October Surprise

26 September 2004

Is Iran the October Surprise?

By Gwynne Dyer

American intelligence sources are busily leaking hair-raising tales of Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programme. Norman Podhoretz, editor of “Commentary” and godfather of the neo-conservatives, tells an interviewer: “I am not advocating the invasion of Iran at this moment, although I wouldn’t be heartbroken if it happened.” Israel has recently taken delivery of 500 “bunker-buster” bombs from the United States — just the thing for destroying deeply buried nuclear facilities. Is the long-predicted “October Surprise” that clinches the US election for President George W. Bush going to be an attack on Iran?

Some senior Iranian military people seem concerned about it, and last month Yadollah Javani, head of the Revolutionary Guards political bureau, reassured Iranians that neither the US nor Israel would dare to attack their country. “The entire Zionist territory, including its nuclear facilities and atomic arsenal, are currently within range of Iran’s advanced missiles,” he said. “Therefore, neither the Zionist regime nor America will carry out its threats.”

Some of this is obvious nonsense. Norman Podhoretz’s grasp of military realities is inferior to that of the average beauty queen: the United States is far too over-stretched militarily in Afghanistan and Iraq to contemplate invading Iran, which is much bigger and stronger than both of them put together, and Israel cannot invade Iran, having no common border with it. There will not be an invasion.

Yadollah Javani is also talking through his hat. Iran’s Shahab-3 missiles can reach Israel and strike at American forces all over the Middle East, but since Iran certainly has no nuclear weapons at the moment, that only means that it can drop a few high-explosive warheads on them, without much in the way of accuracy, if it doesn’t lose its missiles on the ground first. There is no effective Iranian deterrent to American or Israeli air strikes aimed at destroying the country’s nuclear facilities, which is far more likely than an actual invasion.

What is conspicuously lacking (as in the case of Iraq) is any reason for arguing that an attack is urgent. Even if Iran’s uranium enrichment programme is really intended to produce weapons-grade material for nuclear bombs and not, as it claims, to fuel nuclear reactors for electrical power, nobody is seriously suggesting that it will have bombs soon. There is still time for negotiations, inspections, and deals, and there is certainly no threat so imminent that it requires military action before November. An attack now would be driven by political calculations.

Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be seriously tempted to launch a “preemptive” strike against Iranian nuclear facilities if he could get a green light from the US, as it would eliminate a potential threat to Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region and also boost his popularity in a difficult period at home. From the Israeli leader’s point of view, moreover, October would be better than later, because he can be sure that President Bush (who just gave him the “bunker-busters”) is still in office. John Kerry might say no.

From the White House’s vantage point, it’s probably too soon to say. At the moment, the numbers are looking good for Bush and he probably doesn’t need an “October Surprise” to win — but it’s something you might want to have up your sleeve to distract the public’s attention just in case the Kerry campaign started to take off.

Happily, that’s the sort of thing you can decide on a few days’ notice, since it only involves air strikes. An Israeli attack on Iran, with or without direct US participation, would cause turmoil throughout the Muslim world, but that’s a pretty minor consideration in Washington if an American election is at stake.

And here’s the funny thing: the Islamic radicals who took back control of the Iranian parliament in rigged elections last spring and hope to unseat moderate President Mohammad Khatami next year would privately welcome an attack. They know that most of their fellow-countrymen are fed up with repression at home and confrontation abroad and want a more normal life. They need something to drive ordinary Iranians back into their camp, and what better than the patriotic fury that would be unleashed by an unprovoked Israeli or American attack?

Even if they do have a nuclear weapons programme to hide, their advisers would be telling them that a single round of air attacks on widely dispersed and deeply buried facilities would be unlikely to cripple it permanently — and if there isn’t one, then they have absolutely nothing to lose. In either case, they have a lot to gain politically from Israeli or US attacks, and their evasive and uncooperative behaviour towards the International Atomic Energy Agency since last spring suggests that they fully understand that.

When all the relevant decision-makers on both sides of the argument have something to gain politically from a certain action, it becomes a possibility. No more than that, for the moment, and the final decision would have to be made in Washington even if it were Israelis who did the actual bombing. But if George W. Bush’s poll numbers are looking shaky in mid-October, the possibility of that sort of an attack on Iran probably rises considerably.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 8. (“What…calculations”; and “Happily…stake”)