By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Special to The Washington Post
It is to be hoped that the forthcoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings regarding the president's nominations for secretary of state and secretary of defense produce a wide-ranging debate regarding this country's role in today's very unsettled world. The hearings almost certainly will provoke searching questions regarding the strategic wisdom of potential U.S. military action against Iran. Recent Israeli media reports have cited a former member of President Barack Obama's National Security Council staff predicting a U.S. attack by about midyear.
It is essential that the issue of war or peace with Iran be fully vented, especially with the U.S. national interest in mind. Although the president has skillfully avoided a specific commitment to military action by a certain date, the absence of a negotiated agreement with Iran regarding its compliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty will inevitably intensify some foreign and extremist domestic clamor for U.S. military action, alone or in coordination with Israel.
Accordingly, five potential implications for the United States of an additional and self-generated war deserve close scrutiny:
How effective are U.S. military strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities likely to be, with consequences of what endurance and at what human cost to the Iranian people?
What might be Iran's retaliatory responses against U.S. interests, and with what consequences for regional stability? How damaging could resulting instability be to European and Asian economies?
Could a U.S. attack be justified as in keeping with international standards, and would the U.N. Security Council — particularly China and Russia, given their veto power — be likely to endorse it ?
Since Israel is considered to have more than 100 nuclear weapons, how credible is the argument that Iran might attack Israel without first itself acquiring a significant nuclear arsenal, including a survivable second-strike capability, a prospect that is at least some years away?
Could some alternative U.S. strategic commitment provide a more enduring and less reckless arrangement for neutralizing the potential Iranian nuclear threat than a unilateral initiation of war in a combustible regional setting?
Best available estimates suggest that a limited U.S. strike would have only a temporary effect. Repetitive attacks would be more effective, but civilian fatalities would rise accordingly, and there would be ghastly risks of released radiation. Iranian nationalism would be galvanized into prolonged hatred of the United States, to the political benefit of the ruling regime.
Iran, in retaliating, could make life more difficult for U.S. forces in western Afghanistan by activating a new guerrilla front. Tehran could also precipitate explosive violence in Iraq, which in turn could set the entire region on fire, with conflicts spreading through Syria to Lebanon and even Jordan. Although the U.S. Navy should be able to keep the Strait of Hormuz open, escalating insurance costs for the flow of oil would adversely affect the economies of Europe and Asia. The United States would be widely blamed.
Given the recently woeful U.S. performance in the United Nations — where the United States and Israel gained the support of only seven states out of 188 in opposing U.N. membership for Palestine — it is also safe to predict that an unsanctioned U.S. attack on Iran would precipitate worldwide outrage. Might the U.N. General Assembly then condemn the United States? The result would be unprecedented international isolation for an America already deeply embroiled in the region's protracted turmoil.
Congress should also take note that our Middle Eastern and European friends who advocate U.S. military action against Iran are usually quite reticent regarding their readiness to shed their own blood in a new Middle East conflict. To make matters worse, the most immediate beneficiary of ill-considered recourse to war would be Vladimir Putin's Russia, which would be able to charge Europe almost at will for its oil while gaining a free hand to threaten Georgia and Azerbaijan.
It follows that a failure to reach a satisfactory negotiated solution with Iran should not be viewed as the trigger for a new U.S.-initiated war that is not likely to be confined just to Iran. A more prudent and productive course for the United States would be to continue the painful sanctions against Iran while formally adopting for the Middle East the same policy that for decades successfully protected America's European and Asian allies against the much more dangerous threats emanating from Stalinist Russia and lately from nuclear-armed North Korea. An Iranian military threat aimed at Israel or any other U.S. friend in the Middle East would be treated as if directed at the United States itself and would precipitate a commensurate U.S. response.
A serious discussion of these issues by the Foreign Relations Committee may help generate a firmer national consensus that a reckless shortcut to war — which is favored now by neither the American people nor the Israeli public — is not the wisest response to a potentially grave crisis. Indeed, could Meir Dagan, the former head of Israel's Mossad, have been right when he bluntly said that an attack on Iran is "the stupidest thing I have ever heard"? Fortunately, there is a better, even if not a perfect, option.
Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter and is the author most recently of "Strategic Vision."