A report in this weeks Sunday Telegraph said that Pentagon strategists are drawing up plans for a massive surprise air and sea bombardment of Irans 81 or so nuclear sites. The conservative British newspaper quoted a senior Pentagon official as saying that "this is more than just the standard military contingency assessment. This has taken on much greater urgency in recent months."
According to the Guardian, such a strike by U.S., British and Israeli forces would result in a large number of civilian and military casualties and would spark a much larger and longer war in the Middle East.
The author of the report, "Iran: Consequences of a War," University of Bradford professor Paul Rogers, told the liberal British paper that unlike Iraq, where civilians had plenty of warning to evacuate targeted areas, Iran's nuclear facilities are in densely populated urban neighborhoods and thousands would die in a surprise raid.
Air and/or missile strikes against some or all the nuclear labs in Iran sounds quick and easy to do, like the initial month of the Iraq war in 2003. And the rationales for attacking Iran being presented by the Bush administration sound nearly identical to the now-disproven rationales for invading Iraq.
But an attack on Iran would be totally different, and has the potential for some frightening consequences.
Unlike Iraq, which had its conventional military forces worn down by years of sanctions, Iran has a substantial force that it has been adding to by buying cruise missiles and patrol boats from China, submarines and mines from Russia and midget subs from North Korea.
According to the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, Iran currently has 540,000 soldiers under arms with 350,000 reservists. It has more than 1,600 tanks, 21,000 armored vehicles, 3,200 artillery pieces, 306 combat aircraft, 60 attack helicopters, three submarines and 59 surface ships.
The naval forces are the real concern. Iran controls the Straits of Hormuz, the only sea passage for Persian Gulf oil shipments. The cruise missiles Iran bought from China and the mines it bought from Russia could raise havoc with shipping in the Gulf.
This is where the economic consequences of the war would rear its ugly head.
Iran is the fourth-largest producer in the world and one of the prime sources of natural gas. If the Iranian government feels threatened enough to stop selling oil to the West, an immediate deep recession will follow.
China is a close ally of Iran and is trying to secure access to its oil. China's need for more energy led it to recently sign a deal for more than $70 billion of energy products with Iran. An attack on Iraq would likely be seen as a direct threat to China's economy. Since China holds hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars in its currency reserves, if it decides to dump the dollar and revalue its currency in retaliation, it could also destroy the U.S. economy.
Then there is the dynamic in the Middle East. Iraq's new government is closely tied with Iran. Iran could decide to jump into the insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq, or increase its support to the various terror groups around the Middle East.
So, even before the bombs drop, the specters of global recession and increased instability in the Middle East are very real. After the bombs drop, who knows what will happen.
This much we do know. Iran has said it isn't interested in building a nuclear weapon but it is interested in having the means to do so. When you consider that several of its neighbors India, Pakistan, Russia and Israel already have nuclear weapons, and the two countries on its immediate border Iraq and Afghanistan are occupied by a nuclear superpower, you can see why Iran is interested in at least having the capability of building the bomb.
The pressure is building to take the whole matter to the United Nations Security Council. If the Bush administration is planning to use the security council as it did for Iraq, to provide a fig leaf of credibility for a war of dubious legality, it's hard to say whether it wants success or failure.
Success could mean punitive sanctions against Iran that will likely raise the cost of oil to $100 a barrel or more and destroy the U.S. economy. Failure would mean the final blow to the credibility of the UN and international law and a free hand for the U.S. to do what it wants to in Iran.
Politically, an attack on Iran would sweep away all of President Bush's woes. The Enron and Abramoff trials would be forgotten. There would be no more discussion of domestic spying or renewal of the Patriot Act. It would likely ensure the maintenance of a Republican majority in Congress, since war and fear are the only cards the GOP have to play.
But an attack on Iran could go dangerously awry. There are simply too many things that could go wrong. As President Bush learned in Iraq, it's easy to start a war, but a lot harder to finish it.