Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Does Seymour See More?

Seymour Hersh is at it again with another provocative piece in the New Yorker. This article raises two issues that are at least tangentially related, but which I will treat separately (unlike Tim at "All the Good Names..." who undertook to address each element in a comprehensive post with links). The most shocking revelation from Hersh's piece is the claim, supported by his array of sources, that some form of military intervention in Iran is a fait accompli, secured in large part by the re-election of President Bush and the perceived mandate this electoral approval has given the more hawkish elements in his administration. The second area of focus for Hersh has to do with the tension between the Department of Defense and the CIA for control over covert operations and how the resolution of this internecine conflict may impact the scope and nature of certain covert operations going forward.

The Iran Options

Hersh starts out the piece with an inflammatory quote from an unnamed high level intelligence official which seems to echo the call to
World War IV issued and supported by Norman Podhoretz.
"This is a war against terrorism, and Iraq is just one campaign. The Bush Administration is looking at this as a huge war zone," the former high-level intelligence official told me. "Next, we're going to have the Iranian campaign. We've declared war and the bad guys, wherever they are, are the enemy. This is the last hurrah - we've got four years, and want to come out of this saying we won the war on terrorism."
After grabbing the reader's attention, Hersh proceeds to lay out his case that the US is conducting ever more invasive intelligence forays into Iranian territory, as well as conducting war games and other internal planning exercises, in order to ready the military for the imminent and inevitable invasion. Despite these signals and signs, I am not quite certain they point as strongly in the direction that Hersh suggests, although even he concedes at one point that this posturing may end up being an elaborate form of saber rattling.

It is possible that some of the American officials who talk about the need to eliminate Iran's nuclear infrastructure are doing so as part of a propaganda campaign aimed at pressuring Iran to give up its weapons planning.
I believe, perhaps naively, that this is the case, and I will explain why. In the December issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows took part in an Iranian war game exercise featuring a cast of experts and analysts familiar with the terrain, conducted under the guidance of one of the discipline's preeminent practitioners, Sam Gardiner, a retired Air Force colonel:

Such simulations are Gardiner's specialty. For more than two decades he has conducted war games at the National War College and many other military institutions. Starting in 1989, two years before the Gulf War and fourteen years before Operation Iraqi Freedom, he created and ran at least fifty exercises involving an attack on Iraq. The light-force strategy that General Tommy Franks used to take Baghdad last year first surfaced in a war game Gardiner designed in the 1980s. In 2002, as the real invasion of Iraq drew near, Gardiner worked as a private citizen to develop nonclassified simulations of the situation that would follow the fall of Baghdad. These had little effect on U.S. policy, but proved to be prescient about the main challenges in restoring order to Iraq.
The exercise looked at four different options (analyzed by praktike here, a useful summary - especially for those without a subscription to The Atlantic, but not exclusively so): First, an Israeli led airstrike against Iranian nuclear facilities; Second, US led strikes against Iranian Republican Guard positions (seen more as a response to potential Iranian intervention in Iraq if options one, three, or four were pursued); Third, US airstrikes and commando raids on Iranian nuclear facilities; Fourth, an intensive military campaign aimed at toppling the regime (two versions of this were tested).

The conclusions from those exercises were pretty pessimistic regarding the efficacy of any form of military action. The Israeli option was tabled almost immediately due to the logistical problems of access to airspace and the obvious political ramifications - even by Reuel Marc Gerecht, the resident representative from the American Enterprise Institute. The regime change options proved risky for other reasons - especially the prospect that the preparations themselves could provoke Tehran to preemptively retaliate, and of course, the fact that logistical constraints on an overtaxed armed forces preclude subsequent nation building. The only hope would be to smash the regime to pieces, and hope that a somewhat more moderate force could emerge to put some semblance back together again. This has the potential for creating a vortex of violence and instability, and thus, any military campaign that would not at least attempt to establish order and nation build in its aftermath should be viewed as an option of last resort.

Even strikes on nuclear facilities had their drawbacks when teased out. The impression given from those involved is that strikes on facilities, although of low risk from a strictly military perspective, would only be partially successful due to incomplete intelligence on the number and location of facilities and the fact that many of these targets have been hardened through defensive measures like bunkers, and placements near major population centers. And of course, any such action would set off a diplomatic and strategic chain reaction.

