Over the course of some 5,000 words, Sunday's Washington Post manages to confirm what most of us already know--the U.S. is exploring various military options that could be used against Iran.
According to the Post, the use of military force does not appear imminent. However, the Bush Administration and Pentagon planners are reportedly considering at least two options--if diplomacy fails. These options are described as a limited air and missile strike, and a more prolonged, intense air campaign, reminiscent of Operation Allied Force in 1999.
Despite careful caveats that a military strike may be months off--if it ever gets the green light--the tone of the article is familiar and predictable. A raft for former defense and intelligence officials express misgivings about the strike, warning that it might provide only a minor setback for Iran's nuclear program, and galvanize anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world.
Missing from all of this is a seminal question: what if diplomatic efforts with Iran fail--a prospect that seems increasingly likely. Then what? Do we simply allow Tehran to build a nuclear arsenal, then share the technology with other rogue states (I'm sure Bashir Assad would like a bomb of his own) and terrorist organizations? That's the real bottom line in this equation, but an issue the Post carefully avoids in its reporting. Precisely when should the U.S. and its allies utilize the military option? If the alternative--a nuclear-armed Iran--is untenable for both the Gulf Region the west (and indeed it is), then it is prudent to explore potential military options and update contingency plans for the Iran scenario.
Judging from the spate of recent articles on "military options against Iran," you'd think the Pentagon had only recently begun examining the issue. The issue--as we've patiently explained before in this space--is that the U.S. military has standing operations plans (or OPlans) for a variety of potential threats and adversaries, including Iran. Whatever is happening in the Pentagon (and at CENTCOM HQ) right now is merely a continuation of a planning process that has been going on for decades. Plans are routinely reviewed and updated, reflecting changes in the geopolitical situation, enemy defensive improvements and our own military capabilities, among other considerations.
In support of the "military force won't work" theme, the Post quotes Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner, a professor at the National Defense University in Washington. According to Colonel Gardiner, he recently participated in an Iran wargame, and the military option "didn't work." But some crucial elements and caveats are missing from that assessment. What was the scenario--a limited strike against the nuclear facilities, a prolonged air campaign, or an actual invasion of Iran? Likewise, what were the strategic objectives of the game--destruction of the nuclear program, delay of Iran's nuclear efforts, regime change, or a total collapse of Tehran's theocratic government. Without this information, it is impossible to guage the context of Colonel Gardiner's remarks.
For the record, I worked with Colonel Gardiner (on a recurring basis) during various AF wargames in the late 1990s. As a wargamer, strategist and instructor, Colonel Gardiner has few peers and his assessment has definite credibility. But in wargaming, the context and objectives are absolutely vital in understanding and assessing the outcome. And quite predictably, those elements are missing from the Post's report. I'm guessing that the WaPo reporting team didn't have the good sense to ask those essential questions, or (if they did), Colonel Gardiner's response might have diluted the impact of his quote, so that information never made its way into print. Never let context get in the way of a good, closing quote.
However, the Post is a model of journalistic accuracy compared to Sy Hersh's latest offering in the New Yorker. As you've probably heard, Mr. Hersh is out with an article, claiming that the U.S. is considering the use of nuclear "bunker-buster" bombs against Iran's underground nuclear facilities. Actually, the "bunker-buster" element is only part of lengthy article, outlining a debate within military and political circles over the Iran issue.
Hersh's article is heavily based on anonmyous sources, so it's hard to know where this information is coming from, and how reliable it might be. Reading between the lines, however, it is easy to surmise that Hersh got much of his information from disaffected, senior career civil servants (current and former), working in both the Pentagon and the CIA. That group--particularly the Langley branch--has long opposed the Bush Administration and its conduct of foreign policy, so it's not surprising that they're "concerned" about our supposed head-long rush to war with Iran.
At the risk of bursting Mr. Hersh's bubble, I can report that the military has long had "nuclear" options for Iran, just as it has nuclear targeting plans for other potential adversaries. As with conventional war plans, the nuclear options are continuously updated and reviewed, reflecting changes in the target sets and our employment capabilities. The discovery of new nuclear facilities--or better information on sites already identified--could easily prompt the kind of targeting update that Mr. Hersh describes. Instead, Hersh suggests that the U.S. may be considering some sort of pre-emptive nuclear strike, to eliminate key, hardened underground facilities in Iran. While that option is possible in a post 9-11 world, I can say (as a former nuclear targeteer), that such a scenario seems unlikely. From my perspetcive, a U.S. nuclear strike against Iran would only follow a WMD attack against an American city (or U.S. interests overseas) that was staged by Tehran's military forces, or by Iranian proxies--with clear, unambiguous linkage to the mullahs in Iran. Under those circumstances, it would be difficult for an American President to avoid the nuclear option.
One final note: Mr. Hersh's credibility on national security issues is hardly above reproach, and that fact is worth remembering as you read his Iran piece. About two years ago, Hersh was among the first to break the Abu Ghraib prison abuse story. In his recent book on the Iraq War (Chain of Command), he hinted darkly that the scandal would reach the highest levels of the Pentagon and the White House. However, subsequent military investigations have revealed that the abuse at the prison was confined to a group of lower-ranking, poorly-led soldiers NCOs, working the night shift. We'll see if Mr. Hersh's crystal ball is any more accurate in forecasting U.S. intentions towards Iran.