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Face Off: Should the U.S. Attack Iran Before January 20?

Yes, Take Out Iran’s Nuclear Facilities Before It’s Too late

by Daniel Halper

If Senator Barack Obama is successful in his presidential election bid, which seems more likely each day passing, it will be left to President George W. Bush to ensure that Iran remains without nuclear weapons for the foreseeable future. Time will be the biggest constraint — since the president will be out of power about two and a half months after the election — so options are limited.

A targeted military strike on Iran’s nuclear development installations appears to be the only tangible solution remaining. Methods of determent are not working; sanctions have been weak and ineffective. U.S. rhetoric and condemnation have been met with scorn by Ahmadinejad. And Senator Obama, at best, promises more of the same. His promise, however, to sit down with leaders of Iran almost guarantees that the best scenario — i.e., that the Iranians will be pressured into changing their behavior in order to obtain increased economic and diplomatic stature — is unachievable.

Over the course of the long presidential campaign, Senator Obama has revealed his skepticism towards the threat a nuclear Iran poses to America, to our best ally in the Middle East, Israel, and to the world’s stability. For a politician so praised for his strong rhetoric, his words are disturbingly weak on this issue. Senator Obama has said that a nuclear Iran poses a “tiny” threat. Another time the junior senator from Illinois claimed Iran does not “pose a serious threat to us the way the Soviet Union posed a threat to us.”  And he has on numerous occasions referred to a nuclear Iran as a “game changer,” as if Iran’s increased capability is parallel to an opposition football team acquiring a new, potent running back. That suggests the Iranians will have plenty of running room and ample time to exploit the new president’s good intentions should Senator Obama win. But games aside, this is serious.

Senator Obama’s flimsy response contrasts with the alternative approach taken by Senator John McCain. Senator McCain, also, has clearly stated that Zionism is just, a contradistinction from his opponent. Senator McCain has promised not to embolden and empower leaders of Iran by meeting them, again unlike his opponent. He recognizes the threat — especially in relation to Senator Obama’s weak rhetoric and stance. If this is the road not to be taken by Senator Obama, Iran’s leaders may breathe easier.

Also relevant is Senator Obama’s inability to grasp effective war strategy, as evidenced by his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq of 2007. It has not gone unnoticed by America’s friends and foes that Senator Obama has a limited tolerance for world criticism and an abiding faith in “negotiated settlements” devoid of military pressure. In short, Iran has been observing and learning.

Meanwhile, Israel has demonstrated on at least two occasions that targeted military campaigns of nuclear development locations can serve as a region-stabilizing device. In June 1981, a targeted military strike against Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor successfully dismantled Saddam Hussein’s weapons program. It was a most effective act of deterrence, even if Israel was not able to completely prevent the Gulf War that took place a decade later and the current war in Iraq a decade and a half after that.

More recently, Israel again exemplified the virtue of a surprise, preemptive, targeted strike on a nuclear program. In the dead of night on September 6, 2007, Israeli fighter jets eliminated Syria’s budding nuclear program. Currently, Syria’s nuclear ambitions seem to have diminished, as well as its means to produce such weapons of mass destruction.

So the scene is set: the likely winner in the presidential contest is enamored of talk, unlikely to employ military force and convinced that extending diplomatic status, rather than withholding it, is the key to success. Nothing in that mix suggests any barrier to Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Alternatively, Israel’s military actions have given us a powerful example that selective use of force can play a key component in regional stability.

President Bush should learn from this and recognize the window of opportunity is closing. Iranian nuclear facilities are thought to be spread out across multiple locations. To devastate totally the Iranians’ efforts would probably be impossible, but a setback remains the best option. It will only mitigate the threat from a rogue regime, yet afford the free world more time, which would allow for the development of a more lasting, effective policy.

It was with good reason that President Bush designated Iran a member of the axis of evil, alongside Iraq and North Korea. Iran is the leading state sponsor of terror in the world. Allowing that nation and the terrorist groups it funds and enables to have a greater capability of mass destruction is a nightmare scenario — not a “tiny” threat and not a “game changer.”

Whether President Bush will do what is in his power to ensure that Iran does not gain nuclear capability remains to be determined. Cause for pause primarily comes from recent breakdown in the administration’s foreign policy doctrine. On October 11, the president removed North Korea from the list of terror states, because the two nations had agreed — only in theory — that weapons inspectors would be allowed into the North to ensure that its nuclear weapons capability had been destroyed. This suggests that President Bush, who understood well the necessity of deterrence and who took necessary preemptive action in his first term, may now have transformed into yet another president co-opted by the State Department’s historic fixation on multilateralism at any cost.

