Monday Round-Up: Does an Air Strike on Iran Mean War?

By J.J. Gould
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.

Today, Marc Lynch argues for skepticism on the question of whether Israel -- or the United States -- would truly launch a preemptive strike on Iran. Rather, he suspects, the Israeli sources in Goldberg's article are attempting 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." Lynch argues that Israel may be using the threat of attack as "coercive tool" for keeping Iran guessing and for continuing to exert pressure on the U.S., or on others in the international community, to act first. Lynch is perplexed by Israel's "war bluff" strategy and by what he sees as Israel's ongoing tendency toward actions that isolate it from the world, despite declaring an existential crisis. He also disputes the ideas that Iran is a rising power, and that the Arab world's hostility toward Iran indicates that most Arabs would support an Israeli or U.S. strike.

Finally, he highlights the similarities between this debate and the one that preceded the war in Iraq:

... 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, grinding 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.

Jeffrey Goldberg weighs in briefly on Lynch "war bluff" argument, outlining what he, Goldberg, sees as the "oddest aspect of Israeli strategy over the last year and a half":

I tend to think that the Iran question has brought to the fore an unprecedented problem for Israel: the collision of two core defense doctrines. The first one: Never allow a regional adversary to gain possession of a nuclear weapon. The second: Never risk rupturing Israel's relationship with an American president. The only reason Israel would risk rupturing relations with America is if it feels it would have no future in an Iran-dominated Middle East.

In a full response this afternoon, Elliott Abrams argues that the "real point" of Lynch's commentary is not to make a case against attacking Iran, but to make one for blaming Israel -- "for everything":

A couple of lines give the game away. One is the analysis that "Turkey's star suddenly ascended after Prime Minister Recep Erdogan challenged Israel over its war against Gaza." Israel pulled every single settler and every single soldier out of Gaza in the summer of 2005. From 2006 through 2008, Hamas and other terrorist groups shot more than 5,500 mortars and rockets into Israel, and at the end of 2008 ended a truce then in effect for six months. To describe Israel's response to this series of events as "Israel's war against Gaza" is not so much to simplify as to reveal an inability to understand the Israeli predicament.

In a post on his Foreign Policy blog, meanwhile, Lynch reflects on the larger conversation around our cover story:

The debate about Goldberg's article over the last couple of weeks has been quite robust -- both the give and take among the eight panelists assembled by the Atlantic, and the broader discussion across the blogosphere .... Contrary to the complaint by skeptics like the Leveretts that since they weren't included the debate could only be an "echo chamber" ..., many of the panelists have pushed back hard. ... Add in the vibrant debate across many other sites ... and I'd say that Goldberg's article has succeeded not in paving the way for military action but in focusing attention on the issue in such a way as to make an attack less likely.

Elsewhere, Jack Matlock of Dallas Blog calls an attack on Iran the "craziest idea of the century (so far)." It would be disastrous, he says, particularly given Iran's capability to close the Strait of Hormuz, significantly impeding the outflow of Middle Eastern oil exports, and given the potential for an attack on Iran to be viewed in Arab countries as an attack on Islam, strengthening Iran's power in the region.

Frida Ghitis at The Miami Herald spotlights the apparent disconnect between the existential threat perceived by the Israeli leaders and policy makers cited in "The Point of No Return" and the booming Israeli economy, and the existential crisis it faces in the region. What gives? Ghitis's answer:

If we believe in the so-called wisdom of crowds, the theory that large numbers of individuals working independently can make more reliable predictions than experts, the future may look much brighter than it seems.

Perhaps Obama's so-far-unsuccessful efforts will ultimately work. Or, perhaps Iran and its allies are more militarily vulnerable than they seem and an attack would not create the feared havoc. 

If the crowds really are wise this time, imagine how much brighter the region's prospects would shine if this apocalyptic cloud left the horizon. Without the threat of a nuclear Iran, might the Middle East surprise us, becoming a land that flows with milk and honey?

At Al Jazeera, MJ Rosenberg writes that bombing Iran should no longer be an option. The Israeli right and their "neocon enablers in the US" have attempted to "jam" Obama in the position of either having to attack Iran or allow Israel to do so -- while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said that Iran is ready to talk about the nuclear program, specifically about the swap deal in which Iran would forego nuclear enrichment capacity in favor of nuclear fuel.

