PARIS--We're already at war with Iran. The question isn't whether or not they'll fight back. The question is when and how.
Bush used his State of the Union address to signal that Iran is his next target of war, calling it "the world's primary state sponsor of terror--pursuing nuclear weapons while depriving its people of the freedom they seek and deserve." Though Condoleezza Rice pledges that war against Iran "is simply not on the agenda at this point," she issued similar assurances in 2002 when, in fact, Bush had already green-lighted war against Iraq. "When asked whether the United States' goal was to replace the Islamic Republic [of Iran]," reports the International Herald-Tribune, Rice "did not say no." And for good reason. As the White House confirms, U.S. Special Forces commandos have been operating on Iranian soil since last year, scoping out military bases as targets of future airstrikes. United Press International reports that U.S. spy jets have been deployed over Iran in order to goad defense radar stations into locking in on them, revealing their positions for the coming war. Can you imagine how Bush would react to news that Mexican ground troops were snapping souvenir photos of Los Alamos, or that the Canadian air force was jetting over the Midwestern stratosphere? There's no difference. In such a case Bush could easily get the U.N. to sign off on war. This is more than a one-time border incursion. This is invasion, under international law the ultimate justification for a declaration of war--by Iran.
Since they declared "mission accomplished" in Iraq a couple of years ago, the hard-right Bush Administration's most bellicose zealots have been itching to invade Iran. But Bush probably can't let Cheney, Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz have their way. Afghanistan and Iraq have used up all of our available troops and cash. Even cutting and running from Iraq wouldn't do the trick. If 150,000 soldiers stationed in Iraq can't defeat a few thousand resistance fighters with RPGs and IEDs, how will they fare against Iran--a nation three times the size of Iraq with a half-million-man standing army equipped with modern hardware?
Denied their longed-for ground invasion, the neocons have fallen back to the next best thing: using Israel to launch proxy airstrikes against possible WMD and other military installations in Iran's eastern desert. Placing Iran as the "top of the list" of the world's most troublesome nations during a high-profile television appearance, Dick Cheney referenced Israel's 1981 preemptive bombing of an Iraqi nuclear reactor as a model for U.S. military action against Iran. "They understand that they were overly optimistic about Iraq," a person in a position to know the Administration's intentions tells me. "But they think they've learned from their mistakes, that young Iranians want democracy. If we put the mullahs off-balance, they say, the people will overthrow them."
That's a big gamble. Iran already has, in Ian Bremmer's words, "one of the most pluralist and (relatively) democratic regimes in the Middle East." Moreover, distrust of the United States can hardly be overstated. The kids may want freedom, but they don't believe the U.S. will deliver it. And they live right next door to Iraq, where American liberation leaves something to be desired.
In the middle to long run, surgical airstrikes on Iranian military infrastructure would probably be even more costly to U.S. interests than an outright ground invasion. Because Iranian officials have lived under the threat of attack for 25 years, they've taken pains to carefully conceal their extensive military infrastructure. Pentagon analysts concede that these efforts have been effective enough to deny Israel or the U.S. the ability to cripple Iran's ability to field fighter jets or launch missiles.
The nightmare scenario happens to be the most likely. To stand a chance in its confrontation with the United States, Iran would require the support of neighboring Arab countries. But now that Iraq has been neutered by partition, civil war and occupation, Iran is the only large majority Shia nation in the Middle East. Since many Sunnis consider Shiaism a heretical strain of Islam, Iranians would otherwise suffer alone. Arab states, however, forced to choose between Shia Iran and the Jewish state, would yield to popular pressure to come to Iran's aid.
If war follows its own internal logic, so does the clash of words and gestures that leads up to it. The U.S. has backed Iran into a geographic and diplomatic corner, breaking the first rule of Machiavelli 101 by encouraging nuclear proliferation as the sole guarantee against U.S.-led regime change. (Kim Jung Il, President Khatami on Line 1.) Losing the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq made the Bushists Gone Wild lose face; now they need a bigger win than ever. One hopes for cool heads to prevail, but they are in short supply. The two sides are locked in a death grip in which self-perpetuation necessitates the other's destruction.