The List

Who Wants to Bomb Iran?

Meet the men calling on Barack Obama to launch airstrikes against the Islamic Republic.

They're back! The "Bomb Iran" crowd is making a big return to the political center stage after months of puzzlement over what to do about developments in the Islamic Republic. Hawks such as Daniel Pipes and John Bolton are arguing that Iran is dead-set on its pursuit of a nuclear arsenal -- and point to developments such as President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's announcement this weekend that Iran would enrich its uranium stocks to 20 percent to argue that diplomatic avenues have reached a dead end. The would-be bombers fear that the mullahs will leverage their nuclear capability to expand Persian influence through the Arab world and beyond -- and argue that the United States must do anything in its power, including the use of force, to stop them.

This movement had its heyday in neoconservative circles in 2006 and 2007, following Iran's official announcement that it had started to enrich uranium and the subsequent U.S.-led push in the U.N Security Council for additional sanctions. And who could forget 2008 presidential candidate John McCain's memorable "Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran" gaffe, sung to the tune of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann"? In the wake of Iran's contested election last June, pro-bomb pundits have argued that the popular unrest -- including the imminent anti-regime protests scheduled for Feb. 11, the anniversary of the Islamic Republic -- far from meaning the United States should hold back, presents a perfect opportunity to target the increasingly unpopular leadership of the Iranian regime. Needless to say, it doesn't appear that Obama will be taking their advice any time soon; administration officials have strongly suggested they prefer to deal with Iran's nuclear ambitions through diplomacy and sanctions.

The Iran hawks are supported by the Obama administration's old nemesis Dick Cheney, who noted in an interview with Fox News last August that he was "probably a bigger advocate of military action than any of my colleagues" in the Bush administration. Without further ado, here is FP's guide to this belligerent minority.

Daniel Pipes

Perch:  Director of the Middle East Forum, Hoover Institution visiting fellow

Money quote: "[Obama] needs a dramatic gesture to change the public perception of him as a light-weight, bumbling ideologue, preferably in an arena where the stakes are high, where he can take charge, and where he can trump expectations. Such an opportunity does exist: Obama can give orders for the U.S. military to destroy Iran's nuclear-weapon capacity." --Feb. 2, 2010, National Review

Justification: Pipes's argument was not exactly framed in such a way as to gain adherents within the White House. However, his cold-blooded political justification is enough to make Dick Morris or Karl Rove blush: He cites five polls suggesting a military strike against Iran possesses the support of a solid majority of Americans and posits that others would undoubtedly "rally around the flag," supporting Obama were he to unleash the bombers. Sarah Palin picked up this argument in an interview with Fox News on Feb. 7, claiming that a decision by Obama to declare war on Iran could boost his chances for re-election in 2012 -- though she incorrectly cited Patrick Buchanan as the source of the idea.

And lest Obama fear that this electoral masterstroke would devolve into an Iraq-style quagmire, Pipes assures us that the United States could limit itself to airstrikes and employ only a few boots on the ground, "making an attack more politically palatable."

John Bolton

Perch: Senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute; former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

Money quote: "Those who oppose Iran acquiring nuclear weapons are left in the near term with only the option of targeted military force against its weapons facilities. Significantly, the uprising in Iran also makes it more likely that an effective public diplomacy campaign could be waged in the country to explain to Iranians that such an attack is directed against the regime, not against the Iranian people.... Military action against Iran's nuclear program and the ultimate goal of regime change can be worked together consistently." --July 2, 2009, Washington Post

Justification:  Although the unrest following Iran's contested presidential election this past June convinced many pundits that a U.S. military strike would be counterproductive, Bolton took the opposite tack: With Iran's hardliners "unmistakably back in control" following the first round of protests, he argued, the timing was ripe to convince the Iranian people that targeted airstrikes on Iran's nuclear facilities were the fault of their dictatorial government, and not a foreign power.

Notably, Bolton doesn't believe the Obama administration will do what he thinks needs to be done in Iran (nor, truth be told, was he sanguine that the Bush administration would listen to his advice in 2008). Instead, he's putting all his faith in Israel to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities, referring to the logic of an Israeli strike as "nearly inexorable."

Norman Podhoretz

Perch: Editor at large, Commentary magazine

Money quote: "In short, the plain and brutal truth is that if Iran is to be prevented from developing a nuclear arsenal, there is no alternative to the actual use of force -- any more than there was an alternative to force if Hitler was to be stopped in 1938." --June 2007, Commentary

Justification: Podhoretz, the author of World War IV: The Long Struggle Against Islamofascism and one of the intellectual godfathers of the neoconservative movement, regards the showdown with Iran as the latest front in a "protracted global struggle" that has taken the United States from Baghdad to Kabul. In each case, he argues, the United States is defending itself from "Islamofascism" -- the intellectual cousin of communism and Nazism that threatens to overwhelm the United States and its allies militarily, and also erode Western values from within.