"We promise to stop enriching uranium to 20 per cent if fuel supply is ensured," Ahmadinejad said. "We have the right to enrich uranium. Iran has never provoked a war nor craved for nuclear bombs."

Is he telling the truth? Who knows? But the US should find out. If we can negotiate an end to the Iran nuclear issue, we have to. The "bomb Iran" option has to be taken off the table."

Adel Safty of the United Arab Emirates' Gulf News expresses disdain for what he sees as a growing momentum toward a military strike in the U.S., and toward what he takes to be Goldberg's contributions to debate on the question:

To strengthen the case for war, Goldberg cites with approval Israeli concerns about the existential danger of a nuclear Iran and quotes former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who reportedly said: "The use of an atomic bomb against Israel would destroy Israel completely while [a nuclear attack] against the Islamic countries would only cause damages".

Goldberg draws from these preposterous remarks an equally preposterous conclusion, namely that "rational deterrence theory, or the threat of mutual assured destruction, might not apply in the case of Iran". Why not? No explanation is given.

The Bush administration's permanent ambassador to the UN John Bolton, meanwhile, has publicly urged Israel to attack Iran before it was too late.

It may be a sign of the gathering storm when a former high ranking official of the American government is publicly urging one state to launch an unprovoked attack against another."

Pivoting off "The Point of No Return," Art Keller at Foreign Policy advocates for a strategy of containment -- arguing that "it worked on Saddam":

Containment would allow U.S. policymakers to leverage the biggest advantage they currently have over the Islamic Republic: time. Despite Iran's steady advances in mastering the uranium enrichment cycle, it still faces two significant impediments to creating a workable nuclear weapons program that are not likely to be resolved any time soon. Iran has repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to build covert facilities beyond the watchful gaze of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, where uranium could be enriched to the level required to make a nuclear weapon. Such facilities will require a covertly-obtained supply of uranium -- which Iran has also repeatedly tried, and repeatedly failed, to acquire. Iran's current stockpile of uranium is closely monitored by the IAEA. Until Iran can successfully hide a centrifuge facility and then secretly lay hands on a large quantity of uranium to fuel it, its nuclear weapons program will remain stuck in neutral.

A New York Post editorial cautions against taking the U.S. government's intelligence reports at face value, specifically questioning the validity of Washington's nuclear timeline for Iran:

... according to The New York Times, it's based on "intelligence collected over the past year, as well as reports from international inspectors." This would be the same US band of spies that, over the past decade, has produced one disaster after another. Remember that 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that declared flatly that Iran had shut down its nuke program a full four years earlier? Or when White House spokesman Robert Gibbs disputed Iran's claim to have enriched uranium to 20 percent purity? That was about 10 days before the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed Tehran's boast....And let's not forget the biggest of them all -- the confident assertion that Saddam Hussein had retained a huge stockpile of WMDs that would be easily uncovered once Iraq was occupied.

According to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, Israeli officials -- based on their own intelligence -- believe that Iran will be capable of building a functional nuclear weapon by March. And they also understand that this will require action from both Jerusalem and Washington -- and soon. Meanwhile, Israel can't afford to simply accept US "intelligence" assurances at face value.

Back at The Atlantic, James Fallows relays a couple of points from Gary Hart:

Before bombing Iran, as many now seem to want to do, here are some questions that require answers and considerable public debate:

1. Bombing a sovereign nation is a de facto declaration of war. Our Constitution requires the Congress, not the President, to declare war. Simply because we have launched a number of wars without a Congressional declaration does not mean the Constitutional requirement has been suspended; 

2. Such an attack will have economic consequences for us. The Iranians most likely would blockade the Strait of Hormuz, thus reducing the shipment of Persian Gulf oil-almost one-quarter of our imports-and dramatically increasing world oil prices. This would have a powerfully negative affect on our already fragile economy ....

Fallows also counters Elliot Abrams here.

Golberg's weekend appearance on NBC's "Meet the Press" here. He revisits an insight from Gary Milhollin in light of recent news, here.

An overview of previous reactions to our September cover story here.

The debate continues here.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/08/monday-round-up-does-an-air-strike-on-iran-mean-war/61939/