The Magazine

To Bomb, or Not to Bomb

That is the Iran question.

Apr 24, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 30 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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WHEN I WAS RECENTLY in Paris, a French diplomat explained to me why he--and many others in the French foreign ministry--thought the United States would, in the end, bomb Iran's nuclear-weapons facilities. Owing to Chinese and Russian obstreperousness, the United Nations would probably fail to agree on any sanctions, let alone a sanctions regime with sufficient bite to intimidate the mullahs. The Europeans--at least the French, Germans, and British if not the Italians--would do a bit better, primarily because the French, despite their laissez-passer cynicism and their Gaullist pride vis-à-vis the United States, have developed a strong distaste for the clerics. The mullahs did, after all, once bomb Paris and kill a slew of prominent Iranian expatriates on French soil; and the French don't particularly care for religious Third Worlders' joining the nuclear club. France might even lead the sanctions charge against Tehran--an astonishing historical moment for the Fifth Republic, which has usually aligned itself with Muslim Middle Eastern regimes or cultivated a profitable neutrality, especially when the United States was involved on the opposite side.

But this nouvelle différence française, alas, would not in all probability dissuade the Islamic Republic's nuke-loving theocrats. The Iranians would proceed, my French friend thought, with little of the dialogue-of-civilizations finesse and moderation they exhibited during the presidency of Mohammad Khatami--probably the period when the clerical regime made its greatest advances in its nuclear-weapons program. Iran's most politically savvy cleric, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, is trying hard to align most of the clerical establishment behind him, even the reformist and dissident mullahs who hate his guts, to ensure the fire-breathing president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, doesn't scare foreigners too much with his Khomeinist language and thought. Rafsanjani, the true father of the Islamic Republic's nuclear "energy" program, loathes the diehard ex-Revolutionary Guard Ahmadinejad, who threatens to ruin, among other things, Rafsanjani's hitherto successful strategy of dividing the Europeans from the Americans.

But Rafsanjani probably won't be able to corral Ahmadinejad. (He who triumphs at home is likely to triumph abroad, and the new president has been remarkably successful in replacing provincial governors and appears to be commencing a fresh purge of the country's universities.) In any case, the Americans will grow more anxious. Tehran will likely become even more bellicose toward the United States and Israel. Adding fuel to the fire, the clerical regime will continue to test new and improved ballistic missiles, extending range and payload.

The Iranian-American enmity will, my French friend reasoned, kick into high gear. The White House will admit that it can no longer diplomatically maintain the international processes designed to thwart the mullahs' acquisition of nuclear weaponry. George W. Bush, who has described a bomb for the terrorism-fond clerics as "unacceptable," will decide that further delay in attacking the known crucial facilities will only allow the mullahs to disburse clandestinely sufficient enriched uranium to fabricate nukes. The administration may well get a strong indication, either through its own resources or those of a foreign-intelligence service, that Iran is very near the red line in the production of weapons-grade uranium, and all the geostrategic and terrorist possibilities of a clerical nuke that now seem frightening but abstract will seem imminent. Therefore, so they reason, the Americans will let loose the U.S. Air Force and Navy even though George W. Bush, the State Department, the CIA, and the Pentagon really would prefer to do anything else.

So: The black-white rigor of French logic aside, does bombing the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities make sense? What are the downsides of such action? Do the negatives outweigh the good that would come from the demolition of Iran's facilities? The repercussions from an American strike, inside Iran and out, would surely be massive. The French are certainly right: The diplomatic process, no matter how hard the Europeans and the Americans may try, is coming to a close. Unless the Iranians prove more helpful than they have been since the election of Ahmadinejad and, as important, since the highly intelligent and tough former Revolutionary Guard commander Ali Ardeshir Larijani assumed responsibility for the nuclear portfolio in August 2005, it will take a near miracle to keep the diplomatic dialogue going on this subject for more than another twelve months.