Gardiner cautioned that any of the measures against Iran would carry strategic risks. The two major dangers were that Iran would use its influence to inflame anti-American violence in Iraq, and that it would use its leverage to jack up oil prices, hurting America's economy and the world's. In this sense option No. 2 - the pre-emptive air raid - would pose as much risk as the full assault, he said. In either case the Iranian regime would conclude that America was bent on its destruction, and it would have no reason to hold back on any tool of retaliation it could find. "The region is like a mobile," he said. "Once an element is set in motion, it is impossible to say where the whole thing will come to rest."
I think that some proponents of military action in Iran have been too quick to elide the threats that Iran could pose for our mission in Iraq. Voices such as Charles Krauthammer, William Kristol, and Gerecht argue that the Shiite populations in each country are not close enough to act in accordance and, furthermore, there is even a good amount of suspicion between the two camps and an aversion to cross-border influence. As evidence of such attitudes, these pundits draw an analogy to the Iran/Iraq war in which Iraqi Shiites fought, in large numbers, against their Iranian Shiite counterparts.

This is true, but it is not analogous. A US or Israeli led military strike against Iran would inflame many Iraqi Shiites who would be unified with their Iranian brethren by the imposition of an outsider - and a Christian [or Jewish] one at that with a pretty bad reputation as is. It is no secret that the United States already is the object of rampant scapegoatism in the region and the subject of many bizarre conspiracy theories with little basis in fact. For example, many car bombs that target moderate Shiites are blamed, in the rumor mill, on US missile strikes - despite the illogic of the US targeting cooperative Shiite leaders. In that context, can it really be expected that the Iraqi Shiite population, especially that portion of it under the influence of firebrands like Moqtada al-Sadr, would react apathetically to a US strike on Shiite Iran? That is dangerous thinking.

In addition, if the limited airstrikes option were pursued, the regime in Tehran, fearing for its safety, would be even more determined to acquire nuclear weapons by rebuilding their capacity and less likely to come to the bargaining table at some point in the future - harboring doubts about American motives having suffered an attack.


So, assuming these war game exercises produced a result that was similar to the actual tests conducted within the Pentagon, the Bush administration is faced with a Catch-22 of sorts: it has no attractive military course of action for dealing with Iran, and therefore must pursue diplomatic solutions. Diplomatic solutions, however, are imprecise, imperfect, and indeterminate. They are made even less effectual by the fact that the US has no credible threat to go along with the carrots being offered by our European allies. In light of this, the Bush administration must not create the impression that there are no credible military options because the viability of that threat is necessary to achieve an optimal diplomatic solution, even though the diplomatic solution is mandated by the lack of military avenues.

Here is the conclusion to the Fallows piece.

So this is how the war game turned out: with a finding that the next American President must, through bluff and patience, change the actions of a government whose motives he does not understand well, and over which his influence is limited. "After all this effort, I am left with two simple sentences for policymakers," Sam Gardiner said of his exercise. "You have no military solution for the issues of Iran. And you have to make diplomacy work."
With that in mind, I would expect the Bush administration and its allies to make as much noise as possible regarding Iran, assuming as bellicose a position as can be maintained short of heading down the path to full blown war or armed conflict. I think Hersh might have picked up on some of this posturing - at least that is my hope because I, like the Fallows team, find little appealing about the Iranian options. The Hersh article echoes these conclusions:

