Cometh the hour...

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 February, 2007, 12:00am

Many people listen to the White House these days and conclude that a US attack on Iran is imminent: 'To be quite honest, I'm a little concerned that it's Iraq again,' as Senator John Rockefeller, the new chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said recently. But if President George W. Bush gives the order, then General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will face a big decision.

Some senior US soldiers were worried about the strategic wisdom and even the legality of invading Iraq, but nobody resigned over it. But an attack on Iran is different. It would not involve American ground troops - since all available US combat troops are committed to Iraq - and any competent general knows that this is a war the US cannot win.

Air strikes alone cannot win a war, however massive they are, and they probably could not even destroy all of Iran's nuclear facilities, which are numerous, dispersed and often deeply buried. Many Iranians would be killed, but what would the US do next? It would have very few options, whereas Iran would have many.

Iran could flood Iraq with sophisticated weapons and send volunteers to help the fight against US forces there. It could throw interna- tional markets into turmoil by halting its own oil exports.

It could try to close the entire Gulf to tanker traffic - with a fair chance of success - and throw the entire world economy into crisis. And any further US air strikes would simply harden Iranians' resolve.

So would General Pace attack Iran if Mr Bush ordered him to? His only alternative would be to resign, but he does have that option. Senior officers acquire a political responsibility as well.

They cannot oppose a government decision while in office, but they have the right and even the duty to resign rather than carry out a decision that they believe to be disastrous.

The resignation of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff - and possibly several of the other chiefs as well - would be an immensely powerful gesture.

It could stop an attack on Iran dead in its tracks. It might finally enable Congress to find its backbone and refuse support for another illegal and foredoomed war.

This is not a hypothetical discussion: my guess is that both the Joint Chiefs and the White House understand that the option of resignation is on the table. Consider the dance that was done around the question of Iran and armour-piercing bombs called 'explosively formed penetrators' (EFPs) in the past couple of weeks.

On February 11, US officials in Baghdad claimed that the EFPs that have killed some 170 American troops in Iraq since 2004 were Iranian-made, and supplied to Iraqi insurgents by 'the highest levels of the Iranian government'.

White House spokesman Tony Snow picked up the theme, insisting that they were being supplied by the Quds unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.

But then something unscripted happened. General Pace, visiting Australia, said that Iranian govern- ment involvement was not proved.

'We know that the explosively formed projectiles are manufactured in Iran, but I would not say by what I know that the Iranian government clearly knows or is complicit,' he said. A day later, in Jakarta, he repeated his doubts: 'What [the evidence] does say is that things made in Iran are being used in Iraq to kill coalition soldiers.'

There is a civil-military confron- tation brewing in the US more serious than anything that has been seen since president Harry Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur during the Korean war.

This time, however, if the general acts on his convictions, he will be in the right.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries