There is something slightly surreal and almost prurient about coolly discussing whether to bomb Iran.
In our modern, hyper-connected world, where Facebook, YouTube, iPads, DVDs, Walmarts, McDonald's, Toyotas and music from Adele are inexorably reducing and homogenizing cultural differences, it feels jarring and incongruous to consider dropping explosives into a developed country that will inevitably — sooner or later — join the community of consumerism.
Should we bomb Iran's nuclear facilities? That has been literally the cover story in a host of publications throughout the year. We calmly analyze the damage we could inflict, the flight paths of the bombers, Iran's likely responses and the extent of Mideast turmoil in the aftermath.
The current issue of Foreign Affairs, one of the premier journals in the field, contains an article by Matthew Kroenig, fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, titled "Time to Attack Iran."
Kroenig believes that striking Iran now is the "least bad option." While acknowledging the difficulty of knocking out Iran's many dispersed, fortified and, in some cases, underground nuclear facilities, he argues that a nuclear Iran would be too dangerous to accept. And imagining the raving religious fanatic, President Ahmadinejad, equipped with the bomb, is indeed a scary thought.
Kroenig admits some weak points in his argument. The operation would be very complex, requiring destruction of targets in Natanz, Qum, Isfahan, Arak, Tehran and other sites, and requiring incredibly delicate negotiations with all of the other nations of the region to reach understandings with them about who would undertake what responses to the infinite varieties of retaliation that Iran could undertake following an attack.
But I think that Kroenig and other advocates of bombing Iran downplay five major issues.
First, Iran isn't actually building nuclear weapons. It is enriching uranium — and not to weapons-grade levels. The International Atomic Energy Agency is back in the country, making inspections and monitoring the situation.
Second, war hawks assume too much predictability and manageability in hypothesizing about Iran's reactions to being bombed. After all, if we feel that Iran's rulers are too crazy to be trusted with nuclear weapons, then why won't they be angry, irrational avengers after we attempt to destroy their nuclear program?
Kroenig is entirely too sanguine about how we can "manage" a mined and contested Strait of Hormuz, the missiles that may rain on Israel and southern Europe, the attacks of Hamas and Hezbollah, the Iranian threat in Iraq, and, not least, the behavior of other countries in the region.
Third, the United States, Europe and Asia have only now just achieved a severe sanctions regimen against Iran.
Come July, Iran may have no buyers for its oil. Its currency is falling, its assets have been frozen, and the economic pressures arrayed against it are formidable and rising. For us to go to war before exhausting these nonviolent alternatives is just unwise.
It is true that China, Russia and India are not yet cooperating fully with the sanctions, but there is time to persuade them to join the effort.
Fourth, Iran's government is divided and its decision-making calculus is opaque.
For all of the threats and venom that issue from some Iranian officials, there are moderates who voice dissension within the political class. President Ahmadinejad has to step down next year, and perhaps a more rational leader will replace him, thus tempering Iran's fundamentalisms.
Lastly, look at the year's events in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Morocco, Algeria and even Saudi Arabia. In those countries, people — especially the youths and women — have lost patience with authoritarian governments and the lack of justice generally.
Much of the ancient world is in flux, and Iran may not escape the wave of rising citizen activism that has unseated other long-standing powers. A year ago, nobody predicted the speedy falls of presidents Mubarek, Qaddafi, Saleh, Ben Ali and, soon, Assad. Iran's Shiite theocracy could be next.
This idea of pre-emptive war is a seductive business. We can easily convince ourselves that we are acting for the world's good. But deliberately starting a war should require a very high threshold, and we just aren't there yet.
Bombing Iran would be a big mistake. The most likely best it would achieve is to simply delay Iran's nuke program. The worst it could do — and this is a very real possibility — is trigger a terrible round of retaliation and hostilities that could spiral out of control.
Many parts of the world today are either in chaos, or close to it. With all of the unresolved conflict already under way, we had best be circumspect about adding to it.
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Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.