America's Next War?

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“The United States of America will not permit the world’s most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world’s most destructive weapons.” This is the heart of the Bush Doctrine from the president’s “axis of evil” address to Congress. And the nations that constituted that axis were Iraq, Iran and North Korea.

Under this doctrine, Iraq was invaded, Saddam overthrown and his army disbanded, though we have yet to find any of the “world’s most destructive weapons.”

With North Korea, the train has left the station. Pyongyang can now produce nuclear weapons and may possess half a dozen. For nations like North Korea and men like Kim Jong Il do not build costly and complex ballistic missiles simply to throw conventional explosives across an ocean.

Which leaves Iran. With Moscow’s assistance, Tehran has been constructing a nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Once operational, Bushehr will, like Yongbyon in North Korea, yield plutonium as a byproduct.

Last year, the International Atomic Energy Agency also stumbled on a secret uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz. Its centrifuges were found to contain traces of weapons-grade uranium. Highly enriched uranium, U-235, is a component of atomic bombs. Little Boy, dropped on Hiroshima, had a uranium core. Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki, had a plutonium core.

Lately, an effort by Russia, France and Germany to have Iran open up its nuclear plants to inspection has been rebuffed by Tehran. Having seen how America dealt summarily with Iraq, but proceeds gingerly with North Korea, Tehran has likely concluded that when a superpower is threatening pre-emptive strikes and preventive war, only nuclear weapons can deter it. Those who do not have such deterrents get the Saddam and Taliban treatment.

So it appears that the decisive test of the Bush Doctrine will come in Iran. And that test is probably not far off.

The Israelis have reportedly practiced strikes on Iran by crossing Turkish airspace and have special forces in the Kurdish regions of Iraq. There are rumors Sharon has told the White House that if we do not effect the nuclear castration of Iran, Israel will do the surgery herself, because she cannot live under the cloud of an atomic bomb in the possession of the patrons of Hezbollah.

Enter the “cakewalk” neoconservatives. Though disastrously wrong about Iraq’s receptivity to U.S.-imposed democracy, and though they face disgrace and oblivion if Bush loses, they have one last card to play: That is to have America widen her wars with Afghanistan and Iraq with a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. For the neoconservatives, Iraq was simply Phase II of “World War IV” for imperial domination of the Middle East and serial destruction of the regimes in Iraq, Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, as well as of Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Authority.

The neocons have not abandoned this imperial project. Nor has Bush removed a single one from power, though they may yet cost him his presidency. And the neoconservative commentariat is again beating the drums for war — this time on Iran.

This is their hole card. If they can ignite a new war, the country may forget how they bungled the old war. In escalation lies vindication.

And, in truth, Iran is a matter the president and Pentagon must address. Can we live with an Iranian atom bomb, which will restrict U.S. freedom of action in the Gulf and likely lead to proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Arab world? Or is Iran the place where the Bush Doctrine must be applied, even if it ultimately requires U.S. air and missile strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites?

Given the overstretch of U.S. forces, the invasion and occupation of a nation three times as large and populous as Iraq is off the table. And what would be the probable result of America launching air strikes and starting yet another fire in the middle of the world’s gasoline station?

Tehran would likely retaliate by sending fighters into Iraq, stirring up Shia guerrillas in the south, aiding anti-American warlords in Afghanistan, sponsoring terror attacks on U.S. citizens and inciting Hezbollah to refire the Lebanon front.

We could find ourselves in a third war with no allies save Israel. Another consequence could be the disruption of oil shipments from Iran, Iraq and the Gulf, a run-up in prices to $60 or $70 a barrel, and recessions in Japan, Europe and the United States.

Presently, America and her European allies appear to be moving toward Security Council sanctions if Iran does not render hard assurances it is not going nuclear. But if the mullahs have concluded their only defense against U.S. or Israeli pre-emptive strikes is a deterrent of their own — a not unreasonable assumption given what happened next door — we are headed for a showdown that will change our world forever.

Patrick J. Buchanan [send him mail], former presidential candidate and White House aide, is editor of The American Conservative and the author of eight books, including A Republic Not An Empire and the upcoming Where the Right Went Wrong.

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