Striking Iran Is Unwarranted, and It Would Mean Disaster

>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.


Jeffrey Goldberg has come away from his research convinced that the Obama administration is serious about Iran. But if the administration's strategy fails to stall Tehran's alleged drive for a nuclear weapon, then the president may face a terrible choice. Would Obama be willing to move to military action? If not, Goldberg suggests, it is increasingly likely that Israel will take matters into its own hands. I strongly doubt that Obama would choose to launch a pre-emptive war against another Muslim country in the Middle East. Neither do I believe that Israel really intends to do so. Instead, I see an attempt on the part of Goldberg's Israeli sources to prepare a policy climate in which such an attack seems increasingly plausible and other options are foreclosed -- either to force Obama's hand down the road or to pave the way for an attack by a future administration.

I doubt that an attack is forthcoming, because both Americans and Israelis recognize that such a military option would be potentially disastrous and counter-productive, while many other diplomatic options remain viable. As Gary Milhollin points out, a military strike is not likely to put an end to Iran's nuclear potential, or to provide any significant sense of certainty (I do not find Goldberg's notion of Israeli commandos quickly darting in from Iraqi Kurdistan to check things out especially reassuring). Neither is the idea credible that Israel has a fixed deadline. Israeli officials and American Iran hawks have paraded a never-ending series of such immutable deadlines over the last decade -- of 2006, of 2007, of 2008, and now of December 2010. None proved quite so immutable.

A strike by Americans or Israelis could trigger a wave of regional chaos, badly weaken the already struggling Green Movement, and seriously complicate the U.S. drawdown from Iraq. It would prove the death-knell for Obama's efforts to construct a new relationship with the Muslim communities of the world, trigger a wave of anti-American rage among Arab publics, deeply complicate the tentative moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It would likely allow Iran to recapture much of the political ground in the region which it has lost over the last year and a half. For the Obama administration to either carry out such a strike or to tolerate an Israeli attack would be a betrayal of the vision of a new approach to foreign policy which his election promised, with none of the positive electoral consequences floated by Elliott Abrams.

The argument for a military strike on Iran therefore remains weak, as Nicholas Burns argues in his contribution to this debate, with massive potential negative effects, very limited prospects for significant positive impact, and much less urgency than its proponents claim. It is Obama's sound strategic judgement, not his lack of will, which makes an attack unlikely. His decision to escalate in Afghanistan in the face of skeptical public opinion strongly suggests that he would make such a choice if he concluded that it were necessary on strategic grounds. His administration has consistently framed Iran's nuclear program as a principle challenge in the region, and has spoken often and forcefully about its determination to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapons. His pursuit of precisely the strategy which he laid out in the campaign -- an attempt at engagement followed by a switch to the "pressure track" of unexpectedly robust sanctions -- disappointed those of us who had hoped for a more comprehensive conception of engagement, but certainly speaks to his willingness to take such actions. Yet attempts to box him in by setting a deadline by which he "must" act, regardless of his own calculations, seem unlikely to work. This administration is likely to continue in its strategy, and try to make it work as it believes it already has begun to do, without succumbing to artificial deadlines.

The "Israeli clock" is a major disruptive factor in the administration's strategy, as Goldberg's article makes clear, with the U.S. needing to simultaneously reassure Israel of its intentions and gauge Tel Aviv's calculations while dealing with Tehran. The most interesting part of the article is therefore Goldberg's assessment of the state of mind of the current Israeli leadership. It sounds right to me as a description of Netanyahu and his team (including the offensive "J Street Jew" remark). It is worth asking whether this is an attitude shared widely across the Israeli political spectrum (i.e. Kadima) or rooted in Netanyahu's psychology (as Goldberg suggests) and his coalition. For at least the short term, we must assume that it is this Israeli leadership that will make the call, so the distinction may not seem relevant. But over the longer term, it could be.

There would seem to be two ways in which Israel might strike: in coordination with the United States, or as a surprise fait accompli (as Goldberg describes so vividly). If Israel coordinates with the U.S., then it is extremely unlikely to attack -- if Washington makes that decision then American troops will carry out the mission. Would Israel really launch such an attack without coordinating with the United States, then? If it does, then the effects on Israel's relationship with the United States should be devastating, since this would be a nigh-unprecedented action by a putative ally placing many Americans in harms way and throwing into the air one of the administration's highest priorities. What seems most plausible is that Israel hopes to use the threat of an attack as a coercive tool -- to keep the Iranians guessing, to keep American domestic political pressure on Obama to maintain a tough line on Iran, and to pressure the U.S. and the world to act instead.

But this brings us to the oddest aspect of Israeli strategy over the last year and a half. The "war bluff" argument -- that we will be most effective at diplomacy if we can credibly threaten force, with Israel playing the "bad cop" to force Iran to deal with the American "good cop" -- only works if there is adequate trust between the U.S. and Israel. This is why the Obama administration has taken to consulting so regularly and at such high levels with Israel, in order to ensure that communication is clear and consistent. Goldberg's suggestion that Israeli officials would nevertheless be prepared to spring such a surprise undermines that trust. This, ironically, makes it far more difficult for the Americans to design and implement the sort of effective coercive diplomacy required. Even more to the point, the Netanyahu government and its allies have done almost everything possible to undermine this administration's trust. The excruciating battle over an Israeli settlement freeze was telling: if Netanyahu truly took the Iranian threat as seriously as Goldberg claims, as an existential challenge to Israel's survival, then why destroy his relationship with the U.S. at such a pivotal moment?

