Debating the Idea of an Israeli Attack on Iran's Nuclear Facilities

In the few days since the current issue of The Atlantic came out, Jeffrey Goldberg's cover story, "The Point of No Return," has already prompted sharp thoughts, big feelings, and intense discussion. Among the early responses, we've seen a quick, widespread recognition of scope of Goldberg's reporting and the depth of his analysis. Fred Kaplan comments over at Slate:

Jeffrey Goldberg's article in the latest Atlantic, on whether Israel will (or should) attack Iran's nuclear facilities in the coming months, is the best article I've read on the subject--shrewd and balanced reporting combined with sophisticated analysis of the tangled strategic dilemmas.

Whatever you think should be done about the Iranian program to build an A-bomb ..., read his piece before thinking about it much more.

Here at The Atlantic, Clive Crook calls the story "an amazing intellectual coup":

It takes an issue of enormous importance, a decision on which the history of our times could pivot, which has been on people's minds for ages--and through prodigious reporting and force of analysis makes everything that has been written on the subject up to now seem completely inadequate. I can't think of anything else quite like it.

Some, however, have speculated that "The Point of No Return" has ulterior motives, imagining it as part of "a campaign of intimidation against Iran" -- as Jacob Heilbrunn muses at The National Interest -- if not an indirect case for war. At Salon, Justin Elliott, for example, writes that "Jeffrey Goldberg is out with a monster piece that, together with the Atlantic's cover art, will do a fair amount of legwork in mainstreaming the idea that bombing Iran is a good and justifiable idea." Trita Parsi, joining Stephen Walt at Foreign Policy, portrays the story as the beginning of a "campaign for war." And Glenn Greenwald describes it bluntly as "propaganda."

Joe Klein -- emphasizing his own vehement opposition to any attack on Iran -- counters at Time: "No matter what Jeff thinks [about the idea of an attack], his Atlantic piece has no secret agenda--any more than my reporting last month that the Obama Administration has revived its study of the military option." James Fallows addresses the accusation of "warmongering" in Jeff's story and at The Atlantic here:

Or to put it more delicately, is it meant to condition the American public and politicians to the prospect of an attack on Iran? Many people have portrayed it as such. I disagree. I think that those reading the piece as a case for bombing Iran are mainly reacting to arguments about the preceding war.

Jeff Goldberg was a big proponent of invading Iraq, as I was not -- and those who disagreed with him about that war have in many cases taken the leap of assuming he's making the case for another assault. I think this is mainly response to byline rather than argument. If this new article had appeared under the byline of someone known to have opposed the previous war and to be skeptical about the next one, I think the same material could be read in the opposite way -- as a cautionary revelation of what the Netanyahu government might be preparing to do. Taken line by line, the article hews to a strictly reportorial perspective: this is what the Israeli officials seem to think, this is how American officials might react, this is how Israeli officials might anticipate how the Americans might react, these are the Israeli voices of caution, here are the potential readings and mis-readings on each side.

Goldberg, meanwhile, describes his own position on the question of whether attacking Iran is a good idea, as one of "profound, paralyzing ambivalence."

Elsewhere, discussion of the story and its implications has been vital: Tom Socca critiques at Slate, concluding that Goldberg may be "too much of an expert. He has more information than he knows what to do with (e.g. 'Persian and Jewish civilizations have not forever been adversaries....[I]n the modern era, Iran and Israel maintained close diplomatic ties before the overthrow of the shah in 1979')." Glenn Reynolds boosts at Instapundit, remarking on the Israeli leadership's view, reported by Goldberg, of a nuclear Iran as an existential threat: "I think some people in Washington -- and elsewhere -- have been letting the Israelis twist in the wind in the hopes that Israel will solve our Iran problems for us, and take the blame. I don't think these 'leaders' will like the outcome ...." Steve Clemons takes on Goldberg's understanding of the rational incentives governing the Iranian leadership at The Washington Note, while David Rothkopf takes on Clemons's understanding of the Iranian leadership's rationality at Foreign Policy. Also at Foreign Policy, Amjad Atallah discusses Arab concerns about Iranian regional dominance; at The Christian Science Monitor, Dan Murphy assesses the repercussions of an Israeli strike on Iran; and at Arms Control Wonk, Joshua Pollack seizes on Jeff's article to call for greater debate on the issues it addresses, particularly among nonproliferation pros:

The nuke nerds -- you know who you are, people -- have failed to contribute effectively to the Iran policy conversation. Too often, it seems, we're just talking to each another in our own special jargon of UF6, SWUs, SQs, LWR, NPT, NFU, BOG, NSG, and so on and so forth. Amid these minutiae, the larger debate has managed to bypass what I'd consider the hard-won insights that this community has produced on the Iran question over the last several years.

Back here, at The Atlantic, Andrew Sullivan -- previewing a lengthy, spirited response to "The Point of No Return" that he'll make here -- also emphasizes the importance of Goldberg's story, and the broader importance of smart, informed, and vigorous debate on its subject:

The point of this magazine, as I understand it, is airing real and honest debate about the great issues of our time. I think Jeffrey's piece is a classic example of what should be published under such a philosophy, and am proud that this magazine is pioneering the debate we need to have. We do not, moreover, believe in a collective line. We believe in open discourse. And there is no subject as grave as the one Jeffrey has grappled with or that this country will have to confront in the months and years ahead.

On this point, for every way it's in our DNA not to hold a collective line, Sullivan speaks for all of us. Monday morning, Robin Wright of the United States Institute of Peace will start off a debate that we'll be running here at The Atlantic through Wednesday, August 25. Weighing in along with Wright will be Elliott Abrams (Council on Foreign Relations); Nicholas Burns (John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University); Patrick Clawson (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy); Reuel Marc Gerecht (Foundation for Defense of Democracies); Marc Lynch (The George Washington University); Gary Milhollin (Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control); Karim Sadjadpour (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace); along with FallowsSullivan, and other voices here at The Atlantic, including, of course, Goldberg himself. We hope you'll be there, too, share your thoughts, and help move the conversation forward.

Presented by

J.J. Gould is the editor of TheAtlantic.com. More

He has written for The Washington MonthlyThe American ProspectThe Moscow Times, The Chronicle Herald, and The European Journal of Political Theory. Gould was previously an editor at the Journal of Democracy, co-published by the Johns Hopkins University Press and the National Endowment for Democracy, and a lecturer in history and politics at Yale University. He has also worked with McKinsey & Company's New York-based Knowledge Group on global public- and social-sector development and on the economics of carbon-emissions reduction. Gould has a B.A. in history from McGill University in Montreal, an M.Sc. from the London School of Economics, and a Ph.D. in politics from Yale. He is from Nova Scotia.

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