Writing about the U.S. becomes more like Alice in Wonderland everyday. Everything is topsy-turvy and nothing follows the usual laws of international relations any more. The world's greatest unipolar superpower is now powerless. It has now become a victim of its own failures. It is trapped in a conundrum, where it is forced to imagine the impossible and do the irrational. It must dig itself in deeper, in the vain hope of coming out the other side of nowhere.
Now, like a great fireworks display before the end of the carnival, the U.S. looks increasingly set to launch one last riotous act of its own futility and impotency, in an air and sea bombardment of Iran. The results can only bring contrary outcomes to its intentions, most especially a total end to its strategy and influence in the Middle East.
The U.S. is caught in a dilemma. It cannot invade, yet at the same time, it cannot just stand by and do nothing. There is some bizarre irony in the fact that, by having lied about weapons of mass destruction in order to invade Iraq, it has rendered itself impotent to stop their proliferation in neighbouring Iran. Now it is cognizant of the fact that time is running out for it. Defeat in Iraq will tie its interventionist hands for a decade or so. Just the time Iran needs to become a nuclear power. So, it will probably now proceed, because it will not have the opportunity to intervene again in the coming period. The best it can hope for is to delay the process of nuclear armament by some years. But it can even fail in this limited objective. Moreover, it will pay a hefty price, and one which is probably much more than it has calculated.
In the first place the very ferocity of the attack needed, will evoke terrific unrest. This will not be a question of a few pin-point operations. For one, the U.S. does not know exactly the number of sites Iran has. Inspectors have so far identified some 20 sites, but they admit it could reach four times that number. A few hundred sorties would not be enough. They will need to fly thousands missions lasting at least a month or more. With sites or potential sites being dispersed throughout Iraq, this would open up greater possibilities for collateral damage and potential U.S. aerial losses during the campaign.
To make matters worse for the U.S., the Iranians have learnt from the last attempt to destroy their nuclear programs by Israel and have made sure that the sites are extremely well protected, dug into re-enforced concrete and rock stretching down dozens of meters and, thus, possibly out of the reach of even the most sophisticated "bunker-busters."
There are now three U.S. task forces in the Gulf region. The problem for them is that Iran has relatively well-developed armed forces. The Americans would surely come under concerted attack from Iranian cruise missiles and sustain noticeable losses. Furthermore, the straits of Hormuz would become closed to shipping and attacks could spread to Gulf States and Iraqi oil platforms and oil refineries.
Short of full-scale war, they can thus do nothing to stop Iran becoming a nuclear power. Even with a massive air bombardment it cannot destroy Iran's nuclear programme. And even if it could (Israel did so once already), Iran will simply rebuild stronger and better. So why try? Possibly the Bush Administration is calculating that it can count on the support of its allies who fear the rise of Iranian and Shiite influence in the region; that the current Sunni/Shia split among the Arab masses means the repercussions will be less profound than before, and it will gain much needed support from Sunnis in Iraq.
Again, just as a complete ignorance of the culture and psychology of the Middle East underpinned the Bush Administration's debacle in Iraq, so to it will lead to a greater catastrophe with regards to Iran. A war with Iran would be quickly seen as an attack on the entire Middle East and the Muslim world. For standing up to the American infidels not only could Iran galvanize considerable support among Arab and Muslims generally, but it could also radicalise the Shiite majorities in Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, eastern Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, (even possibly Azerbaijan where they are also a majority). It could also stimulate Hezbollah to accelerate its efforts to bring down the anti-Syrian government in Lebanon where they are already preparing for a new war with Israel. On the other hand and intervention in Iraq, and/or damage to the Gulf, could bring some retaliatory actions from neighbours, and accelerate a proxy war over the corpse of former Iraq. On top of the hell scenario comes the spectre of a well trained Iranian terrorist network spreading out to hit Western targets around the world - the professionalism of which some claim would make Al Qaeda seems like girl guides.
The "plastic explosive on the cake" would be the use of Israel as an ally or main proxy power in the bombing. There would be no questions about Sunni and Shiite Arab locking ranks in the event. It would raise the regional temperature to fever pitch. Even differences in Palestine could subside and the intifada might restart. A new war in Lebanon would ensue. The exchange of missiles between Tehran and Tel Aviv, Hezbollah and Haifa, together with the conflagration in the Gulf and the sight of heavily damaged or sinking U.S. ships and fighter aircraft would have the Arab and Muslim masses in raptures by their TV sets, regardless of which sect they belong to.
Militarily the U.S. cannot win. Like Hezbollah versus Israel, Iran would be seen as the victorious underdog by the rest of the world and the Middle East, in particular. Moreover, America risks serious losses and damage to an important arm of its services, which until now remains untouched by the Iraq war, and represents its last point of support should other flashpoints erupt elsewhere on the globe namely the navy and air force. Moreover, the damage done to refineries and off shore platforms and other oil and shipping assets throughout the Gulf and the generally instability caused by the war and its consequences, could cause stock markets to plummet and affect world oil prices enough to precipitate a world recession.
Iran will be America's last Middle Eastern War. It will wipe out any lingering standing the U.S. has in the region and the world. It will fundamentally undermine any credibility it has in playing a role in the Middle East peace process. Whatever the damage inflicted, Iran will come out strengthened and the U.S. irreparably weakened. Israel will be left more isolated and consequently in some ways more dangerous than ever. A loose canon at the best of times, its paranoia over annihilation is already driving it towards actions, which brings the possibility closer. Indeed, if there was any country in the region where nuclear disarmament and the dismantling of mass weapons of nuclear, chemical and biological warfare was called for, it is Israel.