Taking on Iran

Diplomacy Still the Least Bad Option

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently took to the Sunday morning political talk shows to dodge accusations that he has been meddling in America’s presidential election. “We’re supported by Democrats and Republicans alike,” he insisted. That’s true. Netanyahu’s remark is a reminder that a rational discussion about Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s security is consistently undermined by the pusillanimous groveling of both parties to the security demands of Netanyahu and his right-wing Israeli allies.

The media generally attributes the Democrats’ support for Netanyahu’s government to the party’s need for Jewish votes and campaign contributions. As for the GOP, the media attributes its support to the influence of evangelical Christians, who value Israel for the role it is supposed to play in the end times. Apart from these partisan considerations, there is long-standing support for Israel on the part of most Americans, who admire Israel’s courage, acknowledge its legitimate security needs, and view it in the context of the centuries of persecution that culminated in the Holocaust. The question Netanyahu has usefully raised is whether his own definition of Israel’s security needs is in the interest of the United States—or, indeed, of Israel. It seems fair to ask whether the prime minister isn’t playing chicken with his own country’s security. Not only is he undermining the current sanctions against Iran; he also seems to be blackmailing the White House, signaling that, unless the U.S. government commits itself to attacking Iran if it crosses a “red line,” Israel might launch its own attack on Iran, thus putting itself at risk and forcing Washington to go to war in Israel’s defense.

Netanyahu claims that the Iranians are within six or seven months of having 90 percent of the enriched uranium they would need to make a bomb. Nobody else speaks with such assurance about this—not his own intelligence services and certainly not the U.S. military or intelligence agencies. To the contrary, U.S. officials say it is not yet clear that Iran is now planning to build a nuclear weapon, that there’s still time to act if it does, and that the sanctions regime already in place should be allowed to work. With a UN resolution in hand, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have pulled together a large coalition to enforce stringent sanctions on Iran’s oil exports and international financial transactions. As a result, the country’s oil exports are down by 44 percent, while the value of its currency has plummeted (the rial is now 12,700 to the dollar). The aim of these sanctions is to force Iran to curtail its nuclear-enrichment program and turn over materials that exceed those needed for peaceful uses. So far, Iran has stalled, refusing to surrender what it claims are legal amounts of enriched uranium.

There is no guarantee that the sanctions will work. But there is no guarantee that bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would work either. Experts say that even if Israel bombs, Iran’s nuclear program could be back on track in two years—four years if the United States does the bombing. Meanwhile, the Iranian government continues to claim that it does not have a nuclear bomb and has no plans to build one. If the country were attacked, though, its plans might change—so an attack on Iran could lead to the very outcome it was meant to prevent.

These scenarios and others are spelled out in a new report from a group of retired U.S. national-security officials, including Zbigniew Brzezinski, Brent Scowcroft, Leslie Gelb, Sam Nunn, Daniel Kurtzer, and Anthony Zinni (“Weighing the Benefits and Costs of Military Action Against Iran” [.pdf]). Their analysis takes the Iranian threat to Israel and the rest of the region very seriously. Yet in weighing the consequences of an attack against Iran, the report points to potential outcomes that are often overlooked. Some of those who favor bombing Iran also favor overturning its government. The new report suggests that this would require a full-scale invasion and a decades-long occupation far exceeding the material and human costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If the attacks were confined to nuclear facilities, the report considers it probable that Iran would respond by attacking Israel and, if the United States were involved, by attacking U.S. facilities in the Middle East and closing the Strait of Hormuz. The authors say Iran’s retaliation would likely involve both conventional warfare and covert operations.

In view of these risks, the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts deserve robust support, and Netanyahu’s untimely ultimatum should alarm his allies in Congress. As it has already alarmed many Israelis.

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

ARE WE TO BE THE PUPETS OF THIS "MAN"?WE ALWAYS STICK OUR NOSES WHERE THEY DO NOT BELONG.CAN WE TRULY AFFORD THIS WAR TO APEASE ISRAEL?NO.

 WE MUST NOT BE MADE TO START A WAR TO PLEASE REPUBLICANS IN CONGRESS,WHO BY THE WAY WILL PROBABLY NOT BE IN BATTLE OVER THERE, BUT WILL DEMAND WE BOMB THE HELL OUT OF IRAN.IRAN IS AN UNSTABLE COUNTRY WITH UNSTABLE PEOPLE AT THE RUDDER.

 I AM SURE THAT IF THEY TRY TO CLOSE OF STRAIGHTS THEN WE CAN DESTROY WHATEVER THEY THROW AT US. HOWEVER,WE HAVE A MEDIA THAT WILL INFORM THE WORLD OF OUR PLANS. THEN IRAN WILL BE READY FOR US. I SAY ANY LEAKS WE TREAT THEM AS A THREAT TO AMERICAN FORCES. THUS HANG THE INFORMERS.

 IF WE WERE FIGHT ADOLH HITLER TODAY HE WOULD WIN BECAUSE OUR MEDIA CAN NOT KEEP THEIR MOUTHS SHUT.

Who has been threatening whom in this standoff? Every other week one hears from Washington and Tel Aviv that nothing is off the table. That implies dropping nuclear bombs on Teheran unless they do what we want. Does Iran have a right to exist? If the Iraians develop a nuclear deterrent one couldn't blame them in the least. Incidentally US sanctions against Iran is illegal. They have not been sanctioned by the UN.