The same argument applies more globally. Israel, according to Goldberg, wants the world to share its perception of the Iranian threat and to act in concert. But again, if Israel's leadership genuinely believes that Iran poses the greatest existential threat that Israel has ever faced, and that it needs the world to accept its perspective that it is the world's problem and not just Israel's, then why has it taken so many steps over the last year and a half to alienate the world and to isolate itself? If it truly felt such existential urgency, then wouldn't it be willing to make concessions on Gaza or the peace process in order to build international support and sympathy? It is bizarre to suggest that attacking Iran would help solve Israel's "brain drain" problem of its best young people opting to live elsewhere, but to simultaneously suggest that the Palestinian issue, which drives Israel's growing international legitimacy crisis, has no effect on such a "drain." If Israel hopes to build an international consensus, this has been an odd way to go about it.

Much of the alleged urgency to attack Iran is rooted in an oddly anachronistic view of rising Iranian power in the region. But in fact, Iran's image and influence have been in retreat in the region during much of Obama's administration. Obama's initial outreach challenged the Iranian regime, which had grown quite comfortable in dealing with the Bush administration's aggressive rhetoric dividing the region into moderate and radical camps -- which had the self-defeating effect of ceding the popular mantle of "resistance" to Iran by default. But Iran today is isolated and beleaguered within the region, and has proven unable to capitalize on Obama's declining popularity or U.S. policy mistakes. One underappreciated aspect of this has been Iran's struggles to assert its will in Iraq as the U.S. began its drawdown there. Despite a vast presence and constant involvement, Iran has proven unable to consolidate its position in Baghdad or to impose its political preferences. Neither does its position in Lebanon or Syria look stronger today than it did a few years ago.

That the leadership of most Gulf states remains deeply suspicious of Iran, and that the Saudi-owned media is full of anti-Iranian commentary and reporting, is nothing new. But compared to two years ago, Iran's position with Arab publics and the "resistance" trend is also far weaker. Over the course of 2009, Turkey's star suddenly ascended after Prime Minister Recep Erdogan challenged Israel over its war against Gaza. Ankara offered a far more attractive -- and effective -- brand of "resistance", with its advanced economy, moderate Islamist and fully democratic politics, and creative diplomacy. By the time the Obama outreach sputtered, Turkey had already emerged as a strong competitor in the politics of "resistance" in the Middle East. While American mismanagement of this rising Turkish presence in the region is a topic for another day, the challenge to Iran's ability to monopolize "resistance" has been clear. Meanwhile, the botched aftermath of the Iranian elections and the repression of the Green Movement -- heavily covered by al-Jazeera and other popular Arab media --- badly harmed its image with Arab publics. While Arab leaders likely shrugged at the manipulation of the elections and the fierce repression of popular protestors -- if anything, they were likely perplexed at the incompetence of the regime's fraud -- Arab public opinion tends to strongly identify with popular democracy movements of all kinds. An Israeli or American attack on Iran would almost certainly bring these publics intensely back to Iran's side, though, rescuing them from their own decline.

The hostility to Iran in various Arab circles should not lead anyone to believe that Arabs would support an attack on Iran by the U.S. or Israel, however. While Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation. Iran hawks typically make far too much of the private remarks of selected Arab regime figures, without considering whether those remarks reflect an internal consensus within their regimes or whether they will be repeated in public in a moment of political crisis (as opposed to Aspen). Arab leaders will likely continue to welcome any efforts to contain Iranian power, particularly when it takes the form of major arms deals and political support. And they will likely continue to mutter and complain about America's failure to magically solve their problems for them. But those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed -- especially if there is still no progress on the peace process.

Finally, the whole discussion of an Israeli or American strike against Iran seems to take place in an historical void, as if we have not just lived through the brutal, griding experience of a war chosen and sold on shaky grounds. I would hope that the lessons of Iraq will not be so easily forgotten. When we are presented with claims of a ticking clock approaching midnight, we should recall Colin Powell at the UN and be very suspicious about the alleged urgency and absence of options. When we are told that an attack will likely succeed at low cost, with the positive impact high and the negative impact minimal, we should recall the predictions that the war on Iraq would likely cost little and easily succeed. When offered the hope that an air strike would quickly take out Iran's nuclear facilities without significant retaliation, we should remember that it is at least as likely that the attack would escalate to war, leading the U.S. to be dragged down into a new hell of occupation and regional conflagration. Launching preventive wars against hypothetical WMD should no longer be part of America's or the world's repetoire. Nor should rosy assumptions about easy wars, or artificially limited options which supposedly leave us no choice. Goldberg's article has set off a important debate about how to deal with Iran. I hope that this debate reveals in all clarity that the military option should be off the table, and that more creative forms of diplomacy will be needed in the coming years.

Elliott Abrams responds here.

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Marc Lynch is associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, where he is the director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, as well as the Middle East Studies Program. He is also a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and writes regularly for Foreign Policy.

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