Bombs That Would Backfire
By RICHARD CLARKE and STEVEN SIMON
-- -- WHITE HOUSE spokesmen have
played down press reports that the Pentagon has accelerated
planning to bomb Iran. We would like to believe that the
administration is not intent on starting another war, because a
conflict with Iran could be even more damaging to our interests
than the current struggle in Iraq has been. A brief look at
history shows why.
Reports by the journalist Seymour Hersh and others suggest that
the United States is contemplating bombing a dozen or more
nuclear sites, many of them buried, around Iran. In the event,
scores of air bases, radar installations and land missiles would
also be hit to suppress air defenses. Navy bases and coastal
missile sites would be struck to prevent Iranian retaliation
against the American fleet and Persian Gulf shipping. Iran's
long-range missile installations could also be targets of the
initial American air campaign.
These contingencies seem familiar to us because we faced a
similar situation as National Security Council staff members in
the mid-1990's. American frustrations with Iran were growing,
and in early 1996 the House speaker, Newt Gingrich, publicly
called for the overthrow of the Iranian government. He and the
C.I.A. put together an $18 million package to undertake it.
The Iranian legislature responded with a $20 million initiative
for its intelligence organizations to counter American influence
in the region. Iranian agents began casing American embassies
and other targets around the world. In June 1996, the Qods
Force, the covert-action arm of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps, arranged the bombing of an apartment building used
by our Air Force in Khobar, Saudi Arabia, killing 19 Americans.
At that point, the Clinton administration and the Pentagon
considered a bombing campaign. But after long debate, the
highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which
things would end favorably for the United States.
While the full scope of what America did do remains classified,
published reports suggest that the United States responded with
a chilling threat to the Tehran government and conducted a
global operation that immobilized Iran's intelligence service.
Iranian terrorism against the United States ceased.
In essence, both sides looked down the road of conflict and
chose to avoid further hostilities. And then the election of the
reformist Mohammad Khatami as president of Iran in 1997 gave
Washington and Tehran the cover they needed to walk back from
Now, as in the mid-90's, any United States bombing campaign
would simply begin a multi-move, escalatory process. Iran could
respond three ways. First, it could attack Persian Gulf oil
facilities and tankers — as it did in the mid-1980's — which
could cause oil prices to spike above $80 dollars a barrel.
Second and more likely, Iran could use its terrorist network to
strike American targets around the world, including inside the
United States. Iran has forces at its command that are far
superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field. The
Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah has a global reach,
and has served in the past as an instrument of Iran. We might
hope that Hezbollah, now a political party, would decide that it
has too much to lose by joining a war against the United States.
But this would be a dangerous bet.
Third, Iran is in a position to make our situation in Iraq far
more difficult than it already is. The Badr Brigade and other
Shiite militias in Iraq could launch a more deadly campaign
against British and American troops. There is every reason to
believe that Iran has such a retaliatory shock wave planned and
No matter how Iran responded, the question that would face
American planners would be, "What's our next move?" How do we
achieve so-called escalation dominance, the condition in which
the other side fears responding because they know that the next
round of American attacks would be too lethal for the regime to
Bloodied by Iranian retaliation, President Bush would most
likely authorize wider and more intensive bombing. Non-military
Iranian government targets would probably be struck in a vain
hope that the Iranian people would seize the opportunity to
overthrow the government. More likely, the American war against
Iran would guarantee the regime decades more of control.
So how would bombing Iran serve American interests? In over a
decade of looking at the question, no one has ever been able to
provide a persuasive answer. The president assures us he will
seek a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis. And there is a
role for threats of force to back up diplomacy and help
concentrate the minds of our allies. But the current level of
activity in the Pentagon suggests more than just standard
contingency planning or tactical saber-rattling.
The parallels to the run-up to to war with Iraq are all too
striking: remember that in May 2002 President Bush declared that
there was "no war plan on my desk" despite having actually spent
months working on detailed plans for the Iraq invasion. Congress
did not ask the hard questions then. It must not permit the
administration to launch another war whose outcome cannot be
known, or worse, known all too well.
Richard Clarke and Steven Simon were, respectively, national
coordinator for security and counterterrorism and senior
director for counterterrorism at the National Security Council.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company
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