08 September 2010

Will Israel bomb Iran?

With the installation of the Obama Administration, the unlamented casting of the neo-cons onto the rubbish-heap of history, and the obvious difficulties of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had over time begun to convince myself that the danger of a pre-emptive strike (U.S. or Israeli) against Iran’s nuclear facilities was behind us, notwithstanding the steady drumbeat of noises from Israel about the “existential threat” posed to Israel by the Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Then, a few weeks ago a colleague forwarded to me the link to this item, Chatter rises on Iran Strike,  dated 7 July 2010, on the US military website DoD Buzz, an online defense and acquisition journal associated with Military.com.

This post, by one Colin Clark, begins

The first really clear indication that serious planning was underway to strike at Iran’s rogue nuclear weapons site came a month ago when British news outlets reported that Saudi Arabia had given Israel permission to cross its airspace [see here] en route to Iranian targets.

Yesterday, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United States said publicly that his country was willing to live with the consequences of a strike against Iran despite the enormous amount of trade between the two countries and the likelihood of riots after a strike [see Washington Post article here].

Today, you have Sen. Joe Lieberman in Israel saying the U.S. would influence Iran, “through diplomatic efforts and economic sanctions if we can, but through military action if we must.”

Then came the monumental essay in The Atlantic Monthly by American-Israeli US journalist
Jeffrey Goldberg (read the article, The Point of No Return, in full here). This article has been seen in some circles as advocacy of a pre-emptive strike against Iran, but having read it carefully a number of times I cannot read it that way, and Goldberg himself confesses to “deep, paralyzing ambivalence” on the question of a military strike against Iran (see here).

I am no fan of Goldberg, but I think he does no more than lay out in detail, and with a lot of context and background, the thinking of Israeli politicians, military figures and civilians, and US Administration figures, at the highest level – people who will confide their thinking to him precisely because of his impeccable pro-Israeli credentials.

While there is deep concern about the prospects of an Iranian nuclear capability in both Washington and in Israel, and there are those who believe that Israel should act sooner rather than later, there is caution too. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has criticized the idea of attacking Iran:

“Iran getting a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. Attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome,” he said in April. “In an area that’s so unstable right now, we just don’t need more of that.”

Of his discussions with Israelis, Goldberg says:

In my conversations with former Israeli air-force generals and strategists, the prevalent tone was cautious. Many people I interviewed were ready, on condition of anonymity, to say why an attack on Iran’s nuclear sites would be difficult for Israel. And some Israeli generals, like their American colleagues, questioned the very idea of an attack. “Our time would be better spent lobbying Barack Obama to do this, rather than trying this ourselves,” one general told me. “We are very good at this kind of operation, but it is a big stretch for us. The Americans can do this with a minimum of difficulty, by comparison. This is too big for us.”

President Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel told Goldberg that the Israelis should consider carefully whether an air strike would be worth the trouble it would unleash, because it would only postpone the Iranian acquisition of a nuclear weapons capability, not stop it. This leads Goldberg to comment that the Americans and the Israelis are talking past each other: the Americans do not see value in merely postponing Iranian acquisition of a nuclear capability; the Israelis do.

Goldberg’s overall conclusion is chilling:

Based on months of interviews, I have come to believe that the administration knows it is a near-certainty that Israel will act against Iran soon if nothing or no one else stops the nuclear program; and Obama knows—as his aides, and others in the State and Defense departments made clear to me—that a nuclear-armed Iran is a serious threat to the interests of the United States, which include his dream of a world without nuclear weapons. Earlier this year, I agreed with those, including many Israelis, Arabs—and Iranians—who believe there is no chance that Obama would ever resort to force to stop Iran; I still don’t believe there is a great chance he will take military action in the near future—for one thing, the Pentagon is notably unenthusiastic about the idea. But Obama is clearly seized by the issue. And understanding that perhaps the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real, the Obama administration seems to be purposefully raising the stakes.

The stakes in this are extraordinarily high, and the results of an attack on Iran utterly unpredictable, to the point where I think that no-one in their right mind would contemplate it.  Even George W. Bush was cautious about this idea. One official to whom Goldberg spoke:

... noted that even Bush balked at attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities, and discouraged the Israelis from carrying out the attack on their own. (Bush would sometimes mock those aides and commentators who advocated an attack on Iran, even referring to the conservative columnists Charles Krauthammer and William Kristol as “the bomber boys,” according to two people I spoke with who overheard this.)

Two commentaries on Goldberg’s article are worth reading. Fred Kaplan here opens by describing it as:

... the best article I've read on the subject—shrewd and balanced reporting combined with sophisticated analysis of the tangled strategic dilemmas.

and goes on to provide detailed commentary, or as he puts it, “a close reading”.

Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation, in his Washington Note here, comments:

My own view of Iran differs from that of Netanyahu who told Goldberg, "You don't want a messianic apocalyptic cult controlling atomic bombs." While I am uncomfortable with and oppose a nuclear-armed Iran as well, Iran has shown itself to be a strategic, rational, albeit ruthless, calculator of its interests -- not an irrational, suicidal nation. It has been at odds with the U.S. for decades and displays more the attributes of a severe abuse victim whose view of the world and its options have been distorted and mal-shaped from being under regime change siege for so long. There is no likely quick fix to the absence of trust between Iran and the US and its allies.

The good thing though is that Iran prides itself on its rationality and complexity. Former Iranian top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani once said to me in response to a question, "You Americans play baseball. We play chess. Chess beats baseball."

Let us all hope that this matter is resolved by something akin to chess rather than by military action.

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