The last American troops left Iraq in December and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta recently announced that the United States hopes to end the combat portion of its mission in Afghanistan by mid-2013. But those hopeful developments have been tempered by a growing standoff with Iran over its nuclear program and alleged support for terrorism. Is the United States inching closer to yet another military conflict? And is the endless debate over what to do about Iran, played out in the media and in a chorus of think tank pieces, creating an aura of inevitability that effectively changes the war question from “if” to “when?”
Hawks in Israel and the United States have been making the case for regime change in Iran for years, but in the last few months the rhetoric has escalated to a fever pitch. In October, U.S. authorities foiled an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington. Less than a month later, a troubling report on Iran’s nuclear program from the International Atomic Energy Agency motivated the United States and European Union to slap some of the toughest sanctions to date on Iran in a bid to choke off Tehran’s oil revenues.
An EU ban on oil imports prompted Tehran to warn that it would cut off supplies to certain European nations first to pre-empt the phased-in embargo. Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions on Iran’s Central Bank are severing its access to the international banking system because the penalties effectively block any foreign financial institution that deals with the Central Bank from the U.S. market. In addition, U.S. officials have lobbied countries such as China to wean themselves off Iranian oil, while getting the Saudis to ramp up production and fill the gap. To further tighten the economic noose, Congress is also debating how to cut Iranian banks off a critical global financial telecommunications network known as Swift.
Iran has responded with threats to block the Strait of Hormuz, passageway for about one-fifth of the world’s daily oil supply, sparking fears of a spike in energy prices that could cripple the world economy. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also bluntly warned that Iran would help militant groups fighting Israel.
Iran blames Israel and the United States for what it says is a covert campaign of assassinations and high-tech sabotage, the latest being the Jan. 10 killing of a 32-year-old Iranian scientist who worked at Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment plant, the fourth such attack in the last two years. Meanwhile, tensions between Iran and Israel ratcheted up another notch on Feb. 13, as bombers targeted Israeli Embassy staff in Georgia and India and possibly Thailand. Several people were hurt in the attacks and Israel blamed Iran, which denied it was involved.
National Intelligence Director James Clapper Jr. testified before the Senate on Jan. 31 that Iran was prepared to launch terrorist attacks inside the United States. Clapper also said that the U.S. didn’t know if Iran would “eventually decide to build nuclear weapons,” but that caveat was buried deep into most media accounts of the testimony.
Meanwhile, caveats and caution have been thrown out the window in the GOP presidential debates, with all of the candidates save Ron Paul seemingly competing to see who would bomb the country’s nuclear facilities first. Newt Gingrich has advocated regime change in Iran, backs assassinating Iranian scientists, and said that if Israel strikes Iran, America should ask: “How can we help you?” Mitt Romney also backs regime change in Iran and has said that “if we re-elect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if you elect Mitt Romney, Iran will not have a nuclear weapon,” though he hasn’t provided details on how exactly he would prevent this from happening.
In one December debate, former Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann stated that Ahmadinejad had said that “if he has a nuclear weapon he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. He will use it against the United States of America.”
In reality, Iran has always publicly maintained that its nuclear program is peaceful — and within its legal rights under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty — and denies it plans to develop a nuclear weapon. But no one on stage felt compelled to challenge Bachmann, who also at one point said she would shut down the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, even though Washington severed diplomatic relations back in 1980.
President Obama, too, has had his fair share of mocking for extending a hand to the Iranian regime early in his administration, an engagement that yielded no results. Nevertheless, it may have helped paved the way for building unprecedented international pressure on Iran, and many experts say multilateral sanctions are beginning to bite. The value of Iran’s currency has nose-dived, the economy is tanking, food prices are soaring, the government is fractured, and Gulf neighbors have united against Tehran, whose main regional ally, Syria, is under siege.
Despite the economic stranglehold on Iran, the clamor for even bolder action has only grown louder. John Bolton, the hawkish former U.S. envoy to the United Nations, published an op-ed in USA Today titled “On Iran, sanctions are not the answer,” in which he argued that the U.S. should consider “preemptive military action to break Iran’s (nuclear) program” sooner rather than later.
Indeed, prominent voices inside the Beltway, from think tanks to the media, have out
right called for regime change in Iran, or at the very least exhaustively pored over every aspect of what a military intervention would entail.
Consider for instance a string of detailed analyses over the last few months that have meticulously dissected the case for war from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), which was also among the first groups to raise the issue of sanctioning Iran’s Central Bank late last year.
Many of the group’s policy watches and reports have openly called for military intervention, such as “Israel’s Closing Window to Strike Iran” by David Makovsky and “Only Threat of Military Action Will Stop Iran” by Michael Eisenstadt. Similar briefs have been issued for Syria.
Others have said that at the very least, the U.S. should adopt a more hawkish stance toward Iran’s intransigence. For example, Michael Singh, managing director of the Washington Institute, argued that the United States should resume a more active program of military exercises in the Gulf region, bolster the defense capabilities of Gulf allies, and make clear to Iran that the U.S. is prepared to use selective military force in response to further provocations.
