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Tehran at night. (farrokhi/Flickr.)

What's wrong with attacking Iran? Better to ask: What's right?

ASK THIS | January 17, 2012

A former CIA station chief sees no threat to the U.S. from Iran, but a huge threat from attacking Iran.

By Haviland Smith

There is a growing crescendo of calls for the United States to attack Iran.

Backers of such a move until recently had been limited to the same neoconservatives who got us into Iraq, parts of the Israeli government, and hardline American supporters of Israel.

But to the amazement of many who do follow this kind of story, the game changed late last year with an article in “Foreign Affairs” which purported to explain “Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option”. All of a sudden, the idea of attacking Iran became mainstream.

So, what’s wrong with this notion of attacking Iran? Perhaps it’s best to look at it strictly in terms of American national interests, because that is what U.S. foreign policy is supposed to reflect, particularly in matters of war.

Even if Iran is actually in the process of developing a nuclear weapon, how does that represent an existential threat to the United States? The Iranians do not have the required rocketry to deliver it here. Even if they did, the decision to do so would involve Iranian acceptance of the fact that the inevitable retaliatory strike would destroy most of Iran. Because Israel’s nuclear arsenal and delivery systems are so effective, the same is true for Israel. Retaliation for an Iranian strike on Israel, either from Israel or the US, would obliterate Iran and the Iranians know it.

Besides that, the value of nuclear weapons in foreign policy remains valid only as long as those weapons are not used. Once used, once the damage is done, they are irrelevant. If you are among that group of Americans who think of the Iranians as ignorant ragheads, think again. These are educated, intelligent, sophisticated people. They may be annoying, but they are anything but suicidal.

No one can say precisely what is likely to happen if we or the Israelis were to go ahead with a preemptive attack of any kind on Iran, but it is worth looking at the possibilities.

Iran presides over the 34-mile-wide Straights of Hormuz and probably can shut them down for long enough to create economic chaos in the rest of the world. Tanker shipping through the Straights carries 20% of the world’s crude oil. Its denial to worldwide markets, particularly in these times of economic stress, would be catastrophic. It would at least double the cost of crude oil.

Where the Iranians are not sufficiently suicidal to initiate nuclear war, they most certainly would retaliate conventionally against any attack on their own country.

Iran is the 18th largest country in the world. It has a population that exceeds 77 million, a standing army of over 500,000 backed by an active reserve of over 600,000. The military is well-equipped and well-trained. It will contest any foreign attack on its country.

Shiite Iran has co-religionists throughout the Middle East. They constitute 36.3% of entire regional population and 38.6% of the regional Muslim population. The Shiite majority countries are Iran, Iraq, Azerbaijan and Bahrain, homeport of the U.S. Fifth Fleet. Shiite Muslims constitute significant portions (20% or more) of the population in Lebanon, Yemen, Kuwait, Turkey, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

The Arab/Shiite spiritual home is in Iran. Through their Arab co-religionists, Iran has the potential to cause all kinds of trouble for us and our interests in the Middle East, most emphatically including our naval assets and troops in the region. Hamas in Palestine, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Mahdi army in Iraq and the Shiite majority in Bahrain represent only a partial list of the troubles Iran can cause us and Israel through the Shiite populations of the region. None of that considers the worldwide economic impact of the closure of the Straights to energy transport.

Unless the U.S. has some unknown, magical weapon to deploy against Iran that will prevent Iranian retaliation after a raid on their nuclear sites, it would appear that we suffer from a real tactical disadvantage in the Middle East. Unfortunately for us and the rest of the world, that tactical disadvantage has almost limitless potential to morph into a strategic, worldwide, economic disaster.

Attacking Iran is a bad bet.

Posted by Don Greenwood
01/17/2012, 03:20 PM

I don't quibble with Mr. Smith's analysis of the pitfalls of military conflict with Iran, and in fact agree with it. But he doesn't explain where this "growing crescendo" is originating. I certainly haven't seen it in conventional media sources.

Posted by Matt
01/19/2012, 08:28 AM

STRAITS, FFS. Learn to spell!