Podhoretz sees Ahmadinejad as occupying the revolutionary vanguard of this movement: The first step in the Iranian president's quest to transform the global balance of power will be to fulfill his promise to "wipe Israel off the map." From there, Podhoretz fears, a nuclear-armed Iran will attempt to establish its hegemony over the Persian Gulf -- and then extend its scope of influence into Europe. Finally, the coup de grâce: Iran will commit itself to neutering U.S. influence worldwide, and perhaps even attempt to fulfill its goal of "a world without America."

As in the struggle against Hitler, the only option presented to the United States when faced with an enemy of such sprawling ambition, Podhoretz believes, is the use of military force. A U.S. air campaign, he hopes, could set back the Iranian nuclear program indefinitely and also provide the political preconditions for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic -- a message that he also delivered in private meetings with President Bush. The only question, in his eyes, was whether Bush would summon the political fortitude to order the strike before he left office. As he wrote: "As an American and as a Jew, I pray with all my heart that he will."

Joshua Muravchik

Perch: Foreign Policy Institute fellow at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies

Money quote: "We must bomb Iran. It has been four years since that country's secret nuclear program was brought to light, and the path of diplomacy and sanctions has led nowhere.... Our options therefore are narrowed to two: We can prepare to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, or we can use force to prevent it." --Nov. 19, 2006, Los Angeles Times

Justification: Frustrated by the United States' inability to convince Russia or China to commit to a truly biting sanctions regime -- and despairing that Iran's hard-liners could ever be forced from power -- Muravchik believed the West's only remaining option was to destroy Iran's nuclear program before it could produce a bomb. Iran's possession of a nuclear weapon would allow the Islamic Republic to establish regional hegemony over the Middle East, pose an existential to Israel's, and erode what is left of the international nonproliferation regime, Muravchik feared. There was also the danger that Iran could "slip nuclear material to terrorists" -- and not only its clients, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, but also al Qaeda.

Muravchik also took to the pages of Foreign Policy to make the case that full-throated advocacy of a U.S. military strike against Iran was what neoconservatives needed to overcome the stigma that had accumulated around the movement in recent years.

Thomas McInerney

Perch: Retired lieutenant general of the U.S. Air Force

Money quote: "A military option against Iran's nuclear facilities is feasible.... President Bush is right when he says Iran cannot be permitted to have nuclear weapons. The prospect of leaders like Ahmadinejad, who advocates wiping Israel 'off the map,' with their hands on nuclear weapons is a risk we cannot take. Diplomacy must be pursued vigorously, but the experience with Iraq suggests there's little reason for optimism. Thus, a viable military option is imperative." --April 24, 2006, Weekly Standard

Justification: McInerney has put more thought into the actual details of a U.S. military strike on Iraq than most other analysts. In an interview with Fox News host Bill O'Reilly, McInerney laid out a two-pronged strategy, kicked off by "a powerful air campaign that will hit within 36 to 48 hours over 1,500 aim points" in Iran, including its nuclear development facilities, air defenses, and its Shehab-3 missile sites.

This would soften up the Islamic Republic for the second part of the campaign -- covert military operations designed to encourage Iran's population to rise up in rebellion. McInerney is enamored of the prospects for division presented by Iran's many ethnic minorities. Iran "is ripe for political discontent, and ripe for people to let the people have their country back," he argued. McInerney's plan raised consternation in liberal circles, who pointed out that he had suggested a similar plan in 2002 to topple Saddam Hussein's regime. McInerney, however, appeared undoubted by the U.S. experience in Iraq, countering that Operation Iraqi Freedom "was a brilliant campaign done in 21 days."

Max Boot

Perch: Senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations

Money quote: "If Israel's intelligence agencies can provide reasonable assurance that the Israeli Air Force can derail the Iranian program for, say, six years, then the case for action becomes inescapable. But if they can only delay Iran for six months, is it really worthwhile to risk all the consequences that would come from an air strike? Perhaps so; perhaps the loss of Israeli prestige and deterrence advantage from Iran going nuclear would be so great that even a symbolic strike is worthwhile." --July 2, 2009, Commentary

Justification: Following the post-election protests that rocked Iran last June, Max Boot echoed Bolton's remarks regarding the increasing attractiveness of an Israeli airstrike on the country's nuclear facilities. But it wasn't the first time that he called for a more aggressive policy toward Iran -- back in 2006, Boot laid out a plan to "do to Iran what the Iranians are doing to us in Iraq" by fomenting ethnic divisions within the country, and funneling weapons and money to anti-regime militias within the country. The only other option, in Boot's eyes, would be a U.S. airstrike -- a development that will become inevitable once the current policy of "half-hearted multilateral negotiations backed by toothless U.N. resolutions fails. (Or, rather, once its failure can no longer be denied.)"