There are many military and diplomatic experts who dispute the notion that military action, on whatever scale, is the right approach. Shahram Chubin, an Iranian scholar who is the director of research at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, told me, "It's a fantasy to think that there's a good American or Israeli military option in Iran." He went on, "The Israeli view is that this is an international problem. 'You do it,' they say to the West. 'Otherwise, our Air Force will take care of it.'" In 1981, the Israeli Air Force destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor, setting its nuclear program back several years. But the situation now is both more complex and more dangerous, Chubin said. The Osirak bombing "drove the Iranian nuclear-weapons program underground, to hardened, dispersed sites," he said. "You can't be sure after an attack that you'll get away with it. The U.S. and Israel would not be certain whether all the sites had been hit, or how quickly they'd be rebuilt. Meanwhile, they'd be waiting for an Iranian counter-attack that could be military or terrorist or diplomatic. Iran has long-range missiles and ties to Hezbollah, which has drones - you can't begin to think of what they'd do in response."
Also, consider the fact that one of the participants in the Fallows exercise, Reuel Marc Gerecht, came to similar conclusions as his peers regarding the attractiveness of the options and the overall scenario. Yet a month after The Atlantic article was published, Gerecht published an article in the Weekly Standard (via Legal Fiction) calling for an airstrike on Iran's nuclear facilities or other more involved military intervention. Did he change his mind in a matter of weeks? Or, possibly, did he decide that this pro-war rhetoric must be whipped up regardless of the ultimate decision that the Bush team would make, especially if diplomacy were the path chosen - despite the dangerous nature of this game. One aspect of Gerecht's analysis appears particularly strained in its logic - perhaps indicating a weakness he is glossing over. First Gerecht acknowledges the popularity of the nuclear weapons program in Iran, and its ability to unite seemingly fractionalized and oppositional camps

It is also undoubtedly popular with many ordinary Iranians, who see the nuke as an expression of Iranian nationalism, not as an instrument of mass destruction in the hands of virulently anti-American clerics. The mullahs, who have alienated just about everyone in the country with their incompetence, corruption, and antidemocratic behavior, have accidentally discovered something that gives them prestige and nationalist credentials.
But just a few paragraphs later, Gerecht refutes claims that a series of strikes aimed at obliterating the Iranian nuclear program would give rise to greater anti-Americanism. If the nuclear program is the one thing that Iranians agree on no matter their political persuasion, it would seem likely that there would be a very powerful and unifying anti-American reaction to such a move. Acknowledging this as a possibility, he carves out a scenario by which an anti-American yet pro-democratic movement remains intact and empowered. This seems somewhat more likely than no anti-American reaction, though of little comfort to an American foreign policy apparatus that should be striving for better relations overall, not an acceptable political institution that exhibits the same hostilities. Hersh's article addresses these theories:

The immediate goals of the attacks would be to destroy, or at least temporarily derail, Iran’s ability to go nuclear. But there are other, equally purposeful, motives at work. The government consultant told me that the hawks in the Pentagon, in private discussions, have been urging a limited attack on Iran because they believe it could lead to a toppling of the religious leadership. "Within the soul of Iran there is a struggle between secular nationalists and reformers, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fundamentalist Islamic movement," the consultant told me. "The minute the aura of invincibility which the mullahs enjoy is shattered, and with it the ability to hoodwink the West, the Iranian regime will collapse" - like the former Communist regimes in Romania, East Germany, and the Soviet Union. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz share that belief, he said.

"The idea that an American attack on Iran's nuclear facilities would produce a popular uprising is extremely ill informed," said Flynt Leverett, a Middle East scholar who worked on the National Security Council in the Bush Administration. "You have to understand that the nuclear ambition in Iran is supported across the political spectrum, and Iranians will perceive attacks on these sites as attacks on their ambitions to be a major regional player and a modern nation that's technologically sophisticated." Leverett, who is now a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, at the Brookings Institution, warned that an American attack, if it takes place, "will produce an Iranian backlash against the United States and a rallying around the regime."

While attempts at diplomatic solutions with a regime such as Iran's presents a host of problems, there are no advisable military solutions that would not compromise our efforts in Iraq, and blowback on us in other forms - making matters worse, no options show promise for success of any long lasting or significant nature. In order to induce Iran to offer concessions in any negotiating process, Tehran must perceive the willingness of the US to up the stakes if no acceptable solution is reached (regardless of the truth of this bluff). With this in mind, I am reluctant to take Hersh's warnings as anything but a part of the bluff. Of course, in this regard, I am giving the Bush administration a lot of credit and attributing to them a great deal of restraint that they have not necessarily proven worthy of in the past. The fears expressed by people like
Tim Dunlop, which mirror the hopes of people like Norman Podhoretz, are very real and based on persuasive evidence. Nevertheless, I am hoping in the end that this turns out to be more subterfuge than Part II of World War IV.

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