Posted by Ron Keiffer
01/19/2012, 07:28 PM

Dear Sir, There has been confusion about Iran's capacity to make a nuclear bomb and their decision to make it. For example, Japan and Brazil have the capacity to make a nuclear bomb but choose not to. In the media I've heard of reports that Iran is 6 monthes away from making a nuclear bomb to they haven't decided to make a nuclear bomb. Iran signed a nuclear non profirition treaty. I don't know why the treaty orginization can't accept Iran's claims that it is only interested in nuclear power (Iran needs electricity)and send in inspectors under the terms of the treaty. Indeed, the Chiefs of Staff of the military claim that is exactly what's happening. If there are inspecors in Iran, why is the Atomic Energy Commission in Vienna making such a big stink of Iran getting a nuclear bomb ? Is there so much fear of a nuclear bomb in Iran because ther is fear that a crazy president will sacrifice the people of his country to further extreme Islamic aims? Is the threat of nuclear retaliation against Iran if a terrorist organization that it gives the bomb uses it enough to prevent Iran from giving a nuclear bomb to a terrorist organization ? If a terrorist organization does obtain a nuclear bomb from Iran; can we use a contingency plan like the one that we have in Pakistan to defuse it ? If Iran is not making a nuclear bomb yet, I'm afraid that beligentry and economic sanctions from the U.S. will force it to. I'm afraid that election pressures will force Barak Obama to keep up the hyperbole against Iran. I feel that the only way that Barak Obama can avoid a military conflict and still win re-election is to have some high level diplomacy with Iran and make some kind of deal. Sincerely Yours, Ron Keiffer

Posted by taikan
01/19/2012, 08:05 PM

Smith notes that "[p]erhaps it’s best to look at it strictly in terms of American national interests. . ." Of course it's best to look at this issue, as well as any other issue involving foreign policy and particularly any issue relating to America's participation in a war, "in terms of American national interests." However, it's important to understand which of America's national interests should be viewed as most important.

Most US foreign policy decisions, along with many (if not most) of the actions taken by the author's former employer (the CIA) in Iran and elsewhere, have been taken for near term political reasons and have been based on America's then current, short-term interests. However, foreign policy decisions and actions (including covert actions) by the US military and/or agencies such as the CIA, should only be made only when analysis shows they are likely to benefit America's long term interests.

For example, the overthrow of Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953, engineered by the US, was undertaken to benefit America's short term interests related to Iranian oil. However, it ultimately led to the rise of Khomenei and the current Iranian regime, and thus ended up having a negative impact on America's long-term interests. Similarly, when Ho Chi Minh asked for US assistance in ending the French colonization of Vietnam, based on America's short-term interest in keeping France's favor his request was denied. As a result he requested, and received, assistance from the Soviet Union. The negative impact on America's long-term interests were, as is well known, very significant.

apparently it's all for the best...
Posted by ACitizen
01/21/2012, 02:47 PM

There are people out there that believe that the only way to stop the coming global financial tsunami is WW3. Fits right in with any logic I've seen produced so far. $moke and mirror$ will not work for long.

The primary issue in regaurd to Iran.
Posted by John
02/13/2012, 11:06 AM

Yes, it is true Iran needs electric. Comments like these however, made by Ahmadinejad On October 26, 2005 "Israel must be wiped off the map." Wait did he say this? Or, did he say,"this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time." The oil and all other media hype surrounding this issue are just that hype. These comments are more of a religious nature. And, whether or not Iran could wipe Israel off the map, or, not. The statements he makes are in fact at least aggressive comments. Like if I applied for a gun permit for "my" protection. While in the office I remark how much I hate the ducks in the pond across the street. Now, when ducks wind up dead, what then. He "Ahmadinejad" is unstable for certain. So, we consider war. How does that go? Lets go kill Iranians to save Israeli's from a "potential" threat. How about we mind our own business. We let them fight over there. Someone will win. At that point we will know who we will need to associate with to further our interests. Have we not armed certain of the same groups we now chase? This Middle Eastern war which has been going on for decades x decades, may be, by now, in fact over if we had left them to fight for what they believe. Then at that point they can either, isolate, or, join the rest of the world in things mere, such as, commerce. Commerce, which is our interest.

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