Shortly before I left Washington for the summer (in the good old days whose passing I regret, few stayed in Washington in summertime), my informal intelligence network gave me an interesting report: Iran was beginning to mass troops on the Iran-Iraq border. Did this portend overt Iranian intervention in Iraq? I said I didn’t think so. Events in Iraq are not unfavorable to Iran, and the risks of direct intervention would be great.
However, there is a potential situation that could lead to Iranian intervention: if it were in response to an American-Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. Such an attack may very well be on the agenda as the "October Surprise," the distraction George Bush desperately needs if the debacle in Iraq is not to lead to his defeat in November.
There is little doubt that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, one that is operating under forced draft to produce a nuclear deterrent as quickly as possible. Iran, along with everyone else in the world, knows that the best way to be safe from an American attack is to have nukes. Even the most howling neo-cons show little appetite for a war with North Korea.
The problem is that, while an Iranian nuclear capability may be directed at deterring the United States, it also poses a mortal threat to Israel. Israel is not known for sitting quietly while such threats develop. It is a safe bet that Israel is planning a strike on known Iranian nuclear facilities, and that such a strike will take place. The question is when.
If Israel plans to act this year, the Bush Administration may see a political opportunity it cannot pass up. At the very least it is likely to endorse the Israeli action, and it may well participate. In the Islamic world at least, an American disassociation from any action by Israel would not be believed. Israel and America are now perceived as one country. And the neocons seem to agree.
The question becomes, how would Iran respond? It might shoot some missiles at Tel Aviv, but absent at least "dirty bomb" or bio-engineered warheads, that is not likely to accomplish much.
A far better response lies right next door: attack the Americans in Iraq. America has about 130,000 troops in Iraq, a formidable army by local standards. But their disposition makes them vulnerable. Confronted by a guerilla war, they are spread out in penny packets all over the country. If Iran could mass quickly and use effective camouflage and deception to conceal at least the scope of its concentration, then suddenly attack into Iraq with two or three corps, we could face a perilous situation. Iranian success would depend heavily on how Iraqis reacted, but if Iran called its action "Operation Iraqi Freedom," promised immediate withdrawal once the hated Americans were beaten and waved the Koran at Iraqi Shiites, it might win the cooperation of Iraq’s resistance movement. That would make American efforts to concentrate all the more difficult as convoys would come under constant attack. Logistics would quickly become a nightmare.
Such an action would be perilous for Iran as well. The danger with threatening a nuclear power with conventional defeat is that it may go nuclear. America might choose to do that through its Israeli surrogate or, on the theory that the bigger the crisis the stronger the "rally around the President" syndrome, directly. Either way, Iran would have no effective response.
But the mullahs now running Iran are, like Mr. Bush, in a steadily weakening political position. If they did not respond powerfully to an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, they might well lose legitimacy with the hard-line base they now depend on. It is risky to count on them doing nothing, and they have few opportunities to do anything that would be effective. Unfortunately for us, their best chance lies right next door, and the party favor has our name on it.
This October could be full of surprises.