Why Bush Won't Attack Iran

News & Politics

In every statement on Iran, officials of the George W. Bush administration routinely repeat the party line that "the president never takes any option off the table".

Despite the constant invocation of a possible military attack on Iran, however, a little-noticed section of the administration's official national security strategy indicates that Bush has already decided that he will not use military force to try to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

Instead, the administration has shifted its aim to pressing Iran to make internal political changes, based on the dubious theory that it would lead to a change in Iranian nuclear policy.

News coverage of the U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) issued Mar. 16 emphasised its reference to the doctrine of preemption. But a careful reading of the document reveals that its real message -- ignored by the media -- was that Iran will not alter its nuclear policy until after regime change has taken place.

The NSS takes pains to reduce the significance of Iran's obtaining a nuclear capability. "As important as are these nuclear issues," it says, "the United States has broader concerns regarding Iran. The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom."

Then the NSS states, "The nuclear issue and our other concerns can ultimately be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of U.S. policy.

This carefully worded statement thus explicitly makes regime change -- not stopping Iran's progress toward a nuclear capability -- the goal of U.S. policy toward Iran.

National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace the same day the NSS was released, invoked the document's formulation on Iran policy and suggested that implementation would be guided by whether any particular action would contribute to broader political changes in Iran.

According to a transcript obtained by IPS, Hadley referred to a "strategy of trying to keep the international community together and get Iran to change its policy on the nuclear issue, on support for terror and on its treatment of its own people". He added that the administration would make "tactical decisions in the context of whether it will advance our overall strategy".

Hadley suggested that the NSS formulation amounted to a policy of regime change. "In terms of regime change," he said, "what I have said and what is said in this document is we need regimes to change their policies."

The implications of the NSS and Hadley's remarks for the military option are clear: if the goal of the policy is to achieve internal political change in Iran, which is assumed to lead to a change in nuclear policy, then there is no need for the administration to contemplate an attack on Iran. And if a military attack on Iran might impede progress on political change, the logic of the formulation is that the military option should be avoided.

A report by David Sanger in the New York Times Mar. 19 quoting an administration official in an interview a few weeks earlier further underlines the administration's decision against using force to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

"The reality is that most of us think the Iranians are probably going to get a weapon, or the technology to make one, sooner or later," the official was quoted as saying. The hope, according to the official, was that by the time it happened, "We'll have a different relationship with a different Iranian government."

The official said the "optimists" hoped to delay the Iran's nuclear capability by "10 or 20 years". That statement clearly inflated the time administration officials believe it would take Iran to be able to make a nuclear weapon. Intelligence estimates have consistent estimated Iran capable of building a bomb within five to 10 years.

But the Bush administration will only be in office for another two and a half years, so it knows that Iran will not go nuclear on its watch.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's long and unsuccessful diplomatic campaign to get the five powers (Britain, France, Germany, Russians and China) to agree on a U.N. Security Council resolution under Chapter VII of the charter would have opened up the theoretical possibility of a Security Council-sanctioned U.S. air attack on Iran, thus serving to make that threat somewhat more credible.

But the administration has done nothing to indicate that it actually plans to use a Security Council resolution as the basis for a preemptive attack. On Apr. 30, after a meeting of NATO and EU foreign ministers on Iran in Sofia, Bulgaria, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said "nobody" had "considered the possibility of a military solution in Iran" or of a "coalition of the willing" such as formed to go to war against Iraq, to use military force against Iran.

The only multilateral sanctions against Iran that have been mentioned by administration officials thus far involve "isolating" Iran by cutting off diplomatic contacts and trade. But such a diplomatic and economic isolation strategy depends entirely on other major powers. The United States can't do anything more to isolate Iran, because it has had no diplomatic relations with Tehran for 27 years and has had comprehensive economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic since 1995.

Even if all the powers agree, it would take months for such diplomatic and economic sanctions to go into effect and many more to see what difference they make, if any, on Iran's policy. Meanwhile, however, Iranian scientists will be continuing to master the technology of uranium enrichment.

No one knows when Tehran would be able to claim that it already has the technological know-how to be a nuclear power, even if it does not go to the stage of weaponisation, but it well may be less than two years from now.

Despite the evidence of Iranian success in entering the first stage of uranium enrichment in April this year, however, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has continued to express confidence that the threat of diplomatic and economic isolation of Iran from other major powers will be devastatingly effective.

Appearing on the Fox News show "The O'Reilly Factor" May 31, for example, Rice declared, "I don't believe that the Iranians can tolerate the level of isolation that they will endure if they don't make the right choice."

Rice's confidence in the isolation strategy makes little sense, except as a cover for the administration's quiet abandonment of the military option and its real focus on regime change. That objective is also being pursued through overt funding of Iranian opposition groups (including 75 million dollars to "promote democracy") as well as covert support for armed resistance elements operating in Iran's border areas.

But the advocates of war against Iran are already up in arms over the administration's Iran policy. In the May 8 edition of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, William Kristol ridiculed claims apparently made by Rice and her colleagues privately that they have been merely "reassuring Europeans so as to keep them on board".

"Much of the U.S. government," Kristol concluded, "no longer believes in, and is no longer acting to enforce, the Bush doctrine."

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