Bombing Iran: Still a Bad Idea

Jeffrey Goldberg has been giving extensive coverage to the various possible Israeli, British, and American plans to attack Iran's nuclear facilities in a preemptive preventive strike. Of course these follow his widely discussed cover story last year on Israel's likelihood of taking such a step, and the recent IAEA report about Iran's latest moves toward nuclear capability.

For the record:
  1) Seven years ago, we ran a cover story based on a "war game" by military strategists who plotted out the likely effects of such an attack. The conclusion was that, strictly from a "would it work?" perspective, it wouldn't. You can read the reasoning in the article, which I wrote.

I know of nothing that has changed in the intervening years to make a preemptive raid more likely to eliminate Iran's nuclear potential, or to make Iran less able to inflict retaliatory damage -- with one exception. Since the U.S. has pulled so many troops out of Iraq, Iran would have fewer nearby targets for a return strike. Still, it is telling that so few professional soldiers in the U.S, Britain, or reportedly Israel are eager to roll the dice and see how this works.

2) I agree completely with Jeff Goldberg's next-to-newest post on the topic, in which he says:

What I believe is that an Israeli strike would be a bad idea, and that an American strike right now would be a bad idea as well. The best option at the moment is for the West to intensify the various subterfuge programs currently operating against the Iranian program, and for President Obama to reiterate in a credible way to the Iranians that all options are on the table. If the Iranians believe him, an attack could be avoided, and avoiding such an attack would be in America's best interest.

3) I also agree with this part of his recent exhortation to Iran's leaders that they take President Obama seriously when he says that all options -- all of them -- are on the table:

President Obama promised to kill Osama Bin Laden. He did. He promised to withdraw American troops from Iraq. He did. He promised to kill Anwar al-Awlaki. He did. He promised to make Afghanistan the focus of the War on Terror. He did. Obama has said, repeatedly, publicly and unconditionally, that a nuclear-armed Iran is unacceptabe to him. He has said that all options are on the table. If I were the Iranians, I would take him at his word. And if I were Israel, I would take him at his word as well.

You know, and I know, that promising to kill Osama Bin Laden, and doing it, is different from telling the Iranians that "all options" are under consideration -- and going ahead and "doing it" with an attack. Barack Obama knows that better than anyone else. But if the best way to avoid having to launch an attack, and deterring the Israeli government from launching one, is by really, truly convincing the Iranians that he might very well do it, then any bluster for dramatic effect, and to leave doubt in their mind, is fine with me. (In keeping with Goldberg's very sensible point #2.) As long as he doesn't fool himself, or back himself in a "manhood" / "losing face" corner of having to do something he realizes will only compound longer term problems.

Do I worry that in the high councils in Teheran someone would say at the crucial moment: "Oh, Obama is just bluffing. We read some blogger in the Atlantic saying that he should. So let's just call his bluff." ? No. I do not worry about that.

4) One of Jeff Goldberg's latest posts is titled, "Would an American Attack on Iran Be a Good Thing?" Let's be clear: it would be disastrous. As he recognizes too.  Again, it's fine to try to fool the Iranians about this. But let's not fool ourselves.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

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