U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta indicated today that Israel is considering a strike on Iran’s nuclear program as early as this spring. A Washington Post reporter asserted Panetta believed “there is a strong likelihood that Israel will strike Iran in April, May or June before Iran enters what Israelis described as a ‘zone of immunity’ to commence building a nuclear bomb.” He further maintained that the United States had cautioned the Israelis against such a move in order to allow international sanctions more time to convince the Iranians to back away from their nuclear program.
Given the level of increased rhetoric on Iran amongst top administration officials, as well as recent carrier and special warfare deployments to the region, there seems to be a bit more going on here that what appears on the surface.
In my view, an Israeli attack on Iran is one of the worst case scenarios for the United States. Most Arab regimes in the region would quietly support an American precision strike on Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. However, it would be impossible for them to support an Israeli one. Furthermore, because Iran’s nuclear weapons program is well-dispersed and in some cases, in hardened underground bunkers, the Israelis would not have the wherewithal to finish the job. In other words, the Israelis would force America’s hand, dragging the world’s lone superpower into another regional conflict at a time and manner not of America’s choosing. Moreover, the United States would no longer have the political and material support of the Arab world because the United States would be implicated as a co-conspirator in yet another supposed “Zionist” plot against Islam.
I also think the Israelis understand this political calculus, and realize that their objective of a nuclear free Iran would be better served if the United States did the deed.
Assuming that the United States and Israel are rational actors, it begs the question: What is really going on here?
My view is Panetta’s revelation is just another component of the administration’s policy to build a narrative persuading the American people that the United States has only one remaining option available: destroying Iran’s nuclear program.
The narrative would play something like this:
“After a series of failed negotiations with the European Union stretching back to at least 2003, the Iranians continued to proceed with their nuclear program. After President Obama offered to sit down and talk with his “enemies” in Iran, the Iranians rebuffed him. After a strong and punishing series of economic and political sanctions, the Iranians only increased the pace of their uranium enrichment program, and threatened to close the world’s economic jugular at the Strait of Hormuz for good measure. Now, the Israelis have threatened to take an action that would throw the entire region into chaos, which in turn would result in spiking oil prices that could throw the global economy back into an economic recession, or even a depression.”
“The veritable die is now cast. What option is left, but to defang the Iranians before other regional actors like Israel get carried away and start off a much broader regional brouhaha?”
This instance would not be the first time an administration began preparation for war, long before selling it to the American people. The last time was in February 2002, when the Army inexplicably put me on stop-loss. By October 2002, I was helping to train the Third Infantry Division for an assault through the Karbala Gap in Iraq. It was not until March 2003 that the invasion began, but the United States military began its preparations at least a year before that.
In my opinion, the country is gearing for a strike on Iran. The only way for the Iranians to prevent it would be for them to abandon their aspirations for acquiring nuclear weapons.
Well, we’re not sure about Iran’s intentions. Now, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano was recently quoted as saying, “What we know suggests the development of nuclear weapons” So, I don’t mean to be all, “how dare you!” or anything. But we have been wrong, us and the Israelis, many times before (we’ve pretty much been saying that Iran’s three years away from nuclearizing for about 20 years, as we’ve noted here at your blog before).
Gary Sick views things this way:
I personally am agnostic on the issue, as there’s obviously a lot I don’t know. Ten years ago, I thought it was incumbent on me as an American to trust our VP’s judgment of our intel over the IAEA; this time around, not so much.
But I’d like to ask your view about the larger issue here.
Israel is giving indications that they view a nuclear Iran as a red line, that they’ll go to war to prevent. Well even if they’re successful, it’s only going to bump things back, from what I’ve read, three to ten years. What is the long-term strategy here? Israel’s a country of about 8 million people in a rough neighborhood. At the end of the day, if everyone around them hates them and war’s always moments away, I don’t see how Israel lasts til 2100.
Former Mossad head Meir Dagan has argued that Israel ”must present an initiative to the Palestinians. We must adopt the Saudi initiative. We have no other way, and not because [the Palestinians] are my top priority, but because I am concerned about Israel’s wellbeing and I want to do what I can to ensure Israel’s existence. If we don’t make proposals and if we don’t take the initiative, we will eventually find ourselves in a corner.”
Regardless of whether we like the Israelis more than the Palestinians, I just don’t see how he’s wrong, long term.
Do you think I’m missing something here? Do you think the Israelis are wise to just handle what’s in from of them right now, and worry about 2022 when it happens?
I personally think the Israelis are screwed from a demographic standpoint for the reasons you suggest. I think taking out Iran’s nuclear program is the best option for the region because it likely forestalls a six-nation proliferation spiral. I care far more about preventing that given the US’s and the world’s unfortunate dependency on crude oil, than helping Israel. In the case of a nuclear Iran, my policy recommendations just so happen to coincide with Israel’s, but for different reasons.
However, from Israel’s viewpoint, a nuclear Iran is quite literally an existential threat. One lucky nuclear warhead would literally destroy all of Israel. Regardless of their long-term position, a nuclear Iran is an unacceptable proposition for them. I understand their position and support it.
