Letters to the editor


Jeffrey Goldberg’s September cover story, “The Point of No Return,” sparked a broad, sometimes heated, conversation across the Web. To continue the discussion, The Atlantic invited distinguished panelists with backgrounds in diplomacy, nonproliferation, politics, journalism, and international affairs to engage in a two-week dialogue about the prospect of a U.S. or Israeli attack on Iran. The magazine’s bloggers contributed as well, and hundreds of readers weighed in on the 35 posts. To read the entire debate and share your opinion, visit www.theatlantic.com/debates/israel-iran/.

The author Robin Wright opened the forum by firmly disagreeing with Goldberg’s position that a nuclear Iran is imminent: “The United States and the many other parties now consumed with Iran’s controversial nuclear program have at least a year of intense diplomacy—and possibly much longer—before they even consider military options. And that assumes [that] diplomacy totally collapses, the Iranians can be clearly blamed, and reliable intelligence proves Tehran’s program has crossed a critical threshold. With Iran, the state of play is rarely that straightforward.”

Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote to Goldberg about which country is more likely to attack: “The Israelis today are more relaxed than your article allows. This is in part because of the shift in Obama’s posture,” meaning his willingness to use force against Iran, “but also because the sanctions are beginning to bite and the Iranians are having real problems with their centrifuges … My interpretation doesn’t change your bottom line that if all these efforts fail and Obama doesn’t take action, then the Israelis likely will. But it does lower the odds of Israeli action in the next year substantially below your ‘better than 50 percent’ estimate. Indeed, I would argue that, if current trends continue, it’s actually more likely that the United States will bomb Iran than [that] Israel [will].”

The Atlantic’s Marc Ambinder pointed out that the U.S. and Israel are likely already taking action against Iran: “We tend to forget [about] an option that the administration is no doubt already exploiting—one that lies about halfway in between a military strike and sanctions: clandestine activity by U.S. and Western intelligence agencies. What can we do overtly? We can buy up all the loose fissile material on the market. We can trick Iran into buying faulty centrifuges. And we can conduct surgical, targeted direct-action strikes against members of the Iranian military and intelligence establishment. (I’d be genuinely surprised if Israel, in particular, weren’t already doing this.)”

Gary Milhollin, a nonproliferation expert, said a strike would probably not slow Iran for long, and would have negative consequences: “Would it be possible to find out, after the bombing, what was really hit? The answer is no—not unless Iran were invaded. Short of which, after exhibiting the inevitable civilian casualties, Iran would likely slam the door on UN inspectors and take its nuclear work underground. Popular nationalist pride will only enable this reaction, if not push hard for it. Iran could claim, with justification, that the data on its nuclear sites gathered by the present UN inspection teams has simply made it easier to target these sites. Why should Iran provide more targeting data by allowing more inspections? Even the limited knowledge we now have about Iran’s nuclear status could disappear—a casualty of military action.”

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a journalist and former CIA specialist, dismissed sanctions and urged military action: “Israeli calculations for a preventive strike don’t have to be conclusive to be successful. If the Israelis do nothing, they know that they would eventually be staring at an internally unstable, virulently anti-Semitic, terrorist-fond regime with nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles … What the Israelis need to do is change [the Middle East] dynamic. A preventive strike offers them the only conceivable alternative for doing so.”

Marc Lynch of Foreign Policy said he doubts an attack is forthcoming: “If Israel coordinates with the U.S., then it is extremely unlikely to attack—if Washington makes that decision, then American troops will carry out the mission. Would Israel really launch such an attack without coordinating with the United States, then? If it does, then the effects on Israel’s relationship with the United States should be devastating, since this would be a nigh-unprecedented action by a putative ally placing many Americans in harm’s way and throwing into the air one of the administration’s highest priorities. What seems most plausible is that Israel hopes to use the threat of an attack as a coercive tool.”

Nicholas Burns, a former undersecretary of state, advocated diplomacy: “I am more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield. As Obama’s diplomatic game plan will take time to play out, I hope and believe he will convince Israel to avoid a precipitous use of force against Iran. It is unlikely, in my judgment, that either the U.S. or Israel will act militarily in 2011. Instead, it is far more probable that talks, sanctions, maneuvering at the UN, and a build-up of force against Iran in the Persian Gulf will extend into 2012 and beyond.”

Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy enumerated the differences between the American and Israeli reasons for using military force: “Americans tend to like and embrace the Powell Doctrine: the overwhelming use of force to achieve decisive results. The view of the Israeli Defense Forces is encapsulated in the unfortunate expression ‘mow the grass’: you cannot stop the grass from growing, you will have to mow it repeatedly, but each mowing brings a temporary respite … When Americans say to Israelis that attacking Iran’s nuclear facilities will only set Iran back temporarily, Israelis respond that this is all they ever expect from the use of military force—and that this is good enough.”

Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace envisioned having a talk with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling him: “The decision to attack Iran rests heavily on one’s character assessment of the Islamic Republic. While the regime has long shown itself willing to kill its own people (per capita, Iran leads the world in executions and political prisoners), three decades of empirical evidence suggests that its paramount goal is to stay in power, not to achieve collective martyrdom … With its own arsenal of over 100 nuclear weapons—not to mention the unconditional support of the world’s greatest superpower—Israel needlessly elevates Iran by labeling it an ‘existential threat.’”

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