Next Stop: Tehran

"It's a global free-fire zone." So says a source in a sweeping article last month by The New Yorker's Seymour Hersh, who reports, among other things, that the U.S. military has already begun covert operations in Iran in preparation for a military strike or invasion there.

The source is referring, narrowly and broadly, to the attitude of the Bush administration in the wake of its November re-election. Last-minute changes in the intelligence bill passed in December by Congress emasculated the CIA and allow for sweeping new powers for the Pentagon to conduct covert ops, without the oversight of Congress. More broadly, the vision of a sweeping democratic revolution in the Middle East continues to hold sway in Bush's second term, despite the disastrous experience in Iraq, and the "global war on terrorism" will be prosecuted aggressively anywhere and everywhere.

Military action against Iran is an insane idea—which is why, perhaps, it has such currency among Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and their fellow travelers. Iran's drive to develop a nuclear program is currently being held in check, sort of, by a diplomatic effort by the French, Germans, British, and others. The United States is not participating in that diplomatic effort, and both the U.S. and Israel are holding in reserve the option of bombing Iran's nuclear facilities, as Israel did to budding nuclear facilities in Iraq in 1981.

The differences this time are profound. First, bombing Iran's facilities will not be simple; learning from Iraq's experience of having a single centralized facility bombed, Iran's nuclear facilities are dispersed, and many are deep underground. The West has poor intelligence on where the facilities are and how far along Iran's nuclear program is.

More ominously, Iran can fight back. The Shiite majority in Iraq, which won power in Sunday's election, is religiously and culturally close to the Iranian mullahs. So far, the Shiites have not broadly cooperated with the largely Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq; if the mullahs leading Iran want to strike back at the U.S., they can make America's role in Iraq that much more difficult. And Iran is larger, much more populous, and much wealthier than Saddam Hussein's Iraq was and has more international legitimacy. If the United States' reputation among Muslims and in the world at large was mud after the Iraq invasion, striking against Iran would be much less popular.

A war-game exercise, described by James Fallows in the December Atlantic, concluded that the U.S. had no good military options against Iran; whether a quick strike or regime change, such efforts were doomed to failure.

None of this is deterring the White House. According to Hersh, covert teams have been in Iran since last summer, to locate and scope out hidden nuclear and military facilities in advance of an attack. Ultimately, the Bush goal for Iran is not simply to target the nuclear program— it is regime change, an effort to topple the theocracy that replaced a CIA-installed Iranian dictatorship in 1978. It's the next step in the sweeping aggression outlined by Bush in his inaugural speech.

Iranians remember the bad old days of the Shah, and any effort to go after Iran's government will give it more legitimacy. That's particularly tragic since Iran already has a strong homegrown pro-democracy movement that has made substantial headway in recent years. By resorting to force rather than trying to find a way to encourage the existing democratic movement, Bush proves once again that his goal is not so much "freedom" as a government that is pliant to the wishes of Washington.

Moreover, all of this is flagrantly illegal. You can't just go and militarily oust all the governments in the world that you dislike, particularly when they pose no threat to you. The Bush Doctrine, quite simply, is "Might Makes Right," and the re-election is being offered as proof that Americans support this.

Signs already point to a violent second term: the insistence on elections in an insecure Iraq, the open discussion of the "Salvador option" of death squads in the global war on terrorism, military covert operations with no functional oversight, a torture advocate as the new attorney general, and now soldiers inside Iran. This is not what Americans voted for, and we need to find our voices—quickly—to demand an end to it. Whether or not the White House admits it, domestic dissent matters. It might be the only thing that can stop this madness.

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