Well, the only way for Israel to be demographically not-screwed is to reach agreements. It’s not going to be easy or fun, but then, neither is bombing Iran, or living in a perpetual state of perceived imminent disaster. (Or creating, in Jeffrey Goldberg’s words, an “apartheid state”).
I think I differ from you, in that I would be a little less certain on the certainty and implacability of Iran’s nuclear program, and on the likelihood they would use a nuclear weapon against Israel. Their intentions are a little more opaque, in my view, and they are feeling the pressure of sanctions. Obviously, Russia in particular, and China, are not especially helpful in this regard. It’s part of why it was such a strategic blunder to force the inspectors out with our invasion of Iraq, of course.
And while it’s true that an Iranian nuclear weapon could literally eliminate Israel, that seems to me a highly unlikely event. Israel has nuclear-armed submarines. Iran knows that fact. If Iran takes out Israel (and the holy city of Jerusalem), well, Tehran won’t last much longer.
I do worry about the escalation and race that you describe. Do you think it’s in our interests to be perceived to be making progress with compliance with Article VI of the NPT? It seems to me that it is.
Oh, I don’t think the Israelis should attack Iran either because it would be a disaster for the United States. I also don’t think Iran would ever use a nuclear weapon against Israel. What I do fear is two nuclear nations on hair trigger alert and the Israeli misinterpreting an Iranian missile test for a nuclear launch, or vice versa. Given the two nations’ proximity to one another, they would have less time to react than the United States and the Soviet Union had.
“I do worry about the escalation and race that you describe. Do you think it’s in our interests to be perceived to be making progress with compliance with Article VI of the NPT? It seems to me that it is.”
I do. I also think 9 years is a bit on the extreme side. The last time the United States did this dance, the North Koreans bought enough time to acquire several nuclear weapons.
Sure, agreed on the possibility of miscalculation or accident. Yes, we never went to war with the USSR, but that doesn’t make it an iron law. And speaking of proximity, distrust, and imperfect information, the whole India-Pakistan thing doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence for humanity’s future,
I’m not sure we disagree re: North Korea, but it’s important to remember that the dance we did there was abandoning talks in exchange for rhetoric about how much we didn’t like North Korea and how the prospect of their nuclearizing was “unacceptable”.
Believe it or not, the DOD advised Clinton to bomb North Korea in 1994. Had former President Carter not negotiated a peace, history may have been very different. Some of those same folks are in the current administration.
By the way, a very fair point about Pakistan. It makes Obama’s decision to get bin Laden all the more gutsy.
I’m more empathic to Israel’s plight than I am of the Obama admin. Many Congress reps expressed support & understanding for Israel’s dire position. In fact, haven’t they demonstrated at one time against Obama’s attitude toward Israel?
I don’t agree that Arab states will not support an Israeli strike on Iran (even if they may prefer a US strike). They certainly won’t do so publicly, but privately they would. They fear Iran much more than they do Israel. There is more reason for Sunni states to fear Shia domination in the region — witness Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon where Shia’s influence is growing — than Israel. (And I would think Israel and some of these Arab states are in secret contacts.)
I do agree that it’s preferable that the US would take action than Israel. My first choice too. But here we’re talking about a state whose very existence has been threatened by the genocidal belligerence of another state that is seeking nuclear weapons. For Israel, nothing can take priority over that. The US would do the same, just as they’ve gone after al qaeda.
“I don’t agree that Arab states will not support an Israeli strike on Iran (even if they may prefer a US strike). They certainly won’t do so publicly, but privately they would. They fear Iran much more than they do Israel. There is more reason for Sunni states to fear Shia domination in the region — witness Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon where Shia’s influence is growing — than Israel. (And I would think Israel and some of these Arab states are in secret contacts.)”
A fair point. Your assessment is probably right for the Sunni Arabs, though there would probably be some additional friction between Shia and Sunni as a consequence of Israeli action.
I agree that it’s bad from our point of view for Iran to have nuclear weapons even if it never uses them against Israel, but I’m also not so sure that Iran wouldn’t use them against Israel. Consider this:
To be fair, Mao said similar things about the Chinese, and China has never used its nuclear weapons against anyone. Despite their rhetoric to the contrary, I think the Iranians are very rational. Furthermore, they’ve been playing the “crazy card” well enough to keep the international community at bay for 9 years.
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I don’t think we’re going to war, nor do I think it would be a good idea. I put my thoughts in my own blog post: http://scotterb.wordpress.com/2012/02/04/i-ran-like-a-rock/
If Iran backs away from its nuclear program, I think you would right. I just don’t think they are going to back away from it, and the United States is running out of time. Given that four carriers are within a week’s distance from the region and the Navy’s scramble to get a warship converted into a floating operational base before June, it is at least clear that the President is putting forces in place so he at least has the option to strike. The downing of a stealth UAV over Iran last month also is a sign that the United States is likely preparing a target list for in the event of a strike. I would put the probability at 60% right now of something happening this summer.
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Thanks very much. Your research is good.
Thanks for stopping by, Marshall.