“It is frequently observed that the consequences of military action are unpredictable, and rightly so; it should only ever be used with caution and deliberation,” Singh wrote in Foreign Policy. “However, excessive risk aversion that results in a failure of deterrence and feeds Iran’s sense of impunity may, paradoxically, be just as risky. The most prudent course is neither belligerence nor passivity, but a robust posture that makes Tehran think twice.”
The media, too, seems to have embraced a tougher line in debating the pros and cons of military confrontation. In December, the Washington Post editorial board criticized the Obama administration for “public disparaging of the force option,” sending a “waffling signal” to Tehran. The latest issue of Foreign Affairs had policymakers and pundits buzzing with the bluntly titled article “Time to Attack Iran: Why a Strike Is the Least Bad Option” by Matthew Kroenig, a professor at Georgetown University. A year earlier, another prominent article by Jeffrey Goldberg on the cover of the September 2010 Atlantic magazine examined how an Israeli airstrike would unfold in “The Point of No Return.” More recently, an extensive piece titled “Will Israel Attack Iran?” on the front page of the New York Times magazine in late January concluded that “Israel will indeed strike Iran in 2012.”
Of course, it’s hardly a secret that Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran to be a non-starter, although the chatter that it will finally attack Iran’s nuclear facilities this spring or early summer — right around the peak travel season, possibly affecting gas prices — has reached a crescendo.
Yet how much does this incessant analysis and speculation contribute — intentionally or not — to the drumbeat toward war? Does breaking down the different scenarios for a military intervention build up the case for one, or does it simply lay out policy options and open up a necessary intellectual debate?
Sober Debate or Reckless Warmongering?
The Washington Diplomat consulted a half dozen Iran experts from across the political spectrum, and while most agreed that a U.S. or Israeli military strike against Iran is far from inevitable, they offered starkly different opinions on how serious a threat Iran poses and what role anti-Iran forces inside the Washington establishment play in stoking fears.
“The loudest voices calling for military action against Iran are many of the same voices who got us into war with Iraq before 2003,” said Stephen Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard and co-author of the controversial 2007 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” which argued that the war in Iraq could not have happened without the influence of the Israel lobby. “The experience of the Iraq War has sobered some people up but not everybody. All of this is based upon a considerable exaggeration of Iran’s actual capabilities.”
He added that this exaggeration was “at least in part less about U.S. interests, than a perceived threat to Israel.”
The liberal Center for American Progress recently came under fire for alleged anti-Semitism when several Jewish groups criticized, among other things, a ThinkProgress blog written by Eli Clifton that linked the current push for sanctions against Iran by the lobby group AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) to the campaign against Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the Iraq War.
Walt has termed this type of buildup “mainstreaming war,” the notion “that an attack on Iran is likely to happen and savvy people-in-the-know should start getting accustomed to the idea,” he wrote in a 2010 posting on his Foreign Policy blog. “In other words, a preemptive strike on Iran should be seen not as a remote or far-fetched possibility, but rather as something that is just ‘business-as-usual’ in the Middle East strategic environment. If you talk about going to war often enough and for long enough, people get used to the idea and some will even begin to think it is bound to happen sooner or later,” he argued.
“In an inside-the-Beltway culture where being ‘tough’ is especially prized, it is easy for those who oppose ‘decisive’ action to get worn down and marginalized,” he added. “If war with Iran comes to be seen as a ‘default’ condition, then it will be increasingly difficult for cooler heads (including President Obama himself) to say no.”
But Michael Ledeen, a freedom scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, rejects the notion that Israel’s interests are a factor in the U.S. response to Iran and points out that Iran has already proven to be a grave threat to American interests.
“It has nothing to do with Israel and it’s not just a nuclear question,” he told The Diplomat. “Iran’s been waging war against the United States since 1979. They kill Americans every day, or try to.”
Ledeen said Iranian agents were killing Americans with improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan and referred to alleged Iranian involvement in a foiled 2007 plot to blow up fuel tanks at John F. Kennedy Airport.
But despite his dire view of the Iranian threat, Ledeen said he doesn’t support military action against Iran — at least not yet. Matthew Kroenig, on the other hand, said that conducting a “surgical strike” on Iran’s nuclear facilities was the “least bad option” if Iran appears to be on the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon capability. His “Time to Attack Iran” piece in Foreign Affairs unleashed a torrent of criticism from experts like Walt, who wrote that it was a “textbook example of warmongering disguised as analysis.”
“It’s been the stated policy of two administrations that a nuclear Iran is unacceptable and that all options are on the table to prevent them from acquiring them, and nothing we’ve done has slowed their progress, so we’ll have to either accept the unacceptable or exercise our last remaining option,” Kroenig said in an interview with The Diplomat. “So I think my position is just an articulation of a logical continuation of where our policy has been and where it’s going.”
Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs who served on the National Security Council under Presidents Ford, Carter and Reagan, believes that Kroenig’s analysis downplays the risks of a confrontation.
“There is no such thing as a surgical strike and there never will be,” he said. “Iran could kick out the inspectors, go underground, reconstitute its program, and go for a nuclear weapon. Then the population rallies around the regime and we’re left with no eyes and ears on the ground. Then the ‘least bad’ option becomes, ‘Let’s send in some troops.'”
