Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Iranian Bomb Scare

The Wall Street Journal:
In the matter of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, these columns aren't often complimentary. But the Iranian president does have an exquisite sense of timing.

Mr. Ahmadinejad announced yesterday that the Islamic Republic had for the first time enriched uranium to reactor-grade levels. "This is a starting point for more major points of success for the Iranian nation," says the man who repeatedly calls for Israel to be "wiped off the map." This announcement puts Iran in formal breach of a U.N. Security Council resolution. It also indicates that Iran has the know-how, if not yet the industrial base, to build an atomic bomb. READ MORE

Maybe this will now focus minds on the real Iranian bomb scare -- the risk that a repressive regime with huge oil and gas reserves, "revolutionary" ideals, regional ambitions and a global terrorist network will be in a position to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons.

In recent weeks, however, too much attention has been paid to a different bomb scare: Reports that the Bush Administration has plans for air strikes on Iran's nuclear-related installations.

Those reports got some added media play last week following the publication of an article by New Yorker staff journalist Seymour Hersh, which claims the Bush Administration is seriously considering a tactical nuclear strike against some of Iran's hardened, deeply buried weapons' installations.

If Mr. Hersh's (mostly unnamed) sources are to be believed, U.S. Navy fighters have been flying "simulated nuclear-weapons delivery missions" over the Arabian Sea. He quotes a "former senior intelligence official" who says, ominously, that "'Decisive' is the key word of the Air Force's planning. It's a tough decision. But we made it in Japan." This same former official also claims "the attention given to the nuclear option has created serious misgivings inside the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff . . . and some officers have talked about resigning." Yet the White House is said to be gung-ho.

This alleged war fever is hard to credit, given that for three years the Bush Administration has deferred to Europe in pursuing a diplomatic track on Iran. On Monday, President Bush called the stories "wild speculation." And in fact, it's Iran that has escalated the situation by deceiving U.N. inspectors, indulging in incendiary rhetoric and abandoning its international commitments. Tehran has even resisted Russia's offer to let it enrich uranium in that country under Moscow's supervision.

For our part, we only hope the Administration has a full range of military contingency plans for Iran. Such planning is in one sense routine -- the Pentagon constantly devises war games for every conceivable situation against every conceivable adversary. But it would also be irresponsible for the Administration not to draw up contingency plans given the threat Iran increasingly poses -- a point that should be especially well-taken by critics of the Iraq War who claim the Bush Administration was negligent in its postwar planning.

Just as important, overt military planning is essential if diplomacy is going to have any chance of succeeding with Iran. The only time the mullahs have given any sign of bending on the nuclear issue is when Europe and the U.S. have appeared to be united in holding Iran accountable. Even Jacques Chirac seems to appreciate this, since he's the one Western leader, or shall we say cowboy, who has actually suggested using nuclear weapons against Iran if it came to that. The phrase "whoever wishes for peace, let him prepare for war" was not coined by George W. Bush.

The more vital question is whether the U.S. has the intelligence, and the means, to destroy Iran's nuclear capability if we had to. Last year's Robb-Silberman report on U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq noted that the quality of American information on Iran was even more abysmal. Fixing this is clearly a priority.

Also a priority should be developing the so-called bunker buster bomb, a low-yield nuclear weapon capable of destroying deeply buried targets. Much of Iran's nuclear program is thought to be buried, and while the U.S. has conventionally armed bunker busters, they might not be as capable as low-yield nukes.

Theologians of arms control have tried to portray bunker busters as uniquely frightening weapons. And Congress, led by Ohio Republican David Hobson, has cut off funding even for more research. The idea seems to be that if we develop such weapons we might actually be more likely to use them. But in fact, such weapons are more likely to be credible against a potential enemy than are giant 200-kiloton nuclear weapons that would kill thousands of innocent civilians as well as any military target. The entire point of low-yield bunker busters is to do less damage, not more.

We suspect that much of this Iranian bomb scare has less to do with actual war plans than with an attempt to portray Mr. Bush as war-happy in an election year and when we are already in a hard slog in Iraq. But if it also has the added effect of persuading Tehran's mullahs that the U.S. is serious about not letting them get the bomb, then maybe this "speculation" will have done some good.