Five years ago there was considerable media speculation that the United States was about to bomb Iran to stop its nuclear program. Despite the hype, it was clear that was not going to happen. Times have changed. Now a war with Iran is not imminent, but it is inevitable. And if you liked Iraq, you will love Iran.
A war with Iran will be far worse. For starters, Iran has four times the land area and three times the population of Iraq, so it is not a small challenge. While Iraq had no nuclear program, Iran has a well-developed one, which it claims is for peaceful purposes, with 14 different industrial sites supporting it. Some of them are hardened to withstand an attack and are well defended. So an air war to destroy them won't be easy and a ground war is unthinkable, even for the most hawkish chest-thumpers.
Another problem is the reaction to an American attack. The Bush administration justified invading Iraq by citing its violations of a number of U.N. resolutions. When the United Nations would not authorize the use of force, the United States then ignored it, robbing the operation of its legitimacy. The United States went ahead anyhow, but 48 countries went along. It was a coalition of the coerced and co-opted, but it gave a fig leaf of international acceptability.
If we attack Iran, no country, except perhaps Israel, will be joining us. There will be several Sunni autocrats quietly urging that we hit the Persian Shiites hard, but they will contribute nothing else. No other nation will be willing to kill Iranians and have its forces be killed by them.
While the attack will be condemned around the world, its effect in Iran will be even worse. Invading Iraq brought down Saddam Hussein, but an attack on Iran will consolidate the power of the regime in power. The advocates of war say the Iranians will topple their government once it begins. But an attack will only strengthen the grip of the Iranian leadership just as 9/11 did for President George W. Bush.
At that point the Iranians will have no reason to hide any intention to build a bomb and every reason for doing so. An air campaign would set back their program by two years at best. So it would not be a few air strikes and then victory parades. It would mean a semi-permanent state of war.
And the Iranians will react to being bombed. At a minimum, the unrest and their geographic position on the waterways that carry much of the world's oil will make four dollars for a gallon of gas seem like the good old days.
Then there are the unintended consequences. What if the day after the bombing starts an intelligence report comes in saying factions of the Pakistani military were so angered by an American attack on a fourth Muslim country that some of their nuclear weapons have gone missing and may be on their way to being used?
Is that an impossible scenario from the hosts of bin Laden and the planners of the Mumbai terrorist attacks? A recent New York Times article talked about the real possibility of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal falling into the hands of Islamic extremists.
But why if a war is such a bad idea, is it inevitable? The answer is domestic politics. If Mitt Romney wins in November, he has already made clear, during the Republican debate in Iowa, that Israel will dictate his policy in the Middle East. And he will need a war, just like Mr. Bush, to distract people from the failure of his economic policies, which are just like Mr. Bush's.
If President Barack Obama wins, one might hope for a different outcome. A recent opinion piece in The New York Times was titled "How America Can Slow Israel's March to War." It was written by Dennis Ross. He worked in every administration since Jimmy Carter was president, with the exception of George W. Bush's, and is thought by many to have never been more than a front man for the Israeli right. His program for postponing war consists of providing political cover for an Israeli attack, providing political support once it happens and providing weapons and more weapons to make it possible.
With bunker-busting bombs and midair refueling capabilities donated by the United States, Israel will be able to start a war, but it won't be able to finish one. Invariably the United States will be drawn into the conflict to protect its interests and Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu knows there is a good chance his old friend Mitt won't be moving into the White House. And he knows that once re-elected, his leverage on President Obama will be drastically reduced. So the list has no doubt already been presented to American officials and, in order to avoid a crisis in the midst of an election campaign, promises to fill it have already been made. The article by Mr. Ross is just preparing public opinion for the day the payoff is made.
It would be nice to think war could be avoided, but the steps necessary to do that are unlikely to be taken. On the American side, we could offer to open an embassy in Tehran to conduct some real diplomacy rather than shouting at each other through the media. The United States could also recognize that regime change in Iran will come from within and not through saber rattling from abroad.
As for Israel, Iran would have no excuse for threatening it if peace were made with the Palestinians. The outline of what a settlement would look like has been on the table since the Clinton administration. Mr. Netanyahu is not Menachem Begin, however, who negotiated an agreement with Egypt with the help of Jimmy Carter. Mr. Netanyahu would rather hold on to power than take a chance on peace -- even if that means a war he can't win and the United States can't avoid.
Originally published online for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette