Hawks and doves over Iran
Arnaud de Borchgrave

"Cataclysmic ... Apocalyptic," said Gianfranco Fini, Italy's former deputy prime minister and foreign minister, and leader of the National Alliance. He had just been asked for the likely reaction of America's North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies in the event of Israeli and/or US airstrikes against Iran's nuclear facilities.

Stubbing out his second cigarette over a recent breakfast at the Italian embassy residence, he said the consequences of such an attack on Iran would be "unimaginable and without precedent." Fini reminded his breakfast guests that European nations trade extensively with Iran.

Some allies would presumably recall their ambassador from Washington and some might even break off diplomatic relations.

At the opposite end of the spectrum of reactions was a major Gulf state official. Speaking off the record, he said, "if I had to choose between living with a nuclear Shiite Iran across the Gulf from us, and the bombing of Iran's nuclear installations, with all the dire consequences of such an attack, I would still opt for bombing."

The six Gulf Cooperation Council countries, all Sunni, do not publicly endorse such an attack. But they all share the same fear about a nuclear Iran. Saudi Arabia's outgoing ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al Faisal, has said publicly the kingdom would be firmly opposed to military operations against Iran.

"What we're not interested in is another war in the region," said Mohammed Al Naqbi, chairman of the Gulf Negotiations Center. "Iraq is [America's] problem not the problem of the Arabs. [The US] destroyed a country that had institutions ... [and] handed that country to Iran. Now [the United States is] crying to Europe and the Arabs to help [America] out of this mess."

"Neocon" elder statesman Richard Perle, speaking at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel last Sunday, said President George W. Bush would order an attack on Iran if it became clear to him that Iran is bent on acquiring nuclear weapons capabilities. US presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, at the same conference, summed up the sentiment of four presidential aspirants by saying, "Iran must be stopped, Iran can be stopped, and Iran will be stopped."

On his most recent trip to Israel, Democratic Congressman from Florida Tom Lantos, was asked time and again by his interlocutors, "What are you waiting for to attack Iran's nuclear installations?" In Israel, the perception, clear across the political spectrum, is that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is plotting a "second Holocaust" against Israel by way of a nuclear weapon lobbed by missile into an Israeli city.

Reinforcing these hair-raising suspicions was Iran's veto of 38 nuclear inspectors from a longer list submitted by the United Nations, presumably retaliation for minor slap-on-wrist trade sanctions imposed by the Security Council last month.

Overlooked in this picture is the fact Ahmadinejad has no control over Iran's nuclear program and cannot control his own military. His only authority is over his cabinet. The armed forces, Revolutionary Guards, intelligence, parliament, and the media are the purview of the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and 14 senior Grand Ayatollahs.

Wayne White, former deputy director of the State Department's Office of Analysis for the Middle East (under the Bureau of Intelligence and Research) said the Bush administration has drawn up plans for a broad attack against Iran. "I've seen some of the planning," said White, "and you're not talking about a surgical strike." Most Middle Eastern experts in the United States, Europe, and the Arab world predict an attack on Iran would destabilize the Muslim world for years.

Ignored by the hawks is the rising chorus against Ahmadinejad's anti-US and anti-Israel foreign policy from within the upper echelons of the mullahocracy. His state visits to America's self-avowed enemies in Venezuela, Ecuador, and Nicaragua were denounced as "wasteful" and "irresponsible."

As was the "unrealistic" budget he submitted to parliament. So far, attempts to impeach him gathered 38 signatures, 34 short of the 72 required, but ethnic and religious fissures still abound in the body politic. Iran's senior dissident cleric, Hossein Ali Montazeri, recently blasted Ahmadinejad's "radical and provocative slogans" against the West on the nuclear issue.

Former secretary of state Colin Powell's chief of staff has disclosed Vice-President Dick Cheney rejected a 2003 Iranian offer to help the United States stabilize Iraq. According to Lawrence Wilkerson, who was close to Powell for 16 years, Tehran also offered to end its military support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Those were the heady days when Iran could not believe its luck. The United States had "taken out" its two mortal enemies - Sunni Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Sunni tyranny in Iraq - and Iran was still in a covertly conciliatory mood via-a-vis the American giant next door.

Such days were short-lived when the US military took on Shiite militias 2004 that were under the indirect control of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Today, if an air campaign against Iran were launched by Israel or the United States, an all-out guerrilla jihad ordered by Tehran could easily lead to a precipitous and humiliating withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

As long as Israel to the west and Pakistan to the east are full-fledged nuclear weapons powers, with missile delivery systems, Iran will not abandon its own quest that has been underway for the past two decades.

Those who argue the pros and cons of US airstrikes posit Bush's six-year legacy: Iraq as the biggest blunder in US history, relegating him in some surveys to one of the three worst presidents in US history. Hence the temptation for a lame duck president to double-down by reducing Iran's nuclear facilities to rubble. The cons in this argument can see the NATO effort in Afghanistan imploding; Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf siding with his Muslim fundamentalists against a close alliance with the United States and helping restore a "moderate" Taliban regime in Kabul; Iraq, and Iran, signing a mutual-assistance military alliance.

How different would the picture be if Israel were to attempt a military solution against Iran? Israel has always thought airstrikes are out of the question because of limited air-to-air refueling tanker capacity. Operation Babylon II - Babylon I was launched 1981 when Israeli aircraft pulverized the Osirak light-water reactor under construction near Baghdad - would most probably come by air, but not via aircraft. Israel has some 300 medium-range ballistic missiles - the Jericho 2 has a range of 1,500 to 3,500 kilometers (about 932 to 2175 miles) - accurate to within 15 meters (about 50 feet). Some Jericho missiles contain low-yield, bunker-busting nuclear weapons designed to penetrate the thickest concrete protecting some of Iran's underground targets.

Israel believes it cannot wait much longer. Over the past four years, Mossad and Israeli military intelligence have estimated the critical point of no return in Iran's nuclear timetable will fall somewhere between 2005-07. But the powers that be in the Jewish state would naturally much prefer to have the United States do the job. For the first time since the invasion of Iraq, the US Navy will have two aircraft carrier battle-teams as well as cruise-missile capabilities on escort ships close to Iran. Also part of the lethal mix are B-52 and B-2B bombers stationed at the Diego Garcia airbase in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Put differently: US airstrikes against Iranian supply routes into Iraq would just be the first step on a new escalator.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is Editor at Large at United Press International.