Nuclear row : Why Bush is unlikely to attack Iran

In every statement on Iran, officials of the Bush administration routinely repeat the party line that “the president never takes any option off the table”.

Despite the constant invocation of a possible military attack on Iran, however, a little-noticed section of the administration’s official national security strategy indicates that Bush has decided that he will not use military force to try to prevent Iran from going nuclear. Instead, the administration has shifted its aim to pressing Iran to make internal political changes, based on the dubious theory that it will lead to a change in Iranian nuclear policy. News coverage of the US National Security Strategy (NSS) issued March 16 emphasised its reference to the doctrine of pre-emption. But a careful reading of the document reveals that its real message was that Iran would not alter its nuclear policy until after regime change has taken place.

The NSS takes pains to reduce the significance of Iran’s obtaining a nuclear capability. “As important as are these nuclear issues,” it says, “the US has broader concerns regarding Iran. The Iranian regime sponsors terrorism; threatens Israel; seeks to thwart Middle East peace; disrupts democracy in Iraq; and denies the aspirations of its people for freedom.” The NSS states, “The nuclear issue and our other concerns can be resolved only if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to change these policies, open up its political system, and afford freedom to its people. This is the ultimate goal of US policy.”

This carefully worded statement explicitly makes regime change the goal of US policy toward Iran. National Security Adviser Stephen J Hadley, speaking at the US Institute of Peace the same day the NSS was released, invoked the document’s formulation on Iran policy and suggested that implementation would be guided by whether any particular action would contribute to broader political changes in Iran. According to a transcript obtained by IPS, Hadley referred to a “strategy of trying to keep the international community together and get Iran to change its policy on the nuclear issue, on support for terror and on its treatment of its own people”. He added that the administration would make “tactical decisions in the context of whether it will advance overall strategy”.

A report by David Sanger in The New York Times March 19 quoting an administration official in an interview a few weeks earlier further underlines the administration’s decision against using force to prevent Iran from going nuclear. The official said the “optimists” hoped to delay the Iran’s nuclear capability by “10 or 20 years”. That statement clearly inflated the time officials believe it would take Iran to be able to make a nuclear weapon. Intelligence estimates have estimated Iran capable of building a bomb within five to 10 years. But the Bush administration will only be in office for another two and a half years, so it knows that Iran will not go nuclear on its watch.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s long and unsuccessful diplomatic campaign to get the UN Security Council to agree to a resolution under Chapter VII would have opened up the theoretical possibility of a Security Council-sanctioned US air attack on Iran, thus serving to make that threat somewhat more credible. But the administration has done nothing to indicate that it actually plans to use a resolution as the basis for a pre-emptive attack. On April 30, after a meeting of NATO and EU foreign ministers on Iran in Sofia, Bulgaria, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said “nobody” had “considered the possibility of a military solution in Iran” or of a “coalition of the willing” such as formed to go to war against Iraq, to use military force against Iran.

The only multilateral sanctions against Iran that have been mentioned by administration officials thus far involve “isolating” Iran by cutting off diplomatic contacts and trade. But such a diplomatic and economic isolation strategy depends entirely on other major powers. The US can’t do anything more to isolate Iran, because it has had no diplomatic relations with Tehran for 27 years and has had comprehensive economic sanctions against the Islamic Republic since 1995.

Even if all the powers agree, it would take months for such diplomatic and economic sanctions to go into effect and many more to see what difference they make, if any, on Iran’s policy. Meanwhile, Iranian scientists will be continuing to master the technology of uranium enrichment. But no one knows when Tehran would be able to claim that it already has the technological know-how to be a nuclear power.

The advocates of war against Iran are already up in arms over the administration’s Iran policy. The neoconservative William Kristol ridiculed claims apparently made by Rice and her colleagues privately that they have been merely “reassuring Europeans so as to keep them on board”. “Much of the US government,” Kristol concluded, “no longer believes in, and is no longer acting to enforce, the Bush doctrine.” — IPS