Saturday, 31 July 2010

Is the US likely to bomb Iran?

Time has an interesting article on how war drums are beating louder and louder for an attack on Iran. And this Washington Post article by neo-con Charles Krauthammer is a sample of the support building up for such an attack. With the war in Afghanistan going very badly (the July death toll being the worst ever for the US) and the one in Iraq still a long way from being declared a victory, it might seem ludicrous to consider opening a third front by bombing Iran. However, it is very likely that within a year from now, the US will bomb Iran using its overwhelmingly superior air force and even more likely that that the US will get away with it, provided it does not get sucked into a war on land. Here are the reasons why this should be so.

1. Iran is a pariah in the middle-east. It is not an Arab nation and more importantly, it is predominantly Shi’ite. None of the important Arab states support Iran. The only country in the middle-east which has good relations with Iran is Syria. However, Syria is a very funny kettle of fish and its support for Iran will make little or no difference if the US starts to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites. I call Syria a funny kettle of fish because it is ruled by the Syrian Baath Party which is controlled by the Shi-ite Alawite faction. During the Iran –Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria supported Iran though Iraq was also ruled by the Baath party at that time. The main reason for the Iran-Syria friendship is their common support for the Hezbollah. However, Syria has a Sunni majority and Muslim Brotherhood continues to have a very strong base in Syria. It goes without saying that even though the Syrian government officially supports Iran, many Syrians, especially the Sunis don’t.

2. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and other Sunni monarchies in the region actively hate and fear Iran. Iran is not only Shia, but is also democratic, the only real democracy in that region other than Lebanon. For these regimes, a nuclear Iran is an even greater threat though Iran claims to develop the Bomb to strengthen the entire Islamic world.

3. Israel is petrified of a nuclear Iran and is very likely to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities if the US doesn’t. If Israel were to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites, it will ignite a storm of protest throughout the middle-east. Even though the ruling houses of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and other Arab states (with the exception of Syria) may privately support the Israeli attack, public fury on Arab Street will know no bounds. US operations in Afghanistan and Iraq will be under increased pressure. It will be far better for the US to bomb Iran’s nuclear sites than to wait till Israel does it. The alternative, to clamp down on Israel altogether and prevent it from bombing Iran, is beyond the US’s imagination and ability.

4. Obama’s administration is losing popularity by the day. Israel still enjoys overwhelming support from the American public and a successful bombing campaign against Israel’s arch foe Iran is a sure-fire way of going up the popularity charts.

5. Russia and Iran are no longer friends. There was a time when they were, but now Russia has realised that it is more profitable to be chummy with Saudi Arabia and Israel and it supports UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme. BBC has an interesting article on this change. If the US were to bomb Iran, Russia may remain silent.

6. No one really has a clue as to what Iran’s real intentions are. Western intelligence agencies which failed to provide accurate intelligence in the case of Iraq and its weapons of mass destruction, have even less resources on the ground in Iran. It is possible that Iran is only sabre rattling and does not want to develop nuclear weapons. However, no one really knows. If Iran is in serious pursuit of a nuclear capability and if its nuclear facilities are not destroyed soon, it is only a matter of time before it actually succeeds in developing the weapons. This might be a matter of months or years or even a decade. However Iran will get there if it wants to. Iran has a proven track record of helping not only Shia militant groups such as the Hezbollah, but even Sunni militant groups like the Hamas and of late, even the Taliban who profess to hate the heretical Shia. If Iran were to acquire nuclear weapons, it is very likely to brandish them, if not actually use them.

7. Even if Iran’s nuclear facilities are bombed, Iran is likely to persist in its efforts to develop nuclear weapons. Therefore, the earlier Iranian nuclear facilities are bombed, the greater the delay caused to the Iranian nuclear weapons programme, if there is one.

What will happen if the US air force were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities?

