By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the United States' joint chiefs of staff, caused a media stir by revealing on Sunday that the US has prepared a plan of attack on Iran, once again reminding Tehran that "all options are on the table" and that the fury of US military might may soon descend upon Iran if it continues with its controversial nuclear program.
Such calculated escalation of Washington's rhetoric elicited an expected Iranian denunciation and the pledge of a firm response throughout the Middle East and beyond. Despite its superpower wherewithal, the US military has major areas of vulnerability that Iran can exploit, primarily though the overstretch and drain on resources of already fighting in two theaters of conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the proximity of US forces to Iran and its intermediate and long-range missiles.
US ships' vulnerability to anti-ship cruise missiles and Iran's ability to strike back at any attack in the region, including Lebanon, Gaza, and above all the narrow Strait of Hormuz, are also considerations leading to the conclusion that an aggressive response would likely instigate a regional conflagration. Amid estimates that oil prices could nearly double with the onset of any military flare-ups between Iran and the US or Israel, an attack leading to an aggressive response would be detrimental to the world economic recovery.
It is therefore pertinent to question Mullen's passing reference to such an attack's "unintended consequences". Mullen seems to have forgotten his own insight, shared with an audience at Columbia University in April, that an attack on Iran could be "incredibly destabilizing", perhaps as much as the possession of nuclear bombs by Tehran itself.
That was then. Now, all of a sudden, the US media is inundated with hatched commentaries on "the case for attacking Iran", often by pro-Israel pundits trying to minimize the risks of an attack on Iran, some portraying this as a convenient "surgical strike" to knock off Iran's nuclear installations and thus set back Iran's program for many years.
More serious US pundits on the other hand are somewhat more cautious. A recent "war game" at Brookings Institution concluded that an attack on Iran "could easily spin out of control''. Any idea that Iran would respond to an attack with a great deal of huff and puff but ultimately self-restraint in the face of overwhelming US-Israeli firepower would be a recipe for disillusionment.
US and or Israeli military planners are unlikely to harbor the false notions of the hatched commentaries, and must surely know that Iran's Revolutionary Guards will strike back as hard as they can, for example, by attacking the US Navy in the Persian Gulf. In such a scenario, the limited "surgical strike" would simply prove to be the instigator of a wider war, triggering chained reactions that in all likelihood would indeed spiral out of control, as the US would commence an aerial bombardment of the guards' military bases, and attack Iran's navy and airforce. Iran would respond to the "asymmetrical warfare" by sending waves of suicide attacks on US's interests, and instigate rocket and missile attacks on Israel, and the like.
Protracted warfare engulfing an entire region is the most likely "unintended consequence" of an attack on Iran, a bleak prospect that can be rationally predicted in terms of its prohibitively high costs even though causing such dire consequences may not be the attacking forces' intention.
Indeed, it would have been appropriate for the host of NBC's news program to whom Mullen revealed that war plans had been drawn up to ask the admiral "what do you think are the likely consequences" of an attack on Iran? Unfortunately, as for the most part they have sheepishly toed the official line, compliant US television networks have produced no meaningful debate, with pro-Israel pundits thirsting for war enjoying nearly unchallenged sway over public opinion.
The entire machinery of US print and electronic media has adopted as an article of faith that Iran is actively pursuing nuclear weapons and is getting dangerously close to acquiring the nuke "capability". What should be an open question has been treated as rather moot and self-evident, with an array of "experts" from Harvard and other elite universities and think tanks lending authority to this conclusion, thus removing it from the realm of genuine debate. Hardly any of the experts bother to pose the question, "What if we are witnessing a recycling of the run-up to the Iraq war, in other words, another WMD hype that may turn out to be false just as it was with Iraq?"
Such disconcerting "what if" questions are cast away from the mainstream American discourse on Iran and, instead, we are witnessing the total absence of any "Iraq lesson" applied to the case of Iran, perhaps save the lessons about counterinsurgency. The "unintended consequence" of failing to learn from history is, however, that the world could be imposed upon with the horror and devastation of another war of choice that could still be avoided through prudent diplomacy from both sides of the on-going nuclear standoff.
Ironically, Mullen's statement on NBC coincided with the news from Iran's foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, that Iran had received "positive signals" from the Vienna Group - comprising the US, Russia, France, and the International Atomic Energy Authority (IAEA) - regarding proposals for a nuclear fuel swap. Clearly, the US is playing a double-handed game with Iran, its mixed signals indicating a conflicted administration that may neutralize efforts of its own that could result in a small yet significant breakthrough via the fuel swap; efforts which can transpire only in a calm environment.
But, as the IAEA prepares the ground for a new round of Iran-Vienna group meeting, the US's incendiary rhetoric is simultaneously poisoning the environment conducive for a nuclear breakthrough. That is one "unintended consequence" that Mullen and other US officials do not seem terribly concerned about.
Kaveh L Afrasiabi, PhD, is the author of After Khomeini: New Directions in Iran's Foreign Policy