Why the Pentagon Thinks Attacking Iran is a Bad Idea

No one wants a nuclear Iran, but U.S. military leaders worry about the risks and strains of a third war

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It was shortly after the bipartisan Iraq Study Group issued its recommendations to Congress in late 2006 that a directive came down from the highest levels of the Pentagon: an order for another war game involving Iran.

The study group had proposed that the Bush administration engage in direct diplomatic talks with its nemesis, a nation that Washington says supports terrorism, encourages attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq, and, most ominously, is developing nuclear weapons. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time, Gen. Peter Pace, asked the Defense Department's top war gamers to construct a scenario to be played out in early 2007. "We postulated that the president of the United States actually took the advice of the Iraq Study Group seriously and tried to engage diplomatically with Iran," says one defense analyst who took part.

Talks stall. There may be few greater symbols, senior officials point out, than the nation's military gaming diplomacy to illustrate the Pentagon's wariness of war with Iran. Such a conflict remains among the options "on the table," as President Bush reiterated in July, if Iran continues its nuclear program. The alternative approach, the European-led multilateral talks with Iran, stalled this month after the deadline expired on yet an-other offer of economic incentives. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed that his country would not surrender its "nuclear rights" in the face of U.S. and European demands to halt uranium enrichment, the process that produces fuel for generating electricity and making nuclear bombs. He has also threatened to shut down the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway through which some 40 percent of the world's oil passes, in the event of any American military attack.

In the wake of these events, the Bush administration expressed its exasperation. "In case he hasn't noticed," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino quipped, "we are trying to talk to them."

The Pentagon has noticed, well aware that the White House is capable of doing more than throwing up its hands in frustration. Military leaders recognize the precarious ambiguity of America's red line with Iran—and that of Israel, which says Iran's nuclear program poses an "existential threat." Mindful of these dynamics and engaged in wars on two fronts, there have been few greater proponents for U.S. diplomatic overtures than the Department of Defense.

Since taking over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff last year, Adm. Mike Mullen has repeatedly warned—often quite publicly—that military action against Iran, though possible, would be "extremely stressing" for an already overstretched U.S. military. "I'm fighting two wars, and I don't need a third one," Mullen said recently. "There's a real danger of any strike not only causing more instability in the region than there already is," adds a senior military official, "but of actually having the opposite effect of what you want." Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also weighed in against action, noting recently that it would be "disastrous on a number of levels."

The forthrightness on the part of the top two American defense officials has fed speculation that this is pushback against those within the Bush administration—Vice President Dick Cheney's name often comes up here—who might be inclined to open up a third front for U.S. forces with a strike against Iran. In light of the Iraq experience, "generals are more willing to push back against things they think are stupid, and Gates is more willing to listen," says Andrew Bacevich, professor of international relations at Boston University. "Mullen isn't just saying these things for our benefit—I think it is a real effort to communicate with the civilian leadership."

Or the Pentagon brass is simply stating the obvious, as some senior officials contend, mindful that the final word comes from the White House. "There are lots of opinions about where we're headed with Iran and a lot of healthy discussion" in the administration, says the senior military official. "But to set the debate along the lines of 'to bomb or not to bomb' isn't a fair characterization." Says Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell, "The views the secretary has expressed on this issue are entirely his own, and they are entirely consistent with his colleagues in the administration."