November 10, 2009

Iranian intransigence and American options

I have been extremely critical of President Obama's policy toward Iran. I even called his policy feckless - and I still believe I am correct. At some point, the President is going to realize that Iran has no intention of abandoning its quest for a nuclear weapons capability, regardless of his attempts to "engage" or negotiate. It only makes him, and by extension the United States, look weak. Each time Obama or his Secretary of State makes another overture to Iran and it is soundly rejected, he looks like a beggar seeking any island of success in what has been a sea of policy failures in the region.

Okay, let's assume the President calls me on it. What are our options in dealing with Iran? They are few. Allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon, or do something about it - now.

First - we need to stop appearing to be weak. We are by all measure still the pre-eminent military and economic power on the planet. (I will forgo comment on the President's economic policies.) When I recall my dealings with the Iranians over the years, I am reminded of their reaction to the Iran Airbus incident of 1988. On July 3, 1988, the USS Vincennes accidentally shot down Iran Air flight 655 over the Persian Gulf, killing all 290 people on board.

For years after that incident, Iranian officers I encountered abroad insisted to me that they believed the attack was deliberate and meant to send a message to the Iranians that the United States would not allow Iran to prevail in the Iran-Iraq War. By the time of the incident, the war had been raging for almost eight years. The United States in 1988 began "clandestinely" supporting Iraq - it was not a well-kept secret. Several of the officers confided that they were afraid of the United States. That's a good thing, and something that can be exploited.

Second, tell the Iranians clearly where we stand. State unequivocally that the United States will not allow Iran to possess a nuclear weapon. It's that simple - they need to know we are serious. Explain that if they continue on their current path, if they continue to enrich uranium and develop technologies that have only nuclear weapons applications, the United States will act. We have already shown extraordinary patience, but that patience has run out. It is time for the Iranians to realize they are dealing with a superpower. Say it and mean it.

Third, back up your words. Direct the Joint Chiefs of Staff to prepare contingency plans for possible operations against Iran. Do this with the same publicity that you are usuing in deliberating and determining a course of action - which is long overdue - in Afghanistan. You maintain that the "all options" are still on the table - that includes the military option.

Make sure the Iranians understand that you know you are the commander in chief of capable extremely military forces. Hint, no, don't hint, be very clear - while there may be a perception that American is busy with two wars, those wars primarily involve ground troops. A military blow to Iran will come from the air and sea. That doesn't give away any secrets, it simply reflects common sense.

It would not hurt to start a modest buildup of military assets in the area - that means U.S. Navy carrier groups and combatants, and U.S. Air Force land-based aviation assets. Move enough missile-carriers and bomb-droppers to create a credible threat to the Iranian nuclear program. There may be some doubt that the Israeli air force can mount enough of an attack at the extreme combat radius of their aircraft in mostly hostile airspace. There should be no doubt that American air power does not suffer from the same limitations - that air power also includes a host of very accurate standoff weapons.

The window of opportunity for Iran to modify its behavior should be closing. The United States, in conjunction with allies if possible, or alone if necessary, should be prepared to do what has to be done. Make a nice speech - you're really good at that - but make sure you get the message across.

After diplomacy is exhausted - it appears to me that it is going nowhere - and the military option be the last resort, we should be prepared for the inevitable Iranian response. The Iranians will no doubt mobilize their terrorist proxies, most notably Hizballah in Lebanon and both Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip. They may attempt to attack American military ships and bases in the Middle East. In the extreme, they may even launch some sort of missile strike against Israel.

We must be very reticent about this - if we start it, we should be prepared to finish it. Many Iranians and possibly many Israelis will die.

The bottom line: if we are serious about denying the Iranians a nuclear weapons capability, we need to be committed to that position. Otherwise, stop posturing, admit another policy failure and start planning for dealing with a nuclear-armed Iran.