With the bulk of its ground forces tied down in Iraq, the United States has compelling reasons to avoid military action against neighboring Iran even while stepping up pressure to halt its nuclear program, analysts said here.
"There are no good military options," James Carafano, a military expert with the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Friday.
The United States could launch pinpoint strikes on targets in Iran from US warships or from the air. But short of an imminent threat from nuclear armed Iranian missiles, any gain would likely be outweighed by the trouble Iran could cause US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.
Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iran at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Iran "would see any pre-emptive attack as encirclement."
"It would probably react hard to whatever happened, and that would make it more destabilizing than stabilizing," he said in an interview.
"But there would be many people who argue just the opposite," he cautioned.
Indeed, the perception that the United States is embarking on a course of confrontation with Iran has grown here since The New Yorker magazine reported this week that US commandos have been operating inside Iran since mid 2004, secretly scouting targets for possible air strikes.
The Pentagon attacked the story by investigative reporter Seymour Hersh as "riddled with errors of fundamental fact" but did not expressly deny conducting covert reconnaissance missions.
Vice President Dick Cheney, declaring on a radio talk show this week that Iran was "right at the top of the list" of global problems, warned that Israel might launch a pre-emptive strike on its own to shut down Iran's nuclear program.
"Given the fact that Iran has a stated policy that their objective is the destruction of Israel, the Israelis might well decide to act first, and let the rest of the world worry about cleaning up the diplomatic mess afterwards," he said.
But Cheney played down the likelihood of US military action.
"In the case of the Iranian situation, I think everybody would be best suited by or best treated and dealt with if we could deal with it diplomatically," he said.
One reason is that the US military already has its hands full in Iraq, where 150,000 US troops are struggling to contain a predominantly Sunni insurgency.
A ground war with Iran would be unsustainable, Carafano said in an interview.
"We couldn't do another large scale ground operation without a major mobilization that would require mobilizing basically all of the national guard," he said.
"Even if we wanted to do that, it would be pretty obvious because it would take us months if not years to get the national guard up and ready to go."
Even a limited US attack on Iran, which shares a 1,450-kilometer (900-mile) open border with Iraq, would invite Tehran to use its influence among Iraq's Shiites to sabotage the separate peace US forces have enjoyed in southern Iraq. The same is true in Afghanistan, which has a 900-kilometer (560-mile) border with Iran.
"When you're trying to stabilize Iraq and you've got this long border between Iran and Iraq, and you're trying to keep the Iranians from interfering in Iraq so you can get the Iraq government up and running, you shouldn't be picking a war with the Iranians," said Carafano.
"It just doesn't make any sense from a geopolitical standpoint," he said.
Iran is believed to protect its most sensitive facilities by dispersing, burying and hardening them, learning from the 1981 Israeli air strike on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor.
So the payoff from surgical strikes on suspected nuclear facilities would be uncertain and temporary, Carafano said.
"On the other hand," said Cordesman, "one can argue that a successful strike has a powerful intimidating and deterrent impact."
"So there will always be those people who argue that the short-term political cost will be offset by the longer term impact on Iran's political behavior and military capabilities," he said.
Moreover, he said, it's unknown to outsiders how close Iran is to gaining a nuclear weapon, or what the US military has learned about its efforts, further obscuring the course of action the United States may take.
"When you deal with any power that proliferates that is hostile, you are going to constantly update and improve your contingency plans, and you are going to carry out intelligence reconnaissance," he said.
"One problem is, you are going to carry out virtually exactly the same intelligence effort if you are contemplating military options or if you are trying to make arms control work, or put pressure on the UN and Europe to be more effective in their negotiating effort," he said.
"The difficulty here is there is essentially one man who can make this decision. And that's the president of the United States," he said.
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Pentagon Denies Report US Forces Plan Air Strikes In Iran: Report
Washington DC (AFP) Jan 17, 2005
The Pentagon on Monday slammed as fatally distorted a New Yorker magazine report that teams of US commandos have been operating inside Iran since the middle of last year, selecting suspected weapons sites for possible air strikes.
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