A Cold-War Lesson: Be Ready and Willing to Go to the Brink With Iran

>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.

Prognostication is obviously risky. As far as I can tell, no one in the Clinton Administration in 1998, even after al-Qaeida attacked U.S. embassies in Africa, was in favor of fire-bombing the Taliban's front lines against Ahmad Shah Masud's Northern Alliance, the Taliban's training camps, or other Taliban military facilities throughout Afghanistan. President Bill Clinton chose to fire cruise missiles at rock huts at an al-Qaeda training camp in Khost, which, so far as we know, only killed several Kashmiris. (The attack provoked the historian Bernard Lewis to remark, "I've been to Khost; I'm not sure they will be able to tell the difference between the before-and-after satellite photography.")

Upping the ante was just too much for President Clinton, even after the attack in Aden on the USS Sullivans in October 2000. His successor, too, preferred to let the attack on the Sullivans go unanswered, and defaulted to Clinton's preferred diplomatic approach of cajoling the Pakistanis and Saudis. For very understandable reasons, liberal democracies, like the United States and Israel, always try to put off military confrontations even when their leaders know that diplomacy has a near-zero chance of solving the dangers before them. They inevitably preempt themselves with the worst-case scenarios associated with military action, while reassuring themselves with the solace that comes with preserving the status quo.

Jeffrey Goldberg's story does a fine job of relaying Israel's hesitation and cognitive dissonance about what to do about the Islamic Republic's nuclear-weapons program. Unlike Syria, which had its nuclear plans cut short by an Israeli bombing raid in 2007, and unlike Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which had a very clumsy foreign-intelligence service and no overseas terrorist apparatus to respond to Israel's demolition in 1981 of its Osirak reactor, Ali Khamenei's Islamic Republic has lethal foreign-intelligence services and terrorist allies who've traveled great distances to slaughter Jews. There's little doubt that the Lebanese Hizbollah, revolutionary Iran's only child, whose core identity revolves around war with the Jewish State, would enthusiastically respond to a preventive attack against Iran's nuclear facilities with a rocket barrage that could for the first time reach Tel Aviv. Even prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, surveilled by the indomitable spirit of his hawkish father, probably has moments where he really wants to believe that the sanctions-and-diplomacy strategy of Barack Obama can succeed. (And I'll take an expensive gastronomic bet right now with Nick Burns and Mark Lynch that it fails.)

Netanyahu will undoubtedly allow himself more time -- probably much more time than a cold-blooded assessment of when a strike would do the maximum damage to the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities and scientific staff would dictate -- before he has the decisive chat with Israeli defense minister Ehud Barak and the chief of the Israeli air force. Jeffrey could easily lose his bet with Robin Wright on whether we'll see an Israeli air raid within twelve months. Given the enormous proclivity for delay, there are only three scenarios in which we might expect an attack within twelve months: (i) intelligence on Iran's centrifuge production indicates that the regime has solved its production and maintenance problems; (ii) Russia, not-so-secretly, finally delivers the very capable S300 anti-aircraft systems to Tehran; or (iii) Khamenei does something really stupid (e.g., gives the green light to the Hizbollah for a rocket barrage or terrorist operation against Israel). Since Khamenei has long had Jews on the brain, and has allowed the Quds Force, the wickedest of the wicked within the Revolutionary Guards, to grow in power and influence within the Corps, Khamenei's stupidity should never be underestimated.

I've written elsewhere at length about why an Israeli attack will most likely not bring on "catastrophe" in the Middle East, and especially not -- as my always-insightful friend Karim Sadjadpour suggests -- destroy the religious reform/democratic movement inside of Iran that has been doggedly gaining ground since before the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989. Iran's second and most important intellectual revolution is not a fragile thing; indeed, it thrives, as does so much in Persian history, on adversity and suffering. If Khamenei tries to kill off the Green Movement (that is kill, rape, and torture it more than he's done so far), then we can only look with amazement as he foolishly turns Mir-Hosein Mousavi, Mehdi Karroubi, and others from the founding generation of the revolution into martyrs. I will not dwell here, again, on why bombing Iran, even when you take in all the awful things that might follow (and let us try to remember that the region-shattering scenarios that Brent Scrowcroft and so many others predicted with the Iraq War did not happen), is still considerably less frightening than allowing Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guard Corps to acquire nukes.

Rather I will just underscore one fact of the Cold War that must be transferable to any scenario where we imagine the Americans and the Israelis countering the supreme leader and his terrorism-loving Guards, who will de facto control Iran's nuclear weaponry. The United States and/or Israel must be prepared to go to the brink -- to conventionally and covertly counter the Islamic Republic's aggression, and to credibly threaten nuclear war -- in order to maintain the peace. The Cold War was hot and very bloody. Much of the American and European Left gave up on the conflict long before the United States' defense budget and the Poles downed communism. The Israelis are probably prepared to fight this out -- they have no choice. With the Americans, I'm not so sure. If Ali Khamenei armed with nuclear weapons were to execute a Khobar Towers II, killing American soldiers as he did in 1996, would President Obama -- would all contributors in this Atlantic discussion -- this time let loose the U.S. air force against the Islamic Republic? Or would we, as President Clinton did with Iran and with al-Qaeda, hesitate and preempt ourselves with possible worst-case scenarios? If the Israelis can't be sure of the Americans, then a post-nuclear "containment strategy" (and despite the valiant efforts of several think tanks, I still don't know what this means with the Islamic Republic) has no core. Although it's obviously neo-con madness to say so (a better opening for Marc Lynch's response is unimaginable), an Israeli preemptive strike against Iran's nuclear facilities seems far less gut-wrenching than what is likely to follow once Khamenei has an atomic bomb.

Marc Lynch responds here.