Bombing Iran

Jeffrey Goldberg's article for The Atlantic, "The Point of No Return", is a remarkable piece of journalism. It analyzes in great depth whether Israel will soon attack Iran's nuclear facilities, and puts the chances at better than 50-50. I think the piece is an amazing intellectual coup. It takes an issue of enormous importance, a decision on which the history of our times could pivot, which has been on people's minds for ages--and through prodigious reporting and force of analysis makes everything that has been written on the subject up to now seem completely inadequate. I can't think of anything else quite like it.

It is possible that at some point in the next 12 months, the imposition of devastating economic sanctions on the Islamic Republic of Iran will persuade its leaders to cease their pursuit of nuclear weapons. It is also possible that Iran's reform-minded Green Movement will somehow replace the mullah-led regime, or at least discover the means to temper the regime's ideological extremism. It is possible, as well, that "foiling operations" conducted by the intelligence agencies of Israel, the United States, Great Britain, and other Western powers--programs designed to subvert the Iranian nuclear effort through sabotage and, on occasion, the carefully engineered disappearances of nuclear scientists--will have hindered Iran's progress in some significant way. It is also possible that President Obama, who has said on more than a few occasions that he finds the prospect of a nuclear Iran "unacceptable," will order a military strike against the country's main weapons and uranium-enrichment facilities.

But none of these things--least of all the notion that Barack Obama, for whom initiating new wars in the Middle East is not a foreign-policy goal, will soon order the American military into action against Iran--seems, at this moment, terribly likely. What is more likely, then, is that one day next spring, the Israeli national-security adviser, Uzi Arad, and the Israeli defense minister, Ehud Barak, will simultaneously telephone their counterparts at the White House and the Pentagon, to inform them that their prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has just ordered roughly one hundred F-15Es, F-16Is, F-16Cs, and other aircraft of the Israeli air force to fly east toward Iran--possibly by crossing Saudi Arabia, possibly by threading the border between Syria and Turkey, and possibly by traveling directly through Iraq's airspace, though it is crowded with American aircraft.

Putting aside what Israel will do, what should it do -- and (a separate issue) what should the US want it to do? Goldberg goes into these questions very carefully and says he is deeply ambivalent. After reading the piece, you will know this is not because he has failed to think things through. There are no good answers.

It is no help to point this out, but one wonders about what might have been. As Goldberg relates, Israel's calculations, and Iran's, would be quite different if the United States itself could credibly threaten to attack unless Iran abandons its weapons program. But even if America chose to make that threat, could it make it credible short of actually carrying it out? If not for Iraq, the answer might have been yