Answering James Fallows on the Question: Is War With Iran Imminent?

Jim Fallows has once again done a service to humanity (or at least the slice of humanity that reads The Atlantic) by framing some of the key questions about the Iranian-Israeli conundrum. You should read his entire post before you read what I'm about to say. But in essence, Jim is asking a straightforward question: Are the odds of an Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities lower today than they were a month ago? Jim points to various developments, including and especially the P5 + 1 talks between the major powers and Iran that have not yet borne fruit, but have not yet not borne fruit, either, as well as statements from various Israeli security leaders (and others) who have been critical of what they see as Benjamin Netanyahu's rush to unilateral military action.

Jim writes, "Please tell me that my 'war is not at hand' inference is correct. Or, if you can't in good conscience do that, please tell me how you read this recent news."

Jim: War is not at hand, though not mainly for the reasons you outlined. It is true that it would be very difficult for Netanyahu to launch an attack on Iran's facilities while these negotiations are taking place (the next round is scheduled to begin on May 23) -- or, more to the point, it would be difficult for Netanyahu to launch a strike if Barack Obama were to indicate publicly, after the next round, that he thinks the negotiations were going somewhere, and should be given time to work. (My prediction: Obama says this almost no matter what happens, because it's in his short-term interest to push off international crises until after November, though, of course, he can't be made to look like a patsy, which is what Mitt Romney will call him almost no matter what happens).

Another prediction: the negotiations probably won't work, since it is in the Iranian regime's best interest to preserve a latent nuclear capability. They do watch the news in Tehran, and they know what happened to the nuke-less Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi at the hands of the Americans).

And it also true that many Israeli figures, including the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and the former head of the Shabak, the Israeli internal security service, have come out strongly against the Netanyahu govenrment on the issue of Iran (The former Shabak head, Yuval Diskin, joins the former Mossad head, Meir Dagan, in the camp of those who say they believe a preemptive attack would be foolish.)

Three observations about this phenomenon before I move to the other looming issue:

1) These ex-security chiefs are saying what they are saying because they believe that Netanyahu (and the defense minister, Ehud Barak), are dead serious about a strike on Iran. There's no reason for them to come out the way hey have if they thought Netanyahu was bluffing. Whenever one of them launches a public attack on the current government,  I assume (perhaps wrongly) that they have specific information, or at least a good sense, that Netanyahu and Barak have moved closer to a decision, and so are trying to stop them from advancing toward a strike. So, from a certain perspective, this should make you nervous.

2) These men aren't saints, motivated solely by pure selflessness. They seem to desire political careers of their own, and so their critiques have to seen in this light.

3) It doesn't matter that much what they say. Ehud Olmert is a disgraced ex-prime minister, who unlike Netanyahu, has taken Israel into controversial wars. As for the ex-security chiefs, think about this in the American context for a minute. Assume that Barack Obama is contemplating launching some sort of strike in the Middle East (actually, he is, against Iran, but next year, or the year after). Now assume that there is a public debate about Obama's presumed plan, and a series of former CIA directors come out against the plan. Does Obama dump the idea simply because Michael Hayden went on Meet the Press to denounce it? What if ex-generals come out and call Obama an idiot? Does Obama change his national security strategy because Tommy Franks doesn't like it? don't think so. 

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. He is the author of Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. He was previouslly a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

Goldberg's book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. He received the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism and the 2005 Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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