Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may be crazy, but he's not stupid. Bashar Assad may be stupid, but he's not crazy. Between them lie Israel and Iraq. Assad aims to use Israel as the means of avoiding the consequence of ordering murder, Ahmadinejad as proof of his nation's ascendance to the status of terrorist superpower. Iraq, if Ahmadinejad succeeds, will be Iran's first colony in the new Islamic caliphate.
An Iranian dissident group this past week predicted an Iranian nuclear test before March 20. It is entirely possible that Iran may be ready to test a nuclear weapon, but to do so at this moment would seem contrary to Iranian interests because such action would almost certainly result in an Israeli attack. But would it? Perhaps.
Saturday, Israel's defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, said that Israel "will not accept Iran's nuclear armament" and hinted that Israeli forces were planning a strike to knock out Iran's nuclear facilities. A day later, Iranian foreign minister Hamid Reza Asefi said, "Israel knows just how much of a fatal mistake it would be [to attack Iran]....This is just a childish game by Israel." If Iran were to explode a nuclear warhead, the Israelis would be driven to attack. Israel has the ability to attack Iran, but it cannot -- due to distance and Iran's hardened and widely dispersed facilities -- attack with the conclusiveness it did in 1981 in Iraq. Iran's nuclear capability would survive, and the resulting war would be fought -- almost entirely by aircraft and missile -- across Iraq, which sits between them. And so does America.
As John Batchelor reported in AmSpecBlog two days ago, Bashar Assad of Syria accused Israel of assassinating Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat, whose cause of death has never been fully explained. It mattered little to Assad that his remarks came only days before Palestinian January 25 elections. His accusation was aimed directly at stirring Palestinian violence rather than the election. Assad is under increasing pressure from the UN investigation of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, which Assad obviously ordered. If the Palestinians can be incited to begin a huge new terror campaign, attention will be drawn to Israel's response and -- Assad assumes -- the investigation will fall off the UN's radar. The Palestinians have always been a tool of Israelis' enemies, a reliable and expendable proxy force. The Syrian will -- if he can -- use the Palestinians as cannon fodder. Syrian incitement to terror will not rest on Assad's words. They will be accompanied by money, weapons and direct political pressure on Palestinian terror groups.
The two statements -- Assad's and Asefi's -- surrounding a visit by Ahmadinejad to Damascus are anything but coincidental. They help explain the Iranian endgame for the Middle East.
JUST AS SYRIA WANTS TO USE the Palestinians as a diversion, so Iran wants to use Syria to begin a tidal wave of diplomatic pressure on Israel. An Iranian nuclear test would not end the European diplomatic campaign aimed at blocking Iran's nuclear weapons program, but only change its direction. The Europeans and Japan will not join a trade embargo against Iran. For them to do so would demolish their fragile welfare state economies. Iran is preparing for a long diplomatic siege, calling for a 1 million barrel per day OPEC production cut and moving its financial assets out of Europe. These measures alone (even if the production cut isn't agreed on at the late January OPEC meeting) are enough to muzzle Europe. In the coming diplomatic battles, Israel will be isolated even more than it is now. If Israel has to crack down on Palestinian terrorist and then attacks Iran, UN sanctions against Israel would be debated for months, removing any threat of action on UN sanctions against Iran.
An Iranian nuclear test would leave Israel no choice but to attack with or without American permission or help, and regardless of the fact that it could not accomplish the desired result. President Bush has said, repeatedly, that we will not permit Iran to have nuclear weapons. But his position has always been calculated on the basis that there is time to prevent that occurrence peacefully. What will he do if Iran tests a nuclear weapon?
If Iran's nuclear ambition is a fait accompli, the equation is changed radically. If Iran has nuclear arms, it will -- immediately -- take the position of a regional superpower. None of its neighbors (really, none of the nations within range of an Iranian weapon except Israel) will be able to resist Iran's domination. And, with the Shahab-3 and -4 missiles the Iranians have, the threat from Iran would include nations as far away as Germany. The Islamic caliphate will have begun its restoration.
To attack Iran's nuclear capability, the president would have to risk what has been accomplished in Iraq. If an Israeli attack were made, the Israeli and Iranian air forces -- and missile exchanges -- would cross Iraqi skies. Because the antagonists' ground forces are unable to enter each others' territory, Iranian ground forces could enter southern Iraq at the invitation of radical Shia such as Moqtada al-Sadr. If an American attack on Iran were decisive -- destroying not only the nuclear capability but also decapitating the mullahs' regime -- the Iraqi Shia would not have the motive to use military force against the Sunni minority and Iran wouldn't be able to force them to do so. The Iraqi Shia are Arabs, not Persians, and aren't willing to submit themselves to Persian rule. But if an attack didn't clearly destroy the Iranians' nuclear capability, the Iraqi Shia could be forced to attack the Sunni and demand American withdrawal. A very large war will have begun that could again array all of Israel's neighbors (save only Iraq) against it. Israel barely survived its last major war in 1973. It may not survive this one.
THE WAR WITH IRAN WILL have to be fought and we will, of course, defend Israel as best we can. But much bloodshed can be avoided, and Iran's nuclear objective put out of reach if we seize the advantage we gave up to Saddam in the UN. Surprise is a strategic advantage we must retain.
The alternative to a large war, which no one speaks about, is a surprise attack against Iran mounted before Israel acts, and before the predicted Iranian nuclear test happens. Such an attack would employ several unconventional weapons at once and could -- if managed properly -- be over before Iran knows it has begun. The world must know that we have done it. But after, not before.
It may be that Iran's Chinese allies are doing more than helping develop its missiles. It may be that Iran's Russian trading partner is doing more than providing defenses against air attack. But neither is likely to be providing Iran with the means of effectively defending against our other capabilities.
It could, and should, be made one dark night. B-2 stealth bombers, each carrying twenty ground-penetrating guided munitions, can destroy much of Iran's nuclear facilities and government centers. Some might carry reported electro-magnetic pulse weapons that can destroy all the electronic circuits that comprise Iranian missiles, key military communications and computer facilities. And it may be that we have the ability to attack Iran's military and financial computer networks with computer viruses and "Trojan horses" that will make it impossible for Iran to function militarily and economically. Our strategy must be implemented before Ahmadinejad can test his nukes. Whether that test can happen next month or next year is immaterial. The time for us to act is now.
TAS contributing editor Jed Babbin is the author of Inside the Asylum: Why the UN and Old Europe Are Worse Than You Think (Regnery, 2004).