Iran Drumbeat Watch: Really Getting Ready for War?

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A few days ago I argued that a U.S. strike against Iran would be a more reckless step than any modern President has taken, and therefore is unlikely -- and that the threatened Israeli strike would be so self-destructive of Israel's long-term interests that "even" PM Netanyahu was likely to hold back. One reader replied that a "psychological inversion" may have already occurred within the Israeli government, biasing policy toward attack; and the veteran war-gamer Sam Gardiner likened the situation to the irrational-but-nearly-irresistible drift toward disaster before World War I.

Now, readers on the evidence pro and con. First, a reader who studies the naval deployments:

It smells like rain to me. The Enterprise Strike Group has sailed, which will make 3 carrier groups on station with the 5th Fleet. Back in 2006-2007, Col. Gardiner repeatedly said that 3 carriers meant war...  These deployments speak more loudly to me than anything else.

When the 3rd Army HQ deployed to Kuwait in early 2002, I knew war with Iraq was coming, as an Army HQ would only forward deploy if a big troop movement was planned. Carriers are more ambiguous but right now it looks like the Vinson, Lincoln, and Enterprise will be on station together from early April till mid to late June. Could be insurance against an Israeli strike but if so there's more in motion than is visible....

While I hope you're right, my gut says no. Hope it's wrong.

This reader also points to a Maariv report saying that a majority of the Netanyahu cabinet is now in favor of a strike -- and another analysis of naval deployments:

For years I've dismissed the topic of war with Iran. I just never thought it would happen....

Today [March 15], mentioned in passing in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee - without a word or question on the topic from any supposedly well informed Senators - Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert told the Senate committee that the US Navy is going to deploy 4 minesweepers to the Persian Gulf (which will double the number of US Navy Minesweepers in the Persian Gulf) and also send additional mine hunting helicopters to the region....

In other words, the Chief of Naval Operations announced to the Senate Armed Services Committee this morning specific details about preparations for war with Iran, and in response the Senators drooled on themselves in silent capitulation. The only thing missing from that scene from this mornings Twilight Zone moment in the Senate was the CNO knocking on the microphone asking "is this thing on" for dramatic effect.

Emphasis in original. For the record, one comment on that site offers another explanation:

This may not be a 'prelude to war' per se, but perhaps a response to a (perceived) Iranian mine threat; it's too easy for Iran to just claim it laid mines to rattle merchants and the (oil) market. Remember that it's election time in Iran.

We have to look for more signs besides those minesweepers if a strike (against nuclear facilities?) is on the horizon; additional USN escorts for protection against small boats and of course Iranian (midget) subs. Never mind additional (carrier) aviation assets to - if needed - destroy shore based anti-ship missiles.

[UPDATE: Another informed reader cautions against reading too much into the deployments:

I really like the Information Dissemination blog [source of the cites above]... Just be aware that carrier deployments -- actually carrier strike group deployments, are planned months or years in advance. No one gets on the phone and says, 'get ENTERPRISE underway tomorrow.'

Also, LINCOLN won't be out there long. She's running out of fuel and needs to get to the shipyard in Hampton Roads ASAP. Yes, nuclear powered ships run out of fuel every 25 years or so. Plenty of stuff out there open source on her scheduled homeport change.

The 5th Fleet carrier schedule is a mess, maybe due to maintenance more than anything else. Some people haven't noticed that we've had at least one or two of them running live combat missions over IRQ and/or AFG every day for over 20 years now.]

Another reader cites this Haaretz report on Netanyahu's attempts to mobilize the Israeli public in support of an attack: "What looks like a preparation for war, acts like a preparation for war, and quacks like a preparation for war, is a preparation for war."

On the other hand, a reader in North Carolina returns to the central question of deterrence. The claim by Netanyahu et al that Israel faces a unique "existential" threat in the nuclear age -- different from the threat South Korea faces from the nuclear-armed North, Pakistan from India, the Soviet Union from the United States through the cold war, etc -- rests on the idea that Iran, uniquely, could not be deterred from a strike. The reader disagrees:

Here's what I can't help thinking about the whole issue of Israel and "existential threats" from Iran or other countries...

