U.S. officials are stressing diplomacy as the international community tries to find ways to deter Tehran's nuclear ambitions. But some defense planners are discussing another option -- a possible military strike against Iran.
The confrontation between many Western nations and Iran over its nuclear ambitions reached a new plateau last week when Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced his country had successfully enriched uranium -- a process that can be used either for civilian or military purposes.
Iranian officials have said for years their program is meant only for peaceful purposes. But the United States and Europe believe Tehran's ambitions are ultimately to build a nuclear arsenal.
Analysts say Iran's decision to enrich uranium is in clear defiance of the United Nations Security Council, which has called on Iran to suspend such activities. The Council meets next week to discuss what measures -- if any -- to take against Tehran.
While the U.N. body may be discussing peaceful measures, such as sanctions, there is a growing debate in Washington generated by news reports that the United States may be considering military attacks against Iranian facilities.
Senior U.S. administration officials have dismissed these reports, using words such as "fantasy land" and "wild speculation. "President Bush says diplomacy is the way to proceed:"We want to solve this issue diplomatically and we are working hard to do so." But at the same time, the President says: "All options are on the table. "That is diplomatic parlance meaning military attacks have not been ruled out.
Joseph Cirincione, a nuclear expert with the Council on Foreign Relations, says the administration's message is clear. "We talk about this as a military option or a strike on Iran. We are talking about war. We'd be going to war with Iran. This would be their Pearl Harbor. The population would immediately rally around the government, as they would in any country. If you want to see Ahmadinejad stay in power for another five years -- attack Iran. Iran will wage war against us in response at the time and place of their choosing. The last time we would control this war will be when we launch the strikes. After that, it goes out of control. This would make the war in Iraq look like a preliminary bout," says Cirincione.
In a recent speech, Iran's president warned that his country has -- in his words -- "created a very strong army that can defend Iran's borders."
Experts say Iran could react in many different ways to a U.S. military attack. James Dobbins, a former State Department official now with the RAND Corporation, says Iran would first hit American targets. "They could strike against U.S. military facilities in the region directly, using their own forces. They could strike against U.S. facilities and activities in the region using their own surrogates -- terrorist strikes. They could use economic pressures, threaten to embargo or limit oil exports. And indeed, almost anything they do would probably significantly increase the price of oil just because of the uncertainties involved in continued access to the Persian Gulf that would be occasioned by a conflict," says Dobbins.
A number of analysts expect Iran would also attack Gulf oil producing facilities, such as Ras Tanura -- Saudi Arabia's large oil processing plant. They also say Tehran would attempt to interfere with tanker traffic through the Straits of Hormuz. Some experts believe those actions could drive the price of a barrel of oil to 200 dollars -- almost tripling its current value. They say that would have a devastating effect on the world economy.
Paul Rogers, a military expert from University of Bradford in England, sees Iran responding to a military attack in another way. "The main reaction that you would get from Iran would be sustained aid for a range of insurgents within Iraq itself. By and large, the insurgency in Iraq has focused on Sunni militants and paramilitaries from outside. The Shiia militia have not played such a major role, except in Najaf a couple of years ago. But the potential is there. And I think if Iran was attacked, there would be a very strong opposition to the continued U.S. presence in Iraq from among the Shiia militia, not least Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi militia. So I think the potential there for Iranian revolutionary guards to aid the insurgency in Iraq is really very considerable and should not be remotely discounted," says Rodgers.
Israel - A Potential Target
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Many experts see Israel as another potential target for Iranian reprisals. Retired U.S. Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner -- who has conducted several simulated war games involving Iran -- sees Tehran using Israel as a convenient scapegoat.
"Even if it were an American strike, blame it on Israel. Israel sells well at home as a bad guy. I would think they would market that at home. They would market that to the Muslim rage, which there would likely be. I would expect that they would do it themselves or encourage Hezbollah to conduct attacks against Israel," says Gardiner.
Analysts also fear that a U.S. military attack on Iran would cause even more anti-American sentiment in the Middle East. "The response in the Muslim world is unpredictable. But if you start seeing women and children pulled out of rubble caused by U.S. bombs, and this is flashed around the world, U.S. embassies could start going up in flames. I would not underestimate the anger that is out there against the U.S. and how much an attack would inflame that anger," says Joseph Cirincione.
Analysts say the international community must find a diplomatic solution to Iran's nuclear ambitions in order to avoid a potential military strike with dire consequences for everyone concerned.
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