DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – The United States should reserve the option of bombing Iran’s nuclear program into oblivion, but it would be a massive military venture that would invite heavy retribution from Tehran.
That seemed to be the prevailing view from four days of debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where Iran was absent from the line-up of leaders and ministers but figured high on the agenda.
Its nuclear program, which Tehran says is for generating electricity but the United States sees as a front for building an atomic bomb, ranked with the shock outcome of the Palestinian election as the main topic of international concern.
“We have to keep the military option as the last option but not take it off the table,” said U.S. Senator John McCain, a leading Republican presidential contender for the 2008 election.
Other leaders attending the forum, including British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, stressed the need for caution and diplomacy.
Kenneth Pollack, an expert on Iran at the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think-tank, said the military option was “sub-optimal,” but not impossible.
Although Israel has reserved the option of military force, Pollack said the United States would be the only country with the air power to carry out the “hundreds of sorties a day” required, possibly for weeks, to knock out Iran’s air defenses and destroy anywhere between several dozen and several hundred facilities linked to its nuclear program.
“It would mean going to war with Iran and I think it’s fair to figure that the Iranians would not sit by idly,” he said.
“We’ve had some Iranian leaders say very explicitly that they would strike back…at a time and place of their own choosing, and that time and place would likely be soonish in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“If you think it’s bad now (in Iraq), imagine 6,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guards and intelligence agents joining in the insurgency.”
The commander in chief of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, Yahya Rahim Safavi, said on Saturday: “If we come under a military attack, we will respond with our very effective missile defense.”
Military experts say Iran’s Shahab-3 missiles have a range of about 2,000 km (1,250 miles), meaning Israel, U.S. bases in Iraq and foreign troops in Iraq lie within striking distance.
Even if successful, U.S. ‘preventive strikes’ might set back Iran’s nuclear program only by two to four years, Pollack said, given the know-how it had already acquired.
A panel on Iran at the Davos forum identified three other options: diplomacy, Iraq-style “regime change,” and doing nothing and hoping for the best.
Straw dismissed the latter as irresponsible and stressed the diplomatic option, “to secure a bargain which would not involve humiliation of either side.”
U.S. Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia said it was possible to imagine the U.S. choosing force, but only at the head of a broad international coalition and after diplomacy was exhausted.
“There…would have to be a large consensus, I think, before any military action would be forthcoming,” said Chambliss, a member of the Senate intelligence and armed services committees.
“We’re not at the point today that I could feel the least bit comfortable thinking that America would be willing to do that without a large coalition of partners, hopefully inside the Arab world as well as outside.”
The debate took place against a background of pressure from the United States and the European Union to refer Iran to the U.N. Security Council.
The Council could ultimately impose sanctions, but only if Russia and China — both with significant economic ties to Tehran and both wary of U.S. motives — refrain from exercising their vetoes.
“Whether we want in fact to impose sanctions on Iran or not, if they think the world community is willing to do it, it would have a huge impact” on Tehran’s willingness to compromise, former U.S. President Bill Clinton said.
“But as long as they think that countries that want their oil would not vote for that…then they have more room to be belligerent.”