In recent weeks the proponents of an American war against Iran have been getting impatient with President Obama’s apparent unwillingness to get with the program. Joe Lieberman, Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman, and Howard Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, now press the President to impose a short time limit on the effectiveness of the most recent set of sanctions imposed on Iran. Lieberman told the FT the deadline should be the end of the year: “Our goal here is to convince Iran to stop its nuclear weapons development program by economic and diplomatic means if we can but (to make clear) that we are prepared to use military means if we must.”
The outcome seems preordained, as in the same breath Lieberman said he doubted the sanctions would prompt Iran to negotiate. Addressing the Council on Foreign Relations on September 29 he said that “it is time to retire our ambiguous mantra” about all options remaining on the table. A week earlier Howard Berman declared that the administration had “months, not years” to make sanctions work, and that a military operation was preferable to a nuclear Iran.
A more sophisticated interventionist case was summed up by Jeffrey Goldberg in “The Point of No Return” (The Atlantic, September 2010). Since Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is convinced that neither diplomacy nor sanctions will work, Goldberg says, Israel will attack Iran soon if America does not do so. This may trigger a chain of dangerous events which would get America involved anyway, he warns; and since a nuclear-armed Iran is in any event a serious threat to the interests of the United States, “perhaps the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real.”
It is impossible, of course, to make a threat seem real without making it real; and once it is real, the issue is bound to be turned into one of America’s credibility as a great power. Far from being “the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran,” Goldberg’s recommended course is the best way to commit the United States to war without openly saying so.
Lieberman was advocating the same course more forthrightly when he told the CFR that it would be a “failure of U.S. leadership” if Israel launched a unilateral strike on Iran: “If military action must come, the United States is in the strongest position to confront Iran and manage the regional consequences. This is not a responsibility we should outsource. We can and should coordinate with our many allies who share our interest in stopping a nuclear Iran, but we cannot delegate our global responsibilities to them.” Lieberman’s line reflects rather neatly the view of Goldberg’s Israeli interlocutors that “our time would be better spent lobbying Barack Obama to do this, rather than trying this ourselves… 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.”
The Pentagon begs to differ. Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has often warned that a military strike against Iran might open up a “third front” and have serious ripple effects throughout the Middle East. He has also warned Israel of the consequences of an Israeli attack on Iran, just as he had done, repeatedly, under Bush II.
The intelligence community presents a more formidable domestic obstacle to the interventionist lobby. Its primary task, therefore, is to abrogate the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran which concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 and that the program remained frozen. Reflecting the consensus view of all 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, the NIE stated that Tehran would keep its options open with respect to building a weapon, but that this could not happen before the middle of next decade. It declared with “high confidence” that a military-run Iranian program intended to transform that raw material into a nuclear weapon had been shut down years earlier, “primarily in response to increasing international scrutiny and pressure.” Rather than painting Iran as an irrational rogue, the NIE said its “decisions are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic and military costs.”
The ink was hardly dry on the Estimate when the proponents of intervention developed their line of attack: it is a politicized attempt by the intelligence community, they argued, to compensate for the exaggerations regarding Iraq’s alleged WMDs by downplaying Iran’s capabilities. For almost three years now, they have lobbied for a thorough revision. Their concerted efforts have led to several postponements of an updated version. They have now come up with a comprehensive list of “the right questions … central to getting the right intelligence assessment—and setting the right policy toward Iran.”
The outcome of the battle for the hearts and minds of the U.S. intelligence community will become obvious soon, when the next Estimate is published. It will be a clear indicator of who will prevail. The war in Iraq would have been politically unfeasible had America’s spies not provided George W. Bush with a deeply flawed assessment regarding Saddam’s possession of, or intention to develop, weapons of mass destruction.
Five years ago I wrote in these pages that even with its unsurpassed military capabilities, the United States would not be able to mount an Iraqi-style invasion of Iran. An air campaign alone could cause a massive anti-American Shia insurgency in southern Iraq, throwing the country into utter chaos once again. Iran’s oil production would be halted, Saudi production facilities attacked by gound-to-ground missiles, and the strategic Strait of Hormuz—through which most of oil from the Gulf passes on its way to the Far East and Europe—would be closed. The resulting global energy crisis would make the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War pale by comparison. Oil at $200 a barrel would throw us all into the depths of a new recession, which may be coming even without the new Middle Eastern crisis. Tehran would also have an incentive to support or even sponsor terrorist attacks against the United States, and its proxy groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian Authority would resume their terror campaign against Israel. Last but not least, there would be a new crisis in trans-Atlantic relations, far deeper than the one over Iraq.
The above assessment still stands. Even if Iran has nefarious ambitions, it is years away from building her first device, and a change of pace would be easily and swiftly detected by the U.S. agencies and others. The United States should not risk a new, open-ended and risky commitment in the Middle East over such ambitions. If Tehran seeks nuclear weapons—which is not the same as being able to build or acquire them—it is merely following in the footsteps of other regional powers, notably Israel, India, and Pakistan… a country more inherently unstable, and potentially even more hostile to the U.S. than Iran itself. Israel may have every reason to feel threatened, of course, but it should be up to Israel to consider its options and to act accordingly. It may well decide on a robust response reminiscent of its action against the reactors in Iraq and Syria, with all the attendant risks and uncertainties. It should not expect the United States to do the job on its behalf, however. Those who argue otherwise have an agenda that is not based on a pragmatic, realistic, and rational appreciation of this country’s security interests.