Familiar ring to U.S. talk of bombing Iran

April 11, 2006|By TRUDY RUBIN

PHILADELPHIA -- Perhaps it's psychological warfare, aimed at getting Iran to curb its nuclear research program.

When Vice President Dick Cheney says that Iran will face "meaningful consequences" if it fails to halt nuclear research and that the United States is "keeping all options on the table," he might just be playing psychological hardball to get Tehran to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors.

But the speculation about purported U.S. plans to bomb Iran has an ominously familiar ring.

Late last month, the U.N. Security Council asked the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, to report within 30 days on whether Iran has restored a freeze on its uranium-enrichment program. Even as the diplomacy continues, unidentified administration officials speculate that the Bush administration is really fixated on Iran's regime change.

There's lots of chatter about bomb strikes on Iranian nuclear targets. Given that the administration admits only to having made "tactical" mistakes in Iraq (and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld rejects even such timid self-criticism), one wonders what the Bush team has learned from its Iraq errors.

Is anyone applying those lessons to future scenarios for Iran? Has the White House studied the Bush team's 2002 delusions that the aftermath of an Iraq invasion would be a snap and democracy would flourish? One hears dangerously similar predictions from neoconservative pundits who believe that U.S. bomb strikes would halt Iran's nuclear program and precipitate a democratic revolution in Iran.

A much more sober assessment was put forth last week at a conference on Iran at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. Both proponents and opponents of bomb strikes agreed, in the words of Iran expert Kenneth M. Pollack, that if the United States bombed Iranian targets, "we would be going to war."

An effort to bomb Iranian nuclear sites would bear no resemblance to Israel's 1981 strike at Iraq's Osirak plutonium reactor. Iran's uranium-enrichment program is spread out; it is believed that some facilities are underground at unknown locations. There would be no guarantee of ending the program. And Iranians, who are strongly nationalistic, would most likely rally around their government after such an attack.

"Iran would retaliate," said Reuel Marc Gerecht, the American Enterprise Institute's Iran expert and former CIA operative, who favors air strikes. He predicted that Iran would encourage terrorist attacks against U.S. interests.

"The United States might have to respond with great force," he said, "and contemplate an invasion." In other words, U.S. air strikes on Iran would have momentous consequences.

No one claims that diplomacy will be easy. Iran insists that its nuclear program is for peaceful energy purposes only and points out that its research is permitted under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. But Iranian behavior makes its claims hard to believe.

It concealed its uranium-enrichment program for nearly two decades and still hasn't responded fully to the suspicions of U.N. inspectors. The debate is inflamed by the call of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, for Israel to be wiped off the map. Yet the prospects for diplomacy, backed by the possibility of U.N. sanctions, remain alive, if the White House focuses its efforts.

Indeed, direct talks will begin soon between the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, and an Iranian team. These talks had been delayed, but I was told last week by Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, that they are "definitely scheduled in around a week."

"The two sides have agreed at the highest levels that the talks should be limited to Iraq," Mr. Zarif said. U.S. officials say they want to convey to Tehran that it must not meddle in Iraqi affairs.

But direct talks between Tehran and Washington, depending on the outcome, could ultimately expand.

Another war in the Middle East is not a realistic option.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.

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