparency is indispensable and overdue.”

Israel, which Ahmadinejad has threatened to “wipe of the map,” supports taking the diplomatic route. Giora Eiland, Israel’s national security adviser, and Gidon Frank, head of its Nuclear Energy Commission, traveled to Russia on Jan. 17 to brief officials there on Israel’s latest assessment of Iran’s nuclear research efforts, a source familiar with the trip said.

Iran has tried to avoid a referral to the Security Council by warning Jan. 19 of a world oil crisis if sanctions are imposed because of its nuclear program. A majority vote by the 35-member board of the IAEA, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, is required for referral to the Security Council.

Russia, China

Russia and China, which as permanent members of the Security Council can veto any resolution, have commercial interests in Iran. Russia would like to put off a referral at least until March, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana said last week. While Chinese envoy Wang Guangya, hasn’t threatened to oppose Security Council referral, has cautioned against taking any step that might end negotiations.

Solana said it may not be clear what action the IAEA will take at the Feb. 2 emergency meeting until the last minute. “Probably on the second of February, I will not be able to answer in the morning,” he said. “I’ll have to probably answer at night.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Janine Zacharia in Washington at jzacharia@bloomberg.net Ken Fireman at Kfireman1@bloomberg.net Last Updated: January 23, 2006 12:05 EST

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