U.S. strike on Iran could make Iraq look like a warm-up bout

Fallout around the world would be grim
TIM HARPERWASHINGTON BUREAU04/15/06 "Toronto Star " --

-- WASHINGTON—On the ground, more terror.Poison-laced missiles raining down on U.S. troops in Iraq or Afghanistan, the downing of a U.S. passenger airliner, suicide bombers in major cities, perhaps unleashing their deadly payload in a shopping mall food court.

It could be 9/11 all over again. Or worse.

On the political front, more anti-Americanism.Renewed venom aimed at Washington from European capitals, greater distrust from China and Russia, outright hatred in the Arab and Muslim world.

Oil prices spiralling out of control, a global recession at hand.In Iran, a galvanizing of a splintered nation. An end to hopes for political reform, a rally-around-the-leader phenomenon common among the victimized, an ability to rebuild a nuclear program in two to four years.

These are the potential costs of a U.S. military strike in Iran."It would be Iran's Pearl Harbor and it will be the beginning of a war, not the end of a war. It will set back American strategic interests for a generation," says Joseph Cirincione, the director for non-proliferation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

"The war will take place at a time and location of Iran's choosing. It will make Iraq look like a preliminary bout."But the cost of inaction could be even higher: a defiant nation with an apparently unstable leadership steeped in hatred for Americans in the heart of the Middle East with nuclear capabilities.

With Tehran ignoring both threats and cajoling from the international community and declaring itself — prematurely — part of the world's "nuclear club" this week, talk of the Washington stick moved to the forefront, while the carrot, now discredited, was pushed off centre stage.

While the week began with the White House trying to tamp down speculation about military strikes in Iran, reported by The Washington Post and by journalist Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker, it was becoming clear the Bush administration was growing impatient with a diplomatic effort that is not working with Tehran.It may have also welcomed talk of potential military strikes, even if it would be extremely reluctant to use them, simply to remind some recalcitrant United Nations members such as China and Russia that diplomacy does have an end date.

The bluntest assessment of diplomatic success came from Karl Rove, U.S. President George W. Bush's political adviser and deputy chief of staff, who told a Houston audience Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was "not a rational human being.

""We are engaged in a diplomatic process with our European partners and the United Nations to keep (Iran) from developing such a weapon," Rove said. "It's going to be tough because they are led by ideologues who have a weird sense of history."Ahmadinejad announced this week that Iran had taken its nuclear enrichment program to new levels.

Before he did so, he dismissed any influence of the United Nations, according to state media. "They know they cannot do a damned thing," he said.The Iranian government has stated it will construct 3,000 centrifuges at a facility in Natanz and would eventually expand that to 54,000 centrifuges, which spin uranium into fuel rich enough to produce atom bombs. Estimates of their capability date range from 2010 to 2020.

Bush has been clear he wants to stop Tehran from acquiring even the knowledge needed to build nuclear weapons, and last month he vowed U.S. military might could be used to protect staunch allies such as Israel.But, earlier this week, Bush called reports of potential military strikes on Iran "wild speculation." British Foreign Minister Jack Straw said the stories were "completely nuts."U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld weighed in, saying he wouldn't address things from "fantasy land," but then added: "The last thing I'm going to do is to start telling you or anyone else in the press or the world at what point we refresh a plan or don't refresh a plan, and why. It just isn't useful."

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