Sunday, April 09, 2006

DOES IRAN WANT WAR?

That's what Ralph Peters asks in this excellent essay.

THE most dangerous error we could make in our sharpening confronta tion with Iran is to con vince ourselves that its leaders will act rationally. Few wars are rooted in dispassionate analysis. Self-delusion sparks most such catastrophes.

The power brokers in Tehran may be on the verge of misjudging America's will and resources as profoundly as did the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, or al Qaeda on Sept. 11, 2001.

Stalin misread America's will when he acquiesced in the Korean Communist invasion of the south. So did Castro, when he imagined that he could impose a tyrannical regime on Grenada.

Saddam Hussein misread America, too. Twice. First, when he convinced himself that he could grab Kuwait with impunity, and, second, when he did his weapons-of-mass-destruction fan dance. (Bulletin for Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad: Don't play the I've-got-weapons-you'd-better-be-afraid-of card.)

Given that historical record, what should we expect of a radical-theocrat regime that has no serious grasp of American psychology, that rules an embittered populace it longs to excite and unify, and that believes it's literally on a mission from God?

IN recent weeks, Tehran has anxiously publicized its tests of surface-to-surface missiles, of air-to-ground missiles and even of torpedoes. The intended point is that, if the shooting starts, Iran can close the Strait of Hormuz to oil tankers - disrupting the global economy - while striking any other target between Israel and Afghanistan.

The crucial question is whether the Iranians are still playing at brinksmanship, hoping to spook us into passivity as they build nuclear weapons, or if they've already convinced themselves that a conflict with the United States is inevitable.

Given the closed nature of Iran's ruling clique, it's impossible to know. The most-probable situation is that differing factions within the leadership are at different stages of willingness for war, with some ready to fight and others fearful. Cooler heads may prevail - but "cooler heads" is a relative term in Tehran.

Have the inner-circle Iranian leaders replicated yesteryear's decision-making process of Osama bin Laden and his deputies in their Afghan camps - a hothouse atmosphere in which limited evidence was processed selectively and mutual-enablers convinced each other that a few attacks on American landmarks would drive Washington into a global retreat?

Have the Iranians failed to understand the real implications of 9/11? Do they believe that sinking a few oil tankers or even a U.S. Navy ship or two would drive us from the region? Has flawed, impassioned faith led to faulty geo-strategic calculations?

The most worrisome possibility is that they may have convinced themselves they can win.

FROM the Iranian perspec tive, it may appear that we're fully committed militarily - and they've probably wildly over-estimated the "anti-war" constituency in the U.S. Tehran certainly evidences no understanding of the depths of America's military resources, of our decision-making processes - or of NASCAR America's inevitable reaction to attacks on our Navy (or on the fuel supplies for our SUVs).

Whether or not President Ahmadinejad is a madman, he speaks like one. He has no past experience of global statecraft and no grasp of the different mental and moral structures of other civilizations. The extent to which his ability to calculate objectively has been suppressed by a psychological addiction to religious extremism remains an open question. But the portents look bleak.

What might the Iranians expect, if brinksmanship fails? Or from an impulsive leap from peace to war?

The extremists in Tehran actually may believe that they could win a military exchange, that they could stymie our Navy in the Gulf, interrupt oil exports and make any conflict so costly to us and to the world economy that we'd be forced to back down. They doubtless count on support from Beijing and Moscow - much as Saddam did.

Their calculations would be devastatingly wrong.

We can hope otherwise, but Iran's leaders may already have concluded that war is unavoidable - and even desirable, for religious, regional and domestic reasons. With Tehran pursuing nukes, parading its military, disrupting Iraq and issuing statements so rabid that they alarm even the regime's foreign backers, it's time to prepare for the worst.

SHOULD Tehran ignite a combat exchange, we need to ensure not only that Iran's nuclear-weapons program is crippled, but that its broader capabilities are shattered.

Militarily, it will be time for our Air Force to prove its worth, with the Navy in support. Iran's recent experience of conflict is of attrition-based land warfare. But there's no need for us to employ conventional ground forces inside Iran (special operations troops are another matter). We'll have to watch the Iraqi and Afghan borders, but our fight would be waged from the air and from the sea.

If we're pulled into war, we need to strike hard and fast - before Iran's allies can make mischief in international forums. We should destroy as much of Tehran's nuclear infrastructure as possible, eliminate its air force and air defenses and wreck its naval facilities beyond repair - no matter the collateral damage. The madmen in Tehran must pay an unbearable price.

The results within Iran would be unpredictable. Fiercely nationalistic, the country's core Persian population might unify behind the regime, setting back our hopes for an eventual rapprochement with a post-Islamist government.

Alternatively, the regime may be weaker than we think and could topple of its own weight. Or it may continue to muddle through miserably for years. Iran's military could remain loyal to the mullahs or, sufficiently battered, might turn upon them. We don't know what would happen because the Iranians themselves don't know. The variables and dynamics are simply incalculable.

BUT a half-hearted military response to Iranian aggres sion would only strengthen the confidence of our enemies and invite future confrontations.

We pulled too many punches in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and now we're paying the price. If Tehran drags us into war, we should make the conflict so devastating and painful that even our allies are stunned.






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