Tuesday Round-Up: 'Are the Dark Clouds Cardboard Flats, or Real?'

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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.

Karim Sadjadpour imagines what he would say in a five-minute conversation with Benjamin Netanyahu. Among his points: The Iranian regime is homicidal, not suicidal; bombing Iran would "destroy the most promising democracy movement" in the contemporary history of the Middle East; and it would "entrench Tehran's most radical elements for years." Sadjadpour emphasizes in his conclusion, however, that those opposing a military option against Iran, as he does, cannot underestimate the complexity, uncertainty, and danger of the situation:

Unfortunately, as long as the debate on how to deal with Iran remains mired in the right-vs.-left question of whether war or diplomacy is the answer, we will be tempted to juxtapose the military option with too-general descriptions of the diplomatic alternatives .... Unfortunately there are no easy answers to the Iranian conundrum, and no quick solutions -- military or diplomatic.

Michael A. Innes at Current Intelligence responds to yesterday's exchange between Marc Lynch and Elliott Abrams:

The substance of both is beyond my competence to comment intelligently - except to suggest that Lynch's rhetorical questions may not translate to the answers he assumes to be self-evident, and don't really get into the psychology of leadership and decision-making that I think the discussion needs most. Abrams' riposte is the weaker of the two pieces. Whether or not you believe Lynch is blaming Israel, the sad fact is that PR is almost always stacked against Israel, regardless of whether or not its actions are justified (yes, sometimes that's also because Israel isn't much good at PR, but that's not the point).

David Dayen at meanwhile highlights Marc Lynch's contribution to the debate in Firedoglake's The Roundup, while Lee-Anne Goodman of the Canadian Press suggests an element of drama around the broader debate:

D.C. is abuzz with speculation that Israel, convinced Iran is poised to launch a nuclear attack, is plotting a pre-emptive strike without the blessing of the U.S. -- a theory fuelled by a cover story in The Atlantic magazine entitled The Point of No Return, which has itself sparked a war of words in the American capital and beyond about what Israel might realistically have in store.

At RealClearPolitics, Jed Babbin questions the Obama administration's Iran narrative, pivoting off last week's New York Times article alleging that Obama had persuaded Israel not to attack Iran in the coming months. He also questions the credibility of the Times story:

Convinced of its own power of persuasion, the administration's new narrative credits its ability to affect Israeli policy on the basis of "new" intelligence assessments and unsupported assumptions about future intelligence gathering. There are two substantial problems with the administration's narrative. First is the inadequacy of current intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons program and the assumed reliability of future intelligence on it; second is the Obama administration's lack of credibility with Israel.

Babbin goes on to defend the idea that Iran presents an "existential threat" to Israel:

Iran has, too many times, said that it would wipe Israel off the map. Nothing the Obama administration says can counteract that because President Obama's credibility with Israel is as weak as the Times's story.

For almost two years, President Obama has used every diplomatic tool at his disposal to strengthen US ties to the Islamic world, often at Israel's expense. His administration's strongest statements and actions have been against Israel on issues ranging from construction of new Israeli homes in Jerusalem to pressure to engage in direct talks with the Palestinians.

In contrast are Obama's "open hand" policy toward Iran, his nomination of an ambassador - our first in at least five years - to Syria and his reported collaboration with Egypt on an international resolution saying the Middle East is a "nuclear free zone," which is aimed at Israel's nuclear weapons program. ...

Regardless of the Times's spin, Obama's "persuasion" of Israel only increases the pressure on the Netanyahu government, and makes the attack on Iran more likely.

Thomas Sutcliffe at The Independent in London isolates a central question in the debate: "... the teetering crux seems to rest on a judgment about whether Tehran's bellicosity is faintly ridiculous or in deadly earnest. Are the dark clouds cardboard flats, or the real thing?" Noting some of the goofier aspects to the recent unveiling of Iran's long-range drone bomber, "The Striker" (many around the world greeted this statement from Amedinejad, at the inauguration ceremony in Tehran, as a hilarious instant classic: "The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship"), Sutcliffe emphasizes how seriously we should nevertheless take the threat the Islamic Republic represents:

Goldberg suggests (not explicitly) that there's a Catch 22 in play, too; if Israel becomes convinced that Obama would attack, then they might hold off, but the only thing that would truly convince them would be an attack. And while the Americans have a lot of powerful incentives for taking an optimistic assessment of Iran's progress towards achieving a nuclear weapon (because attacking is the very last thing they actually want to do), Israel has one overwhelming incentive for being defensively pessimistic -- since many of them believe that being over-optimistic might be the last mistake the country gets to make. And all this is further clouded by diplomatic hypocrisy, with countries which would dearly love to see Tehran's nuclear facilities bombed back to square one publicly declaring that any such course of action would be unconscionable (if it does happen, listen for the loud sigh of relief behind the mutter of condemnation). It's almost impossible to say with certainty what's the right thing to do next, but treating Ahmadinejad as a joke -- however tempting it might be -- isn't it.

