Monday Round-Up: How Fast Is This Clock Ticking?

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This post is part of our forum on Jeffrey Goldberg's September cover story detailing the prospects and implications of an Israeli strike against Iran. Follow the debate here.

Robin Wright opened up our forum on "The Point of No Return" this morning, arguing that, yes, Israel's incentives, as it understands them, point to an attack on Iran, but the factors and calculations in play are much more complex than Jeffrey Goldberg suggests -- and the likely timeline before any Israeli strike, much longer:

The United States and the many other parties now consumed with Iran's controversial nuclear program have at least a year of intense diplomacy -- and possibly much longer -- before they even consider military options. And that assumes diplomacy totally collapses, the Iranians can be clearly blamed, and reliable intelligence proves Tehran's program has crossed a critical threshold.

With Iran, the state-of-play is rarely that straightforward.

Patrick Clawson counters, emphasizing the limits to how much Iranian brinksmanship will now be able to hold off Israeli military action:

... unless we are successful at working out a deal or Iran's reformers displace the current hardline government, Iran will keep moving forward. After all, sometimes it spurts ahead unexpectedly, as it did in 2006-2007 when it added centrifuges faster than most observers had predicted. Someday, even if that day is later rather than sooner, Iran will reach a threshold which Israel regards as unacceptable. The two cases to date -- Iraq in 1981, Syria in 2007 -- suggest that Israel will act when it perceives a turning point has been reached, even though there is no air of international crisis. In other words, the "forcing event" which precipitates Israeli action is their perception of risk. Robin is wrong to expect that Iran can continually forestall Jerusalem by never quite seeming to cross the threshold: Israel does have red lines.

Goldberg, meanwhile, relays correspondence from Brookings vice-president, and former U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk. Indyk agrees with Goldberg's bottom line -- "that if Obama doesn't take action then the Israelis likely will" -- but says that shifts in Obama's posture and the partial success of sanctions in slowing down the development of Iranian nuclear capacity are changing the game, lowering the odds of Israeli action in the next year well below 50/50. "Indeed," Indyk writes, "I would argue that, if current trends continue, it's actually more likely that the United States will bomb Iran than Israel."

Christopher Hitchens weighs in, by way of an interview with Goldberg, on the United States' ultimate obligation to stop Iran from becoming a nuclear power:

The United States is the host country of the United Nations, the promulgator of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Convention. The U.S. is not just a signatory but they're people who cause other people to sign all these things. The Iranian regime has several times publicly not just sworn but signed its name to documents in front of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations, and the European Union, that it has no ambitions to weaponize its nuclear capacity. If, after that, it is found that they have such impulses, then there is no such thing as international law anymore that would meant that we watched while that was contemptuously dismantled, trampled. In that case I see no reason not to take out the regime.

Elsewhere, Bill Bishop at Forbes, describing Goldberg's story a "must read" "opus," is astounded by his "remarkable access to both U.S. and Israeli policy elite" -- but also surprised (not unlike Wright) that Goldberg doesn't factor in China:

Goldberg's discussion of how an attack might unfold is also a stark reminder that in spite of China's increasing economic and diplomatic clout, the U.S. remains the world's only superpower. China has minimal force projection capabilities, no meaningful military presence in the Middle East, and no likely military role in the event of war after an Israeli attack, other than making lucrative arms sales (probably to many participants).

If the U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to force Iran to renounce nuclear weapons development fail and Israel attacks, China risks being seen again as a less than responsible stakeholder in the international system, whether or not you believe Israel is justified in such an attack. China's support of North Korea in the wake of the Cheonan attack has demonstrated once again to many neighboring Asian countries that China can not be relied upon. As with North Korea, most people believe China could play a very positive role in pushing Iran towards a "good" outcome, but that it refuses to do so, for commercial reasons as well as very narrow and likely miscalculated "strategic" gains at America's expense.

At Newsweek, Mark Hosenball writes that the debate about a strike Iran has become "overheated." He refers to evidence from U.S. and European national-security and counterproliferation officials indicating that "speculation about a possible Israeli attack on Iran" is "premature and exaggerated, if not untrue":

But the officials say the United States and many of its allies still believe that Iran is at least a year away from the "point of no return" in its efforts to design and actually assemble a bomb. For the moment, the officials say, this means that current talk about a forthcoming attack on Iran is greatly overheated.

Ezra Klein at The Washington Post says an Israeli strike on Iran would do two things: delay Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, but also make the entire region hate Israel more than they already do. He accordingly suspects that the benefit of striking Iran wouldn't be worth the cost:

Israel's plan for the future can't be to hope that either it or America will succeed in bombing or invading every unfriendly Arab nation that attempts to upgrade its military capabilities. And in making the short-term problem of Iran's weapon ambition a bit better, it may make the longer-term problems of regional hatred and angry terrorists even worse.

At Commentary, Rick Richman argues that there's another "point of no return," that we could come to earlier than the one Goldberg supposes. Eventually, Richman writes, other powers in the region will realize the U.S. isn't going to act, and they will respond not by attacking Iran, but by accommodating it -- resulting in geopolitical victory for Iran:

You don't have to be a weatherman (or even read a long article) to know where this is headed. The irony is that the advice of the Arab foreign minister was in fact the only way diplomacy might succeed: military force can be avoided only by convincing Iran the U.S. will use it. Obama needs to say publicly, as John McCain did, that the only thing worse than bombing Iran would be Iran with a bomb. Instead, the countries in the region hear only the silence of the lambs, the neighing of a weak horse, the strategic equivalent of voting "present."

Juan Cole, on his blog, Informed Comment, returns to the notion that Goldberg's article is war propaganda -- asserting that neither the U.S. nor Israel has real incentives to attack Iran:

Despite what he says, Bibi Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, is for all his bluster far too personally indecisive to take such a major step (and certainly not without an American green light; Bibi thinks Clinton had him undermined and moved out of office for obstructing the Oslo accords, and does not want to risk the same fate for causing trouble for Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan). How Goldberg could miss this truism in Israeli politics is beyond me. Goldberg is trying to make an Iran war seem highly likely if not inevitable, if not now then in the near future (say, within 5 years?). But contrary to Goldberg's conclusions, Gareth Porter finds that high Israeli intelligence and military figures entertain the severest doubts about a war on Iran. Could Goldberg really not find these voices that Porter dug up so effortlessly?

Allison Kilkenny of the Huffington Post writes that Goldberg's piece ignores statements made by the National Intelligence Estimate in 2007. There is, she says, no proof Iran is building nuclear weapons, and proof to the contrary -- that the Islamic Republic stopped pursuing nuclear weapons in 2003. MJ Rosenberg, also at the HuffPo, calls the idea that Iran would act irrationally and bomb Israel -- therefore likely sacrificing its civilization and people -- "garbage." Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett, meanwhile, describe our debate series as an "echo chamber": "We are left wondering -- what, exactly, is this group of people going to debate?"

Tomorrow morning: Elliott Abrams; Karim Sadjadpour will be responding in the afternoon.

Overviews of earlier reactions to our September cover story here and here.

The debate continues here.

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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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