So will Bush nuke Iran?
By MICHAEL BURLEIGH - More by this author »
Last updated at 11:38am on 17th November 2007 Comments (3)
Ignoring the West's requests: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Increasingly powerful voices in the U.S. are urging war against Iran to stop the country acquiring nuclear weapons. This week, in his Mansion House foreign policy speech, Gordon Brown declared the U.S. to be Britain's greatest ally and stressed that Iran's nuclear programme was a matter of concern. But how could the West actually destroy Iran's nuclear capability? Here, one of our leading academics on war and terrorism warns that some in the Bush camp are considering a very dangerous option...
To see how an attack on Iran might begin and then play out is not difficult.
Sceptical public opinion in the West simply won't buy any intelligencebased claims of an imminent Iranian nuclear threat after the lies that were presented at the UN to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
And since 2004, the CIA has virtually no agents operating in Iran anyway, certainly-none able to substantiate intelligence derived from electronic surveillance and satellites.
Any attack is therefore likely to be justified by an IED (Improvised Explosive Device) going off somewhere in Iraq, which kills a significant number of U.S. servicemen, and has the hallmark of Iranian involvement all over it.
A parallel might be the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia which killed 19 U.S. soldiers and was shown to be backed by Iran.
Strenuous efforts will be made to link any such bomb to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard - the elite force of Iranian President Ahmadinejad - in order to justify air strikes to suppress Iran's Russian-made air defence systems.
These consist of about 14 airbases, and the missiles Iran has stationed to command the Straits of Hormuz, the waterway south of Iran through which some 20 per cent of the world's oil supply passes.
These attacks would be the prelude to raids on the Revolutionary Guard bases and installations, which, after the Iranians respond, will escalate into a sustained air assault on Iran's many nuclear facilities.
This is where things will get very dangerous. The main target at Natanz, 150 miles south of Tehran, consists of chambers 75ft below ground in which centrifuges are being produced to make the nuclear cascade which is essential for bomb-making.
One American option is to drop Big Blu, a 30,000lb penetration bomb whose shock waves would destroy everything inside. Another is the B-61-11 bunker-busting nuclear bomb.
Anyone who imagines something akin to the "boomf" of an underground nuclear test with no apparent effect on the surface above the test site would be wrong.
There will be mushroom clouds and huge numbers of radiation victims, far exceeding the 20,000 civilian casualties experts have calculated would ensue from conventional bombing of Iran.
Meanwhile, Special Forces troops would be trying to stoke up tribal and regional uprisings.
Some are already in Iran distributing what is called "walk around" money to the people who might help stimulate rebellion, whether the cash is used to recruit tribal chiefs, scouts or even shepherds.
But Iran will not sit idly by as all this goes on. Since the 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has been a major state sponsor of terrorism, reaching out through surrogates as far away as Argentina where Jewish and Israeli targets have been attacked.
In response to the attacks, Iran will step up its support for Shiite insurgents in Iraq, perhaps contributing manpower as well as the sophisticated weaponry already supplied.
One U.S. officer said: "If we go [to war against Iran], the southern half of Iraq will light up like a candle."
He added that ten Mullahs simply armed with a loudspeaker truck to call locals to action could take Basra from the tiny force left there by the British. The Iranians could also stoke up their fellow Shias in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.
They will also play the Hezbollah card, activating one of the most deadly terrorist organisations in the world. This would result in Hezbollah attacking targets in the West which its operatives are already known to have "pinged" - that is, targets they have already recced and checked for vulnerability.
Iran will encourage the Palestinian Hamas to strike at Israel from Gaza. And while the U.S. will insist Israel does not respond - just as in the first Gulf War when Saddam's rockets fell on Israeli cities - this time they might easily react to such provocation.
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Explosive: War with President Ahmadinejad's Iran could involve nuclear weapons
In the meantime, the U.S. might attack Syria, too, in a two-for-the-price-of-one deal - for like Iran, Syria is an egregious state-sponsor of terrorism.
The risk of terrorism everywhere would increase. Western intelligence has no idea whether Iranian spies have established covert "black stations" to carry out terrorist atrocities in our cities, but such attacks are all too likely.