Arab Street will erupt in fury, but with less than one-tenth of the force if Israeli jets were to do the job. Pedestrians in Riyadh, Muscat and Cairo will protest, animosity towards the heretic Shia temporarily forgotten, but how long will the anger last? Will it be sufficient to result in a mass movement that could overthrow their monarchs or dictators and install democracies? I doubt it. Saudi Arabia and other monarchies in the Gulf keep their nationals in reasonable comfort and bombing of Shia Iran’s nuclear facilities is unlikely to trigger a mass uprising. Of course, if there is a long term downturn in the price of oil and the Gulf monarchs are forced to curtail subsidies and other perks in a big way, something nasty might brew.

How would the Iranians react to such bombing? Ahmadinejad’s regime would utilise the attack to clamp down on the opposition and increase its control over the nation. Democratically elected Ahmadinejad would gain even more legitimacy. In retaliation for the bombing, support for the Hezbollah would be ramped up. However, the Iranians are already supporting the Hezbollah in a major way and there is not much more they can do, keeping in mind the logistical difficulties involved in and barriers to say, sending across a truckful of missiles. Support for the Sunni Taliban and Hamas might also increase, but then, there will be elements among the Sunni fundamentalists who would rejoice at Iran’s pain there is always a limit to the extent the Taliban and Hamas would seek and accept Iranian help.

The biggest impact of such US bombing of Iran would be in Iraq. That’s right. In case you have forgotten, Iraq has a Shia majority and in the recent Iraqi election, incumbent Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s State of Law coalition of Shia parties came second with two seats less than the Iraqiya coalition, which though secular, is largely supported by Sunnis. The State of Law coalition of Shia parties has been trying for some time to form a coalition government in alliance with the Iraqi National Alliance which includes radical Shia cleric Moqtada Sadr and they have Iran's backing. How would Iraqi Shia’s react to an attack on Iran by the US? On the whole, Iraqi Shias were happy that Saddam was overthrown, though they don’t particularly like the USA. After a great deal of bloodletting between Shia militias such as those led by Moqtada Sadr and Sunnis who worked with the Al Qaeda, Iraq is experiencing relative calm. Awakening Councils formed of ex-Baathists and other Sunnis have driven the Al Qaeda away from Iraq. However, these Awakening Councils are not too happy with Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki’s government. Iraqi Sunnis know that after the American exit, they will have to march to the majority Shia tune and they are already uneasy about it. Will the Shia dominated Iraqi government retain the Awakening Councils as a militia distinct from the Iraqi army? Al-Maliki has already indicated that he does not like that idea. Integration of the Awakening Councils into the Shia dominated Iraqi army is not an easy task. For this reason, a weakened Iran will make Iraqi Sunnis happy and the Shias unhappy. Is there likely to be a spurt in attacks on coalition forces in Iraq if the US were to bomb Iran? So far, most of the attacks on coalition forces came from the Al Qaeda and Sunni/ex-Baathist fighters. It is very unlikely that Shia militias will start attacking coalition forces now that a deadline for their withdrawal has been fixed. Such attacks may cause the coalition forces to lean in favour of the Awakening Councils and Iraqi Shias are smart enough to avoid doing anything that would result in such a bias when they are on the cusp of having control over Iraq.

For these reasons, I think that the US will get away with it if it were to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Personally I would support such an attack. It is fashionable in certain liberal quarters to argue that if the USA, China, Russia, UK and France are entitled to have nuclear weapons, Iran is also so entitled. So far, the only country to have used nuclear weapons is the United States, right? Yes, but this argument ignores the fact that Iran is likely to, given its track record in such matters, provide material for a dirty bomb to an organisation such as the Hezbollah. I am not for a moment saying that the Hezbollah or even the Iranian regime is totally evil. No, they are not. However, Iran and the Hezbollah do consider Israel to be unworthy of existence and it will not be beyond them to do the inconceivable. I would rather the US bombs Iranian nuclear facilities than carry on in the hope that Iran has no nuclear ambition or even if it does, it will not transfer nuclear technology to the Hezbollah or a like-organisation.