I am concerned about Steinfel's use of the word, pusillanimous, to describe those of us who are very concerned about anti-semitism in the Middle East, especially coming from highly irrational voices in Iran.  Pusillanimous is defined as lacking courage and resolution and/or marked by comtemptible timidity.  Those of us who are very concerned with the safety and welfare of the Jewish people, God's chosen people, have no lack of courage, and to describe our vivid memory of Hitler's torture/murder/annihlation of millions of Jewish men, women and children as "contemptible timidity" displays the same cowardice and indifference that permeated the world while the smoke went up from the death camps. Please recall that containment was the terribly failed solution put forth by Nevlle Chamberlain; he had persuaded the world that Hitler wasn't really that dangerous, and that they could, after all, reason with the madman. 

This is where Benjamin Netanhahu is coming from.  His fear is rational and palpable, especially so while Barak Obama dances on talk shows and plays cool.  Many of us are not at all persuaded that Obama takes Iran's call for the destruction of Israel seriously.  He thinks he can reason with the mullah's, religious fanatics with whom no one can reason. Obama seems to have an obsession with rationalizing with insanity.

Likewise, Steinfels rationalizations lack analysis of the true and especially hidden motives of today's madmen in Iran.  She readily dismisses the prospect that Israelis face daily:  nuclear annilhilation at the hands of Iran.  Please forgive me for wishing that people such as she should be permanently relocated to that place in Israel most accesible by Iranian nuclear bombs; they should daily view pictures of the horrors of Hitler's death camps.  After a few decades of said experience, we should ask them whether our "pusillanimous groveling" might be seen in a new light.

 

 

 

l

/* Style Definitions */
table.MsoNormalTable
{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
mso-tstyle-rowband-size:0;
mso-tstyle-colband-size:0;
mso-style-noshow:yes;
mso-style-priority:99;
mso-style-qformat:yes;
mso-style-parent:"";
mso-padding-alt:0in 5.4pt 0in 5.4pt;
mso-para-margin-top:0in;
mso-para-margin-right:0in;
mso-para-margin-bottom:10.0pt;
mso-para-margin-left:0in;
line-height:115%;
mso-pagination:widow-orphan;
font-size:11.0pt;
font-family:"Calibri","sans-serif";
mso-ascii-font-family:Calibri;
mso-ascii-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-fareast-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-fareast-theme-font:minor-fareast;
mso-hansi-font-family:Calibri;
mso-hansi-theme-font:minor-latin;
mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman";
mso-bidi-theme-font:minor-bidi;}

Are the 'good' outcomes of 'bad' options worse than the 'bad' outcomes of 'good' options?  

Okay, before you dismiss this as tomfoolery, think through the scenarios as one would a war-game.

If we bomb out the nuclear enrichment facilities and related infrastructure in Iran, there is no doubt that we would seriously retard the Iranian bomb effort.  Coupled with Israel's ongoing program of assassinating Iran's scientists, it will be a crippling blow.  It will set Iran's nuclear ambitions back by at least five years, perhaps as long as ten years.  In that time, things could change, incuding a regime change in Iran, hopefully a more 'liberal' regime more influenced by the rapidly growing younger generation.  In the best case, Iran would give up on its bomb-making and cut a deal to develop nuclear energy with controls.

On the other hand:  bombing Iran could strengthen the standing of the zealot/conservatives, increase their hatred of Israel and the United States, and provide  a unifying ralying point to co-opt the more youthful elements of Iranian society.  While it will set back their nuclear efforts, a capability that would be difficult to actually use, it will vastly increase their conventional efforts to attack Israel and Israelis, and American interests as well.  The post-bombing world might actually be a more dangerous place that the pre-bombing one.

Sanctions have a different dynamic.  First, they seldom work in the short run, and the longer they go on the more 'leaky' they become.  They generally harm the general population more than they hurt the power center, so they reallly depend more on generating pressure from within for success.  They can work, and there have been examples of their working.  Iran is a good candidate for bring about some level of change with sactions -- but only if there is a stong and long-term international commitment to making them work.

Sanctions might indeed fail.  It will be kind of a race between the nuclear development forces in Iran and the societal effects of tight sanctions.  However, the bombing option is available right up the the very end.  I don't really accept the notion that at some point the bomb making capability becomes 'immune' to bombing. I'm not suggesting that the bombing option held until the actual arming of a delivery device, but I am suggesting that there is still time, particularly if the United States is committed and has drawn the 'red line' at preventing Iran from having an actual bomb.

So, there you have it:  poor and risky options no matter which way you go.  For myself, I'd keep options open for as long as I could, holding the bombing option until the last prudently acceptable time, and understanding that bombing probably not the end of the problem, but only the beginning of a new and perhaps equally dangerous one. 

Others, of course, will weigh it differently. 

Prime Minister Netanyahu's description of the Iranians being about six or seven months towards being 90% of the way to full nuclear capability is a brilliant piece of rhetoric.  What does that mean?  Does that mean that they are only halfway there?  President Obama and his advisers seem to think that there is yet more time.  Was the Prime Minister really signaling the US government that he agreed with the president, but was unable or unwilling to lose face at home - and therefore used this odd way of speaking to show that he heard them, and was conceding their point.  Diplomatic language needs to be examined from many angles.  Public political discourse is a sophisticated game,even a weapon.

On the use of the word pussilanimous: it appeared as an adjective to groveling and referred to the U.S. Congress and not to anyone else. The point: our Congress is unable to distinguish the interests of the United States from Israel especially in the matter of another war in the Mideast. The Senate before it recessed a week ago voted 90-1  "that reaffirms U.S. efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, and says containment of a nuclear-capable Iran is not an option.

"By a vote of 90-1 early Saturday, the Senate backed the nonbinding measure that specifically states that it should not be interpreted as an authorization for the use of military force or a declaration of war."

Okay, non-binding and not a declaration of war. But what else to call a vote of 90-1 when the Senate can't get vote anything else through. Rand Paul was the single negative vote.

Share

About the Author

Margaret O'Brien Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, writes frequently in these pages and blogs at dotCommonweal.