In a new report for The Century Foundation, Retired Air Force Colonel Sam Gardiner warns that some in the Bush administration are making the case for air strikes aimed not only at setting back Iran’s nuclear program, but also at toppling the country’s government. He says that these officials are undeterred by the concerns of military leaders about whether such attacks would be effective.
“If this uncertainty does not appear to worry the proponents of air strikes in Iran it is in no small part because the real U.S. policy objective is not merely to eliminate the nuclear program, but to overthrow the regime,” he writes. “It is hard to believe, after the misguided talk prior to Iraq of how American troops would be greeted with flowers and welcomed as liberators, but those inside and close to the administration who are arguing for an air strike against Iran actually sound as if they believe the regime in Tehran can be eliminated by air attacks.”
In “The End of the ‘Summer of Diplomacy’: Assessing U.S. Military Options on Iran,” Gardiner explains that the policymakers’ plan is to use targeted air strikes to kill the leadership and “enable the people” of Iran to take over their government. The assumption is that more reasonable, U.S. friendly, leadership will emerge. But, Gardiner says, the plan is dangerously flawed and would more likely yield very different results.
“No serious expert on Iran believes the argument about enabling a regime change,” he reveals. “On the contrary, whereas the presumed goal is to weaken or disable the leadership and then replace it with others who would improve relations between Iran and the United States, it is far more likely that such strikes would strengthen the clerical leadership and turn the United States into Iran’s permanent enemy.”
Gardiner also argues that the administration’s frequent efforts to link Iran and al Qaeda may represent an effort by the Oval Office to authorize air strikes on Iran without first consulting Congress. “This linkage of Iran and al Qaeda fits neatly into the broader effort to sell a strike to the American people,” he wrote. “But more importantly, it opens the way for an argument that a strike on Iran was part of the global war on terrorism already authorized by the Congress. In other words, approval by Congress does not necessarily have to be part of the calculation of when an attack could take place.”
Gardiner identifies what he considers to be some high probability immediate consequences of air strikes on Iran. These include an Iranian strike against Israel, the targeting of U.S. forces in Iraq, and Iran’s channeling more weapons to hard-line Shiite militias in Iraq. Longer-term consequences could include a spike in oil prices and a backlash among other Arab states in the region against the United States.
According to Gardiner’s report, the administration is not seriously seeking diplomatic solutions to the Iran nuclear issue. “From diplomacy to sanctions, the administration is not making good-faith efforts to avert a war so much as going through the motions, eliminating other possible strategies of engagement, until the only option left on the table is the military one,” he writes.
Sam Gardiner is a retired Air Force colonel who has taught strategy and military operations at the National War College, Air War College, and Naval War College. He was recently a visiting scholar at the Swedish Defense College. During the second Gulf War, he was a regular on CNN, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, BBC radio and television, and National Public Radio. He has conducted war games on Iran and North Korea.
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