U.S. Airforce/Getty Images

The List

Dead or Alive?

Five world leaders who may or may not still be with us.


Location: Pakistan

Last appearance: Last video released Jan. 9. Audiotape released Jan. 16.

The evidence: U.S. drones have had a number of near misses with the Pakistani Taliban leader, who generally releases a videotape after a failed strike to taunt his pursuers. But after drone strikes aimed at Mehsud on Jan. 14 and 17, White House officials say they are "95 percent" sure that he was killed. The Taliban denies that Mehsud was killed but has offered little proof -- only a short audiotape. They have declined to provide further evidence of Mehsud's existence, saying they don't want to make him vulnerable to spies. However, reports indicate that the Taliban leadership recently met to choose Mehsud's successor. There have also been secondhand reports that a funeral was held for him last week. Despite the contrary evidence, at the time of this writing the Taliban continues to maintain that Mehsud is alive. "All the reports regarding his death are propaganda," a spokesman told CNN.

If he was indeed killed, he would be the second Pakistani Taliban leader -- after his predecessor Baitullah Mehsud -- to meet his maker in only six months.

Update: The Taliban confirmed Mehsud's death on Feb. 9.


Location: Saudi Arabia

Last appearance: Last seen in public Nov. 23. Heard on BBC radio on Jan. 12.

The evidence: Nigeria has been without a president ever since Yar'Adua left the country to seek treatment for what is thought to be a heart condition. Although Yar'Adua's cabinet, led by vice president and acting head of state Goodluck Jonathan, claims to be in contact with him, that has not satisfied opposition lawmakers, who have called for the president to either return home or step down.

Rumors have been flying in the capital, Abuja, with the opposition accusing the government of forging his signature on legislation. One newspaper also reported that the president was brain damaged. To dispel the chatter, Yar'Adua, or at least someone who sounded like him, gave a phone interview to the BBC last month saying that he was receiving treatment and recovering. Unsatisfied, opponents have launched a constitutional challenge to try to force him to transfer power. The divided  cabinet is likely to decide in the next few days whether to remove Yar'Adua from office.

Unfortunately, the last two months have been particularly eventful for Nigeria, with religious riots, a new outbreak of violence in the Niger Delta, and Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab's attempted terrorist bombing; and the country's political vacuum isn't helping matters.

Update: Nigeria's parliament voted to empower Vice President Goodluck Johnson to take over as acting president on Feb. 9.


Location: Cuba

Last appearance: Video released in August 2009

The evidence: The former Cuban leader has been the subject of death rumors ever since his health started to turn in the mid-1980s, thanks in no small part to an exile community in Miami that would be more than happy to see him go. The rumors intensified after he was hospitalized with intestinal bleeding in 2006. Cuban-American celebrity blogger Perez Hilton caused a stir in Little Havana the following year by publishing the "scoop" that Castro had died. Photos claiming to show a dead Castro have also made the rounds on email.

Castro formally stepped down in 2008, leaving power to his brother Raúl, but is thought to still be active in devising policy. And despite his reported death, the former president appears to be staying busy, penning regular, widely scrutinized columns for the state-run newspaper Granma, and meeting with other Latin American leaders. Castro wrote in early 2009 that he most likely has less than four years to live, and his friend Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan president, has said that he is unlikely to ever be seen in public again.


Location: North Korea

Last appearance: April 2009

The evidence: North Korea's already reclusive leader has largely disappeared from public life since suffering a stroke in August 2008. Kim was conspicuously absent from public events in late 2008, and photos released by the North Korean government showing the Dear Leader healthy and meeting with troops were shown to be fake by the London Times.

A very frail-looking Kim did make a public appearance (above photo) last spring to be sworn in for a third term in the North Korean parliament. South Korean intelligence believes he's suffering from pancreatic cancer, but a recent best-selling Japanese book alleges that Kim died of diabetes in 2003 and has been played by a body double ever since. The book's conclusions were dismissed by other scholars, but with so little information to work with, it's hard to prove anything definitively.


Location: ???

Last appearance: Most recent audiotape released Jan. 29

The evidence: There have been persistent rumors of bin Laden's death ever since the 9/11 attacks and his reported escape from Tora Bora. Both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari have said they think bin Laden has been killed, though top U.S. intelligence and military officials have gone on record to say that he's somewhere in the tribal badlands along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

If the terrorist mastermind is alive, he's not doing much to help his case. While there have been dozens of audiotapes purporting to be of bin Laden released in recent years, al Qaeda hasn't released a video of him since he appeared in 2007 to commemorate the sixth anniversary of 9/11 (and it was unclear when that one was actually recorded). Some experts think bin Laden suffers from kidney failure and is on dialysis, but others dispute that analysis.

A Majeed/AFP/Getty Images, PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images, STR/AFP/Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images, AFP/Getty Images