One strike, Iran could be out


From the Los Angeles Times
One strike, Iran could be out
Niall Ferguson

Of all the columns I've written for this newspaper over the last couple of years, none has elicited a more heated response than the one published in January 2006 about the Great War of 2007. Indeed, it still gets quoted back at me more than a year and a half later.

The column was written in the style of a future historian looking back on a war that I imagined breaking out this year. My point was that if a major war were to break out in 2007, future historians would not have far to look to find its origins.

My imaginary war began in the Middle East and lasted four years. With the benefit of hindsight, the historian of the future would be able to list its causes as (a) competition for the region's abundant reserves of fossil fuels, (b) demographic pressures arising from the region's high birthrates, (c) the growth of radical Islamism and (d) the determination of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.

My nightmare scenario involved a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel in August. You may have noticed that this didn't happen. However, the point of the column was not to make a prophecy. No one has the power to predict the future because (as I frequently remind my history students) there is no such thing as the future, singular -- only futures, plural.

My aim in writing the column was not to soothsay but to alert readers to the seriousness of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program -- and to persuade them that the United States should do something to stop it. True, after all that has gone wrong in Iraq, Americans are scarcely eager for another preventive war to stop another rogue regime from owning yet more weapons of mass destruction that don't currently exist. It's easy to imagine the international uproar that would ensue in the event of U.S. air strikes. It's also easy to imagine the havoc that might be wreaked by Iranian-sponsored terrorists in Iraq by way of retaliation. So it's very tempting to hope for a purely diplomatic solution.

Yet the reality is that the chances of such an outcome are dwindling fast, precisely because other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council are ruling out the use of force -- and without the threat of force, diplomacy seldom works. Six days ago, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin went to Iran for an amicable meeting with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Putin says he sees "no evidence" that Iran is trying to build nuclear weapons. On his return to Moscow, he explicitly repudiated what he called "a policy of threats, various sanctions or power politics."

The new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, also seems less likely to support American preemption than his predecessor was in the case of Iraq. That leaves China, which remains an enigma on the Iranian question, and France, whose hawkish new president finds himself distracted by the worst kind of domestic crisis: a divorce.

By contrast, Washington's most reliable ally in the Middle East, Israel, recently demonstrated the ease with which a modern air force can destroy a suspected nuclear facility. Not only was last month's attack on a site in northeastern Syria carried out without Israeli losses, there was no retaliation on the part of Damascus. Memo from Ehud Olmert to George W. Bush: You can do this, and do it with impunity.

The big question of 2007 therefore remains: Will he do it?

With every passing day, the president attracts less media coverage, while the contenders to succeed him attract more. Yet Bush made news last week with his observation at a White House news conference that "if you're interested in avoiding World War III, it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing them [the Iranians] from having the knowledge necessary to make a nuclear weapon." That would seem to suggest that he is ready to use military force against Iran if he sees the alternative as mere appeasement. One eminent expert on nuclear warfare told me last week that he still puts the probability of air strikes on Iran as high as 30%.

In domestic politics, it's always a good idea to follow the money. When it comes to grand strategy, however, you need to follow the navy -- to be precise, the aircraft carriers that would be the launching platforms for any major air offensive against Iran's nuclear facilities. To do this, you don't need to be very skilled at espionage. The U.S. Navy makes the information freely available at or in the "Around the Navy" column published each week in the Navy Times.

The U.S. has 11 active aircraft carriers. Of these, the Kitty Hawk is in port in Japan. The Nimitz and Reagan are in San Diego. The Washington is in Norfolk, Va. The Lincoln and Stennis are in Washington state. And the Eisenhower, Vinson, Roosevelt and Truman are undergoing various sorts of refitting and maintenance checks in the vicinity of "WestLant" (Navy-speak for the western Atlantic). Only one -- the Enterprise -- is in the Persian Gulf.

At present, then, talk of World War III seems to be mere saber-rattling, not serious strategy. U.S. aircraft carriers can move fast, it's true. The Lincoln's top speed is in excess of 30 knots (30 nautical miles per hour). And it, along with the Truman, Eisenhower and Nimitz, are said to be "surge ready." But take a look at the map. It's a very long way from San Diego to the Strait of Hormuz. Even from Norfolk, it takes 17.5 days for an aircraft carrier group to reach Bahrain. If you were Ahmadinejad, how worried would you be?

As for me, I am jumping ship. This is my last weekly column on these pages. But remember when the Great Gulf War does finally come: You read about it here first.

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