At TomDispatch.com, Tom Karon, a senior editor at TIME.com, criticizes the media conversation on Iran "flawed." He criticizes Goldberg's article for what he sees as the exclusion of Israeli perspectives

that might have challenged his narrative in which an embattled Jewish state feels it has no alternative but to launch a quixotic military strike.  Such an attack, as he presented it, would have limited hope of doing more than briefly setting back the Iranian nuclear program, perhaps at catastrophic cost, and so Israeli leaders would act only because they believe the "goyim" won't stop another Auschwitz.

Referring to Friday's New York Times article as evidence, Karon denies that there is any urgent threat that might justify military force against Iran:

To suggest that Iran's present nuclear program represents the security equivalent of a clock ticking down to midnight is calculated hysteria that bears no relation to reality. Ah, says Goldberg, but the point is that the Israelis believe it to be so. Yes, replies former National Security Council Iran analyst Gary Sick, now at Columbia University, but the Israelis and some Americans have been claiming Iran is just a few years away from a nuclear weapon since 1992.  

The premises of the debate just initiated by Goldberg's piece are palpably false. More important, they are remarkably dangerous, since they leap-frog over the three basic questions laid out above and move straight on to arguing the case for war amid visions of annihilation. This campaign of panic is not Goldberg's invention. It's been with us for a long time now.  Goldberg is just the present vehicle for an American conversation initiated by others, among them those known in the Bush years as neocons, who have long been dreaming of war with Iran and are already, as Juan Cole recently indicated, planning for such a war under a future Republican administration, if not sooner.

Karon also proposes alternative questions for debate:

  1. Does the U.S. have a right to launch wars of aggression without provocation, in defiance of international law and an international consensus, simply on the basis of its own suspicions about another country's future intentions?
  2. Even if Iran were to acquire the means to build a nuclear weapon, would that be a legitimate or prudent reason for launching a war?
  3. Is Iran actually developing nuclear weapons?

His post appears as well on Michael Moore's website and at CBSNews.com.

At Foreign Policy's Shadow Government blog, Jamie Fly references the debate here at The Atlantic in a post interpreting the meaning of Iran's Bushehr reactor going online. Eventually, he concludes that "the brouhaha over Bushehr obscures the real troubling aspect of the current crisis -- the ongoing nuclear weapons program's timeline":

President Obama's top nonproliferation official, Gary Samore, was quoted in the New York Times on Friday as saying, "We think that they have roughly a year dash time." One year to a breakout capability is likely based on an assumption that there are no covert enrichment facilities in or near operation, which is a risky assumption. With an update to the flawed 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran long overdue, this timeline debate is far from over.

The one year breakout timeline also obscures the bigger question of how close Iran should be allowed to get to a nuclear capability before military action is taken to stop the program. Iran may, as former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden has argued, decide that the safest route is to loiter at the nuclear threshold and not make the decision to immediately build a weapon, knowing that it would be a green light for preemptive action. If it chooses this route, Iran could keep Western intelligence agencies guessing for years, trying to discern whether the "go" order had actually been given by the Supreme Leader. Other states in the region might decide that it was too risky to assume that Iran had not yet built a bomb and might begin to lay the building blocks of their own nuclear programs. The cascade of proliferation in the Middle East that concerns many nonproliferation experts could thus begin even without a Pakistan or India-style test announced to the world.

Bushehr thus is little more than a diversion from the real challenges (and real threats) of Iran's ongoing covert nuclear weapons work. The real key to Iran's nuclear program lies at its facilities at Natanz, Esfahan, at the factories where its centrifuges are being built, and the labs and campuses of its nuclear scientists. Bushehr should remind us, however, that as Iran develops its capabilities in the nuclear sphere, we face an increasingly small window of time before an Iranian nuclear weapon becomes a reality.

An overview of previous reactions to our September cover story 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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