A Look at The Atlantic's Debate on Israel, Iran, and the Bomb

>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.

None of the very intelligent commentary around The Atlantic's current cover story can be said to have cheered us up. No one has a neat solution to what almost everyone considers an acutely dangerous problem: Iran's nuclear facilities, which the Islamic Republic officially insists are only for generating electricity and medical isotopes. But have Goldberg and the A-team invited by The Atlantic clarified what is likely to happen?

Robin Wright, drawing on vast experience in the region with The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, and now as a scholar at the United States Institute of Peace, concedes that she is pessimistic about negotiations with Iran succeeding -- though she is among the few who say that the talks offered by President Obama could begin fairly soon. Wright believes that the processes of diplomacy and sanctions will continue, intensely, for at least another year.

Thus she has made a wager with Goldberg, and he has accepted. Wright bets that neither the Israelis nor the United States will have bombed Iran by July of next year. It appears that the stakes are each other's autographed books -- which one hopes they would exchange anyway as a friendly courtesy without need of explosions or bloodshed.

While it is helpful to focus attention on Iran's nuclear ambitions, and Israel's extremely serious concerns about them, what we can say on the basis of either is little more than guesswork.

The decision on whether and when to strike is with the Israeli leadership: mostly Benjamin Netanyahu, briefed by his intelligence and military chiefs, and influenced (as Goldberg colorfully reports) by his 100-year-old militant father Ben-Zion. For the most important national security matters, the prime minister turns to a trusted "inner cabinet" (six men plus himself) which has been nearly leak-proof. The members include the defense minister Ehud Barak, and Moshe (Boogie) Ya'alon, a retired general who is highly analytical but believes in the creatively destructive power of using force when targets are well chosen. Another member of the septet is Benny Begin, whose late father Menachem made the fateful decision to bomb Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981.

If it were to be the United States attacking Iranian nuclear facilities - to most American analysts a more outlandish thought - the decision would be President Obama's. He, too, would be informed and advised by his counselors, but in Washington some details of the process and its inevitable internal disagreements would leak. In other words, there would be some forms of warning, including the high likelihood that the U.S. would seek a United Nations resolution approving the use of force after a long period of frustration over Iranian duplicity or delay.

Israel, on the other hand, would strike without warning. There was no prior threat made before the raid on Baghdad 29 years ago, at that time the longest distance air attack ever by Israel's air force. And while the CIA and well briefed members of Congress have confirmed that Israel's air force flattened a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, Israel gave no indication of the attack beforehand -- and, indeed, has never officially confirmed it.

Robin Wright wrote on Monday that Israelis probably realize a strike on Iran could unleash unpredictable dangers. To understand the consequences even better, she expressed regret that Jeff Goldberg did not do similar, intensive reporting in Beijing, Moscow, Ankara, and Riyadh.

But all that really matters is what Israel's leaders think: Do they see themselves as protectors of the Jewish state, born from the embers of the Holocaust with a slogan of "Never Again!" that is, once again, now frequently being voiced? Are they willing to live with a nuclear-armed Iran, and go about their quotidian business with the knowledge that any moment Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a terrorist with a small nuclear bomb could blow up a million or more Jews?

Several online responders to Wright's piece debated whether having nukes would really let Iran provide "an umbrella" to actions by Hezbollah and other extremist groups. But again, all that matters is what Israeli leaders think about that. And they've concluded that the answer is, yes. An umbrella for terrorists is a shadow over the Jewish state, and there are influential Israelis who contend -- as Goldberg reports -- that significant portions of the population would move abroad.

Some online comments correctly highlighted the ambiguity over what exactly would be unacceptable for Israel: Iran having enough uranium to enrich fairly quickly to weapons-grade material? Iran having highly enriched uranium ready to be fitted into pre-cast bombs?

When it comes to all matters atomic, Israel is no stranger to ambiguity and believes in keeping the world guessing. Don't forget that while the nation is widely assumed to have hundreds of nuclear weapons, it has never officially admitted to having even one.

If we, or the Iranians, try to divine what stage of nuclear work crosses an Israeli red line, we can only be speculating. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has probably not nailed that down, because all the other factors in the Middle East -- and in relations with the United States -- would have to be weighed at the hour of decision.

Gary Milhollin's contribution to TheAtlantic.com's debate on Wednesday pointed out that the Israelis could not have a high level of confidence that their air force would destroy every vestige of Iran's nuclear program. Of course, senior Israeli military officers say privately. But they insist that there could be great value in destroying arrays of centrifuges, power stations, and other parts of the program.

Patrick Clawson sees a wider pattern in that, writing here on Friday morning that Israeli strategists are generally satisfied with temporary fixes -- delaying their enemies' worst plans for a year or two. They see it as far better than doing nothing.

Milhollin also wrote that an Israeli military strike might be impossible to assess afterward. Iran would likely throw out UN inspectors, and Israel would not be likely to get commando troops to target sites to document the damage done. Some Israeli military veterans say, "Don't be so sure." Goldberg's response to Milhollin on Wednesday evening said that, too.

And, asked about Milhollin's contention that we might know less after an attack than we know now about the Iranians' nuclear facilities, one Israeli strategy expert told me: "Just knowing that they have less than they do now would be good enough."

Clicking and reading the entire week's discussion, which will continue this coming week, is highly recommended. All the panelists have delivered unexpected food for thought. The Atlantic's own Marc Ambinder on Tuesday evening beat The New York Times in describing the Obama White House view that the president's combination of carrot and stick "seems to have created some confusion within Iran."

On Thursday morning, former State Department senior official Nicholas Burns -- an ex-ambassador to NATO -- shared a very important thought here. Many military officers, who feel American forces are already excessively stretched, and many of Burns's former colleagues at State seem to agree with his conclusion: "After reading Goldberg's article, I am more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests."

The veteran diplomat advised that Israel should trust America and President Obama to lead an intelligent response to Iran's ambitions. Robin Wright responded to Burns that a lot of serious thinking should now be done on how Iran can be contained, with calibrated pressure that might dissuade it from pursuing a nuclear arsenal - and all this should be considered deeply "before racing into military action."

In the 19 months since Barack Obama took office, most Israelis do not seem to regard him with trust or affection. Obama's friendly get-together with Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House last month was duly noted, however. The relationship between those two men is one of the key factors determining whether Israel will show restraint -- giving America a wide field to lead global pressure on Iran.

And if Iran persists in trying to build nuclear bombs, another senior State Department veteran -- former ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, now head of the Saban Center at Brookings -- wrote via Goldberg that the Israelis are more "relaxed" lately, feeling that Obama understands the dangers clearly now. That was Monday morning, as TheAtlantic.com again scooped the Times, with Indyk adding a further, significant twist: Who's ultimately more likely to bomb Iran? The United States or Israel? According to Indyk, it's us.

The debate continues Monday, here.