In retrospect, it would have been most prudent of the Bush administration to deal effectively with the Iranian nuclear threat by way of other avenues, and long before the waning months of its time in office. But it is what it is. When the election is over, politics should be set aside so that President Bush can insure the Iranians do not have an open path to achieving their nuclear ambitions. Let’s hope he doesn’t have to act, but if Senator Obama is elected on November 4, President Bush will have mere months to do the right thing.

Daniel Halper, a Massachusetts-based journalist, regularly writes on politics, foreign policy, and the Middle East at Commentary’s blog Contentions.

Next page: Meir Javedanfar’s opinion

No, A Hasty Attack Would Expose America to Greater Peril

by Meir Javedanfar

The option of attacking Iran’s nuclear program has been getting more exposure in the press since 2002, when Iran’s secret enrichment facility at Natanz was exposed by the Mujahedin-e Khalq opposition forces.

However, one of the main reasons why these facilities have not been attacked is Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East. Since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, which was followed by the invasion of Iraq two years later, the U.S. has stationed more than 130,000 troops on Iran’s borders. They are still there. If an attack is launched before the U.S. elections, these soldiers could become subject to a massive Iranian retaliation, leading to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of U.S. casualties.

As well as the high military cost, the U.S. may find it difficult to maintain its forces in Iraq and Afghanistan after such an attack. Even though the United States could also cause massive damage to Iran’s military infrastructure, currently U.S. tolerance for casualties is much lower than that of the Iranian government. Therefore pressure from the U.S. public to withdraw their forces from harm’s way may reach unbearable highs, leading to a hasty U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. This in turn could ruin years of work and sacrifice in both countries.

Like every other conflict, one must also take economic factors into consideration. The recent financial crisis has caused considerable damage to the economies of the Western world, especially the U.S. Hundreds of billions of dollars have had to be pumped into the financial system to prevent a meltdown. A war against Iran over the next couple of months could send the markets into a tailspin, causing the loss of tens of thousands of jobs. Furthermore, such a conflict would push oil prices to reach new highs, thus causing more damage to Western economies, while putting more money in the pocket of Ayatollah Khamenei.

The biggest reason why Iran should not be attacked before Bush leaves office is that the U.S. does not have sufficient international backing. Despite Ahmadinejad’s provocative and belligerent remarks and the support of his government for terrorist groups, the U.S. needs international support to embark on such an operation. This is one of the major lessons which the U.S. has learned from its experience in Iraq. Currently, the international community still believes that sanctions and negotiations with Iran have not been explored fully. This is why there have been increasing calls for direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran. Even Israel is coming around to this idea. These talks would provide a serious opportunity to see if the issues at stake can be resolved through negotiations.

What is even more important is that the falling oil prices are making the current conditions ripe for dialogue between the two sides. Iran earns more than 80% of its income from export of oil and gas. The falling prices are causing panic among Ahmadinejad’s allies. The first alarm bells were sounded on Sunday, August 19, when Mahmoud Bahmani, the head of Iran’s Central Bank, warned, “Iran’s projected oil revenues will decrease by $54 billion if crude prices continue to fall.” Last year, Iran earned $72 billion from oil exports. Despite that the government ran a $12 billion deficit while unemployment levels reached 20%. Even if half of Bahmani’s projected losses materialize, Iran will only earn $43 billion from oil exports. This could place a heavy burden on Ahmadinejad’s populist expenditure policies, Ayatollah Khamenei’s nuclear program, and his support for groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Furthermore, falling oil prices will increase calls for the expansion of Iran’s non-oil sector. However, Tehran cannot do this in an effective manner without Western technology. All such factors will be crucial in pushing Tehran to talk to the U.S. Meanwhile, with forces tied down in Afghanistan and Iraq, exploring the diplomatic option would create a much-needed relief for America’s military forces, while adding to Washington’s credibility and leverage.

If Ayatollah Khamenei does not agree to come clean about Iran’s nuclear program and to suspend uranium enrichment, as required by the UN, then imposing tougher sanctions would get more international support and legitimacy — and so would the military option. However, until then, to attack would mean the U.S. having to absorb the economic and the diplomatic fallout on its own. This would be a hasty and unnecessary decision.

The renowned Chinese strategist Sun Tzu wrote in his book The Art of War that “to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” The U.S. still has the opportunity to win the struggle against the extremists in Tehran without going to war. This historic opportunity requires time and diligence. And a few months is not enough for that.

Meir Javedanfar is the co-author with Yossi Melman of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the State of Iran. He runs Middle East Economic and Political Analysis (MEEPAS).