William Polk: Attacking Iran Would Be a Disaster

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Mr. Polk taught at Harvard from 1955 to 1961 when he was appointed a member of the Policy Planning Council of the US State Department. In 1965 he became professor of history at the University of Chicago and founded its Middle Eastern Studies Center. Subsequently, he also became president of the Adlai Stevenson Institute of International Affairs. Among his books are The United States and the Arab World, The Elusive Peace: The Middle East in the Twentieth Century, Neighbors and Strangers: the Fundamentals of Foreign Affairs and the just-published Understanding Iraq. Other of his writings can be accessed on www.williampolk.com.]

Dear Friends,

I have just received the following remarks from Ray Close. Ray was for many years the CIA station chief in Saudi Arabia, so one of the most senior men in the CIA, with the rank of a four-star general, and a man with many years of experience all over the Middle East. His mother and father (who was a doctor) both taught at the American University of Beirut, where they were friends of mine, so Ray grew up speaking Arabic. I don't always fully agree with his positions, but I certainly respect him, his knowledge and his experience. He is a hard-headed realist. So his worries about the course on which we seem to be embarked are very disturbing.

As you know I have long been alarmed by the likelihood of an American repeat of Iraq in the far more difficult case of Iran. I expected an American, Israeli or joint American-Israeli attack to come before now. As I read the omens, I thought it was likely last March. Seymour Hersh, who has extraordinary sources in the Pentagon, confirms in this week's New Yorker Ray's contention that we are now in a count-down mode on Iran.

What Ray does not go into here are the following:

1) the non-monetary costs of such a move -- casualties in Iran would be far higher than in Iraq. We don't really appreciate yet how high they actually are in Iraq. In addition to the nearly 2,600 dead are over 18,000 wounded of whom about half are permanently crippled; in addition are the psychologically damaged, about 40,000 last year alone and whose who will develop cancer or other secondary effects from, for example, depleted uranium shells. Our relations with other countries would be severely damaged. Particularly China which is deeply dependent on Iranian oil, but also on other countries where all polls, press reports and diplomatic/intelligence analyses indicate that empathy toward (or even understanding of) America have been replaced by fear and even hatred. And, of course, in Iraq where we are relying on the 15 million Shiis, co-religionists of Iran, to enable us to form a sufficiently stable regime to get out with some dignity. An attack on Iran would almost certainly enormously intensify the guerrilla war in Iraq. It would make a solution to the Israel-Lebanon conflict far less likely. And it would spill over into the Gulf where the oil-producing shaikhdoms are privately but absolutely terrified of the consequences for them. It would likely further damage our own social fabric and polarize our politics;

2) the chances of success or failure. We misjudged or failed to judge these in Vietnam and Iraq just as the Russians failed in Afghanistan. In Iran we would face a massive and almost certainly unwinnable guerrilla war;

3) the depth of the commitment: we would have to follow up an attack, as in Iraq, with a major role in post-attack Iran and some form of occupation in a bitterly hostile country would undoubtedly last for many years;

4) the effects on world energy flow by our military action or Iranian retaliation: predictably, it would involving pulling c. 5% of the world's flow of oil (Iran's production) off the world market, possibly disrupting oil production and processing in Saudi Arabia (whose oil is produced in the Eastern Province whose population of 2 million people is religiously allied to Iran) and the Gulf states (which are closely associated with Iran). Oil experts tell me we could anticipate an immediate rise of price to c. $125/barrel and an eventual rise far higher. Some even predicted $300/barrel. It has been estimated that each $5 rise in the per barrel price cuts the US national income by $17 billion. Oil is now close to $80/barrel so a rise of, say $40 a barrel, would cost America c. $680 billion. Any figure beyond that does not bear even imagining;

5) the economic costs to America. On the much smaller case of Iraq, our direct "out of pocket" expenditures for the invasion and occupation, according to the Congressional Research Service, will amount to about $700 billion. Nixon's Commerce Secretary and now chairman of the Blackstone Group Peter Peterson has calculated that the cost of keeping two divisions operational in Iraq is $2 billion a week -- the cost per annum is more than the GNP of New Zealand! In Iran we would need far more troops than in Iraq. To ease the pain of these costs, in FY 2004, we borrowed $540 billion abroad. So far we have not felt the full impact. And these are not the total costs. According to the most complete study (made by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Steiglitz and Linda Blaine) the real costs will be between $1 and $2 trillion. Iran predictably would be some multiple of this;

6) the long-term effects. These would include pernicious and dangerous effects on our own society; a massive disruption of Iranian society and, as I mentioned, an intensification of the Iraq conflict; a further alienation of America's overseas friends and almost undoubtedly a major escalation in incidents of terrorist attacks on American targets at home and abroad. After all, the world's 1 billion + Muslims already believe we are the enemy and, having no formal means of effective military action, they will strike out with the only weapon they have, terrorism;

7) what the alternatives are: in policy as in business, one must always search for and carefully consider alternatives before making decisions. We are being told that there are only two -- give in to Iran, particularly on the nuclear issue, or go to war with Iran. If we stop there, then we will go to war.

However, there is a third alternative which is not being discussed. It has two aspects:

First, the nuclear aspect. We should use our great power and skill to push for regional nuclear arms control. My friend Sy Hersh who has far better contacts than I in the Israeli military tells me that Israel will not accept this. With all respect, I disagree. The Israelis are intelligent. And such a move would be in Israel's own best interests because (a) it has the strongest conventional army in West Asia and one of the strongest in the world. It does not need nuclear arms. (b) as I discussed with the Israeli general staff, and they reluctantly agreed, Israel does not have any feasible targets for nuclear weapons except, possibly, in Iran; and (c) having itself 400-600 nuclear weapons and not having joined the relevant IAEA pacts, it is almost forcing its neighbors to acquire nuclear weapons. Sooner or later, and probably sooner, Iran, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, perhaps Uzbekistan and eventually even Iraq, will follow Pakistan (which is now expanding its program), India, China and North Korea. Thus, Israel's nuclear program will create a nuclear danger to it. And to us. Therefore, it is to Israel's interest and ours to put our emphasis on arms control. What Israel and the Bush administration are doing now is a recipe for eventual nuclear war. That would be a world catastrophe. As you know, I speak with some experience on this from my involvement in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The second aspect is resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian (and now Lebanese) conflict. We cannot go back to earlier times although we need to be aware of them to understand both the Israeli and Arab fears and angers; but we must realistically evaluate the current issues. Israel is hated and feared throughout the area. Ultimately, it must find means to accommodate itself to its neighborhood. It is now moving in the opposite direction. What is needed is rather too complex to discuss fully here, but let me assert that a modus vivendi is achievable in a way that could meet enough -- even if certainly not all -- the needs of both Arabs and Israelis. It must begin with ending what even Israelis, including the foremost Israeli strategic thinker, have termed its colonialist, racist policy toward the Palestinians and pull back enough to allow them to have the sine qua non for peace, a nation-state. It cannot occupy territory illegally without inflaming hatred and it cannot murder opponents without retaliation or destroy a neighboring country without creating whole echelons of new enemies, yet it is doing each of these things. Its policy is not only morally reprehensible but, even worse, it is self-defeating. It is now heading in the wrong direction and would be very foolish to "stay the course." I believe that Israelis can be led to see this and, with proper guidance and perhaps incentives, can be led to adopt a wiser policy.

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