Israel has nuclear weapons, and is well aware that the surrounding Islamic countries would prefer that Israel did not exist.

Geography is of particular importance to Islamic faith--with a primary focus on Mecca of course.

It seems trivially obvious to me that if Israel is driven to the point of destruction by its Islamic neighbors, its final act will be a nuclear strike on the Islamic holy sites.  And it seems likely that Israeli weapons are configured and located such that this final strike will be made no matter how quickly or thoroughly Israel is overwhelmed and destroyed by an attack.

If I can figure out this Israeli deterrence strategy from my armchair, I think it highly likely that the leadership of Iran, Syria, and every other country in that region has figured it out as well.  It is hard for me to believe any of these countries would actually be willing to push Israel to the point of destruction knowing what that would entail.

After the jump, an academic argument that we may be examining the signs of war in the wrong way.

Ido Oren, of the University of Florida, says we should be paying attention to bureaucratic politics in the United States, Israel, and presumably also Iran:

While I fully agree that attacking Iran's nuclear facilities is a bad idea for both the United States and Israel, I wonder if the analytical perspective implicit in your analysis--portraying the United States (or Israel) as what International Relations scholars dub a "unitary rational actor"--is adequate to the task of determining the likelihood of a US military action.

I would argue that it is more useful to analyze US policy toward Iran as the result of a struggle within the US political system and federal bureaucracy between actors pulling for an active consideration of military strikes against Iran and actors pushing back against such action...

Why hasn't the US attacked Iran yet even as, since at least 2006, American officials have repeatedly portrayed the Iranian threat in all but apocalyptic terms and even as a chorus of pundits ranging from neocon Norman Podhoretz, through centrist David Broder, to liberal Amitai Etzioni have been openly calling on the US government to bomb Iran? The answer is that the political forces pulling for an aggressive stance toward Iran--VP Cheney's camp in the Bush White House, Congress, and AIPAC--have been outmaneuvered by the bureaucratic forces who opposed attacking Iran: the Department of State, the intelligence community and, most important, the Pentagon and the military's top brass.

The person who probably deserves most credit for preventing a military strike against Iran is former defense secretary Robert Gates, who ably led the loose bureaucratic coalition that pushed back against the military option. I offer a more detailed analysis of the matter here and here....
 
Notwithstanding Gates' departure,  the lineup of the political-bureaucratic forces remains more or less the same. Pressures for an aggressive posture toward Iran continue to be channeled primarily through Capitol Hill, with AIPAC playing a key role in keeping the issue on the front burner, and with no significant organized pressure groups counteracting AIPAC's efforts (it is not accidental that the war drumbeat reached such fever pitch precisely at the time of AIPAC's recent annual conference--spikes in "bomb Iran" rhetoric similarly occurred in past springs around the time of that conference). And, as far as I can tell, the military brass, the intelligence community, and the diplomats remain opposed to military action. So long as these bureaucratic groups, especially the defense establishment, continue to push back against military responses to the Iranian nuclear program, the probability of an overt military strike remains low, if by no means zero...
 
[In Israel] the most vocal, persistent hawks have clearly been PM Netanyahu and defense minister Ehud Barak.... It seems that the Israeli intelligence community and top brass, like their US counterparts, have hardly embraced the military option. Meir Dagan, who stepped down from the leadership of the Mossad more than a year ago, pushed back against military strikes while in office, and he has been repeatedly speaking out against bombing Iran since leaving his post (including a recent appearance on 60 Minutes). The former chief of staff, Lt. General Gaby Ashkenazi, too, is widely believed to have been dovish on the Iranian issue, and there are indications that his successor, Lt. General Benny Gantz, is equally dovish....

To which I say: Good job, Robert Gates.

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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.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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