Sick said that a war with Iran could be “100 times worse” than Iraq, because of the size of the country, the way the population would mobilize, and the defense capabilities and guerilla tactics they could launch to disrupt oil supplies and throw fragile economies into recession. Kroenig, 34, noted that he took no position on the Iraq War because he was a first-year graduate student at the time and wasn’t following the situation closely. He has never been to Iran and said he doubts he’ll be invited after the publication of his article.
Still, he believes it is important for Americans to debate the Iran issue honestly and consider the use of force. He also echoed what Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reportedly suggested: that the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iran continues to increase heading into 2012 as Iran’s “capability continues to evolve.” But John Ghazvinian, a historian who is working on a book on the history of U.S.-Iranian relations, doubts that Israel or the United States will conduct a military strike on Iran anytime soon.
“The likelihood of military action against Iran is almost zero,” claimed Ghazvinian, who was born in Iran and has conducted recent field research there. “It would be such a poor decision that I can’t imagine it being taken quite frankly. From the Israeli perspective, there’s a strategic advantage to ensuring that the think tank consensus is that an Israeli attack on Iran is imminent and the only way to prevent it is to ratchet up pressure on Iran. But I believe that for Israel, this type of pressure on Iran is itself, in fact, the end game.”
Walt argues that Israel wants to keep the world’s focus on Iran, in part to distract from the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. He believes an attack on Iran would help rally support around the regime and that patient diplomacy and sanctions are the best way to deal with Tehran. Ledeen contends that this approach has failed miserably.
“We’ve been trying that for 32 years going on 33,” said Ledeen, who advocates supporting a revolution in Iran. “At what point do you say, ‘They don’t want to make peace with us. They hate us. They want to destroy us.’ You see them in the streets chanting ‘Death to America’ — what do you think they mean? Look at Iran and how they treat their people. That’s what they’d like to do to us — subject us to radical Shiite tyranny, force rules on us like boys and girls can’t walk down the street together, women being eliminated from authority, segregating schools and the rest.”
Sick counters that the notion of Iran as that sort of a global power is laughable. “If you really think that Iran is capable of imposing social restrictions on the United States, you’re turning them into something infinitely greater than they are,” he said.
Walt adds that it’s the neoconservative approach that has failed, not patient diplomacy. “They’ve been beating this drum for a decade and Iran has continued to move closer [to nuclear power]. So this idea that squeezing Iran and threatening it is the way to convince them not to get a nuclear deterrent doesn’t seem to be working particularly well.”
To that end, Suzanne Maloney of the Brookings Institution argues that putting the squeeze on Iran could backfire. “The Obama administration’s new sanctions signal the demise of the paradigm that had guided U.S. Iran policymaking since the 1979 revolution: the combination of pressure and persuasion,” she wrote in Foreign Affairs. “Moreover, the decision to outlaw contact with Iran’s central bank puts the United States’ tactics and its long-standing objective — a negotiated end to Iran’s nuclear ambitions — fundamentally at odds. Indeed, the United States cannot hope to bargain with a country whose economy it is trying to disrupt and destroy. As severe sanctions devastate Iran’s economy, Tehran will surely be encouraged to double down on its quest for the ultimate deterrent. So, the White House’s embrace of open-ended pressure means that it has backed itself into a policy of regime change, something Washington has little ability to influence.”
Yet Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC) and a member of Newt Gingrich’s national security team, says there’s nothing wrong with pushing for regime change in Iran, though he doesn’t advocate military action. Speaking for AFPC and not on behalf of Gingrich, he said engagement with Iran was a bad idea.
“The Soviets were rational, the Soviets didn’t believe in the next life, so they wanted to live in this one,” he said. “There are very troubling signs that there is a vocal minority in Iran that wants to egg on a confrontation with potentially disastrous consequences. A good example would be an Ayatollah Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, the spiritual leader of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He talks a lot about the need for a final confrontation with the West to herald the coming of the hidden imam, the 12th imam. It sounds crazy to us but we ignore this stuff at our peril.”
Gingrich himself has expressed similar concerns, recently warning: “You think about an Iranian nuclear weapon. You think about the dangers, to Cleveland, or to Columbus, or to Cincinnati, or to New York,” he said. “Remember what it felt like on 9/11 when 3,100 Americans were killed. Now imagine an attack where you add two zeros. And it’s 300,000 dead. Maybe a half-million wounded. This is a real danger. This is not science fiction.”
Walt is among those who doubt Iran’s leaders would risk national suicide by launching a nuclear strike on Israel — let alone the United States, a capability it lacks — knowing it would also hit Arab populations and invite an annihilating counterattack from Israel. He also believes such doomsday warnings about Iran have the effect of making a conflict seem inevitable.
“If you keep talking about military action enough, people get used to the idea,” he said. “But constantly beating the drums for war with Iran is exactly the way to convince them that a nuclear capability is something they need. If you keep threatening another country, of course they’re going to figure out a way if they can deter you from taking military action. Nuclear weapons are a good way to do that.”
About the Authors
Dave Seminara is an award-winning freelance photojournalist and former diplomat based in Northern Virginia.