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How Attacking Iran Would (or Wouldn't) Work

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The public saber-rattling over Iran began in earnest this past weekend, as both the Washington Post and the New Yorker magazine reported on internal debates inside the Bush administration on a military option to deal with Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Monday morning, President Bush dismissed the reports as "just wild speculation," saying such mind games happen "quite frequently here in the nationís capital." But itís a safe bet — assuming Tehran, which shows no sign of backing down, doesnít retreat — that such "wild speculation" will ripen into "informed speculation" and finally into a real live war plan for Bushís approval.

Confused readers — arenít we already mired in a war started because of a Middle Easternís dictatorís nuclear ambitions that didnít turn out to be quite fulfilled? — need to keep a couple of things in mind as this debate unfolds in the coming weeks. First of all, the U.S. military is always war-gaming possible scenarios to attack potentially vexing nations, especially those with a hankering for weapons of mass destruction. Secondly, the U.S. Army and Marines — make no mistake about it — are stretched thin in Iraq and Afghanistan. So if Washington opts for that dubious hat trick — wars under way in Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran, all at the same time — an Iranian attack will come from the skies, not from the ground.

The last time the U.S. military waged an air war against a WMD threat, it was in the form of a four-day bombing campaign against Iraq in December 1998. Dubbed "Desert Fox" by the Pentagon, it got relatively little press because President Clintonís impeachment and doomed House Speaker-to-be Bob Livingstonís extramarital-affair scandal were exploding at the same time. As the attack unfurled, Pentagon officials privately conceded their barrage was based on crude estimates of where Saddam Hussein might be hiding elements of his banned WMD programs.

And indeed, the bombardment didnít disturb the Iraqis all that much. In fact, some simply shrugged it off. "The Iraqis I spoke with were actually quite satisfied and pleased" following Desert Fox, said Charles Duelfer, the WMD expert who went looking for such contraband inside Iraq both before and after the U.S. invasion. "One individual I spoke with said, `Well, gee, if we knew that that was all you were going to doí — meaning the four days of bombing — `we would have ended this [standoff with U.N. arms inspectors], you know, earlier,í" Duelfer told a Senate panel in 2004. Following the bombing, the U.N. remained sidelined in Iraq until just before 2003ís invasion. All this suggests that any U.S.-led military attack on Iran designed to root out — or even merely delay — Tehranís nuclear-weapons program is going to have to be far more violent and sustained than Desert Fox. In other words, any talk of a relatively pain-free surgical strike against Iran would certainly qualify as misinformed speculation.

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