They do not know either what the Iranians might do with hundreds of al Qaeda operatives, including two sons of Osama Bin Laden, whom they claim to have under housearrest in Tehran.
What if Iran threw its weight behind al Qaeda?
An al Qaeda assisted with the resources of a major state is a more terrifying prospect than an al Qaeda financed as it is by millionaire Gulf Arabs or the chickenfeed it rakes in peddling jihadist videos outside Pakistani mosques and madrassas.
War against Iran would be disastrous and long-lasting. So we should be encouraged by the fact that, instead of going down this route to an unknown destination, Gordon Brown has called for enhanced sanctions, a step the Tories have been advocating for some time.
Trigger happy: Will Bush nuke Iran?
The international community has already imposed sanctions on individuals and organisations - notably the Revolutionary Guard, which was branded a terrorist organisation by the U.S.
But these can be bolstered by restrictions on Iran's access to international capital markets and to the refined petroleum which, paradoxically, it requires despite being one of the world's major oil-rich nations.
Existing sanctions have so downgraded Iran's refineries that it has to import 40 per cent of its petrol.
Harsh secondary sanctions could be introduced against Western firms which continue to trade with Iran - their greed is effectively helping to ratchet up the possibility of war.
Sanctions are not something the Iranians will take lying down either, although blocked bank accounts will elicit a different response from the Iranians than Western bombing raids. At a time when oil prices are nudging $100 a barrel, the Iranians may curb oil exports, or at least redirect them away from the West.
While Britain, France and Germany import little Iranian oil, we would, nevertheless, be affected by higher global oil prices. Other countries such as Japan and Italy - which respectively import 12 and nine per cent of their oil from Iran - and would be even harder hit.
Moreover, these enhanced sanctions depend on the Chinese and Russians playing ball at the UN Security Council. Both countries will, of course, want to cause the over-mighty Americans maximum embarrassment. The hope is that Putin's own concerns about Iran's capacity to cause mischief among the Muslim populations of southern Russia and its neighbouring countries might encourage him to put political power-play aside for the sake of global stability.
Sanctions may be slow and imperfect, but the existing ones against Iran are already having a political effect.
Opposition to Iran's President Ahmadinejad has spread beyond the students in Iran to conservative "traitors" who feel he is taking their country over a precipice, or are embarrassed by his pronouncements about wiping out Israel.
Such "traitors" are influential individuals and include two former presidents as well as the country's top nuclear negotiator, who this week resigned abruptly over policy differences with the President.
If these rifts are the result of the pressure the West has peacefully applied, then it seems insane to further inflame Iranian - and Syrian - hackles through a war that will be launched because of suspicions about Iran's nuclear intentions rather than certainties, and which will hence be illegal in the eyes of the UN.
Besides, yesterday's International Atomic Energy Agency report indicates that Iran has begun to play ball with the inspectors.
Unpopular as it might sound, it is very difficult to argue that Iran should be denied nuclear power for use in a civic capacity. They want it to underline Persian cultural superiority over the neighbouring Arabs and to sell more of their lucrative oil by generating electricity from atomic power.
Both Russia, and now the Gulf states, have already offered to supply Iran with enriched uranium, from plants based in either Russia or Switzerland.
Of course, I acknowledge that some elements of Iran's current regime undoubtedly also want a bomb, although they would need 200 of them to match Israel's nuclear capacity.
But, if it was possible to hammer out a deal with North Korea's Kim Jong-Il to abandon his quest for a bomb, it must be possible to find a diplomatic solution that enables Iran to generate electricity from nuclear power while abandoning a project that will immediately trigger an Arab nuclear arms race from Cairo to Riyadh.
For other countries in the Middle East are not going to tolerate much longer the major unintended result of the Iraq war, namely Iran's emergence as the regional big power.
The possibility that Iran might be reintegrated into the international community in return for abandoning its suicidal quest for nuclear weapons is exactly the strategy Gordon Brown should explore before the West ends up plunging yet another part of the Muslim world into the chaos from which terrorism flows.
Every option needs to be exhausted before anyone contemplates a war whose effects will make the aftermath of the Iraq war look like a walk in the park.
• Michael Burleigh's Blood And Rage: A Cultural History of Terrorism will be published in February.