As the drumbeat for war against Iran continues, I figured that I would add my two cents. Now, by any stretch of the imagination, I am no expert in Iran. I know some of the main players, I am aware of some of the history, but Juan Cole I am not. But I have a pretty good understanding of history and politics, and it is my blog, so. . .
I think bombing Iran is just about the dumbest thing ever. Now, don't get me wrong - the Iranian government is atrocious. It horrifically tortures its people, it brutally suppresses freedoms, and it sponsors terror groups. The Supreme Leader Khamenei is an awful, awful person, who hopefully will burn in Hell for his crimes against his people. Also, notice I don't mention Ahmadinejad? Yeah, that's because he has almost no power whatsoever. An Iranian regime with nuclear weapons would be terrible.
But, and this is a big but, Iran would never, ever use nuclear weapons against anyone. Ever. The reason is simple - using nuclear weapons is an automatic death sentence. Israel, the U.S., Great Britain, China, and Russia all have the capability to wipe Iran from the map. And while some front-line soldiers might be willing to martyr themselves, the powers that be in Iran would never be willing to join in the martyrdom. Nor would they be particularly interested in having their families join them in the martyrdom. No, the reality of nuclear weapons is that they are used as a defensive weapon to protect against invasion. So, if the Iranian regime were to acquire nukes, it wouldn't use them to destroy other countries (like Israel), but would use them to prop up their own power.
The other big reason to not bomb Iran is more subtle. Every regime in power rules through both coercion and through social networks. The American Constitution, for example, gives the government the right to use force, while at the same time, gives special interest groups the right to influence the government's behaviors. And every government has that balancing of the use of force and allowing its policies to be shaped by its people - and this varies by both the amount of force the government is willing to use, and the power of the various special interest groups. When one interest group dominates, as it is in Iran, more force is needed for control. But if you diminish the power of the lead group, without diminishing the power of the other factions, you get a change in regime, which is what we want here.
Now, the problem with bombing, and with a potential invasion, is that the bombing is not guaranteed to hit the faction you want. In fact, more likely than not, bombing will hit the factions that you'd want to support - the democratic elements in Iran. Bomb Iran, and you take away their capacity to topple Khamenei, which is precisely what you want. Worse yet, that kind of attack would encourage patriotism, and bolster the regime.
However, if you can draw the regime into a conflict that would not involve the killing of democratic elements - say fight over the Straits of Hormuz - you can both embarrass the regime, and sap its military prowess, perhaps enough to a new faction to take over. This is exactly what happened to the Argentine junta in the 1980's. Like Iran, the junta had no qualms about killing and torturing its people. Then, it got drawn into a conflict with the U.K. over the Falklands, lost the war, and the junta was overthrown. Similarly, you could engage Iran in a type of cold war, and slowly strangle its means of production and its economy - a la the Soviet Union. In this scenario, you'd want to compel Iran to overspend on its military to bankrupt its economy. That way the economic elites would step in and topple the regime.