Arun said...

Popular opinion in the US is definitely anti-war right now. They just want to get out of the messes they created.

There are little Sunni-Shia internal problems against the rulers in Syria right now. In fact there is overwhelming support to the Syria-Turkey-Iran (and Venezuela!) alliance that has been flourishing (No visas between these countries, etc).

Europe is definitely against such a war, and unlike Iraq when majority except France sent their troops, and later withdrew. This time they will protest and the protests wont be feeble.

In my opinion the US cannot touch Iran right now without facing further national and international hatred and alienation.

Winnowed said...

Arun, I don't think the American public has any appetite for a land invasion of Iran. However, starting from the arms lobby, there are many who would support an air force raid on Iran's nuclear facilities.Only time will tell if either of us is right.

mail said...

iranis also democratic, the only real democracy in that region other than ?????????????????youare funy and joking sory for you. ail shiraz

Ayyappadas Puthenmarath said...

But Vinod, what about the Chinese angle? Can they prevent America from doing something like that? I think it would be in the best of Chinese interest to support a pro- Iran policy for its energy needs. With the western world highly leveraged to China, they can become a game changer, possibly deterring such an American action. But again I do support the bombing. If India had done the same in Kahuta, Pakistan and subsequently all these rogue states would never have had the access to nuclear weapons.

Winnowed said...

Ayyappadas,I doubt if the Chinese will be able to stop an US air campaign against Iran, even if they wanted to. But would they want to? Even China has problems with Islamic fundamentalism in Xinjiang province. The Uighurs are restless. The fact is, everyone is scared of what Iran could do once it has the Bomb. If they can assist the fanatic Sunni Taliban, why wouldn't they help the Uighurs?

Anonymous said...

Why not just let Iran get nuclear weapons. How much more evil can they be compared to Pakistan and israel. In any case the value of nuclear weapons are overrated. If you want to use them first strike everyone will get together and wipe you out. If you don't use them and use coventional war weapons then they are useless. As can be seen from the Pakistan experience, they are a deterrent for a neighbor to attack you and allows you to engage in covert operations like terrorism without fear of being attacked. Iran can support terrorism anyway without them. And if anyone is going to attack them it will be the US. And the US didn't hesitate to attack Iraq even though it believed they had them. The US has simply opposed Iran over some thing that happened 30 years ago. A much educated, much more cultural non Arab Iran is the ideal ally and far better than Saudi. And even though they don't have a complete democracy, the saudi's have nothing. And it might do the world some good for israel to know there is a Muslim country in the neighborhood who won't be bullied by them and can't be attacked by them.

Winnowed said...

Anon, to begin with, my post sought to look at this issue through an American policymaker’s eyes. I do believe that bombing Iran to prevent it from acquiring the Bomb is justified mainly for one reason. If Iran acquires the bomb, it is very likely to use it on Israel. True, land-grabbing Israel is no saint, but it is unlikely to use its nukes for anything other than self-defence. Iran, on the other hand is desperately trying to win the approval of the Umma and chasing the Jews out of Palestine would be the best way of doing so. All of this boils down to the Iranian willingness to kill and being killed for their version of Islam and God. I agree that Saudi Arabia is much worse than Iran in many respects, and that Pakistan has been irresponsible with its nukes. However, I don’t see Pakistan launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on India. Mainly because if it does, it will be wiped out. However, I can see Iran or one of its proxies launching an unprovoked nuclear attack on Israel even if there is a very high possibility that Iran will be wiped out as a result of retaliation from the US or Israel. By the way, did you know that during the 1971 Bangladesh war, Iran supported Pakistan, though over a million Bengalis (many of them Muslims) were being massacred by Pakistan? Of course, it was under a different regime then and now Iran and Pakistan support opposing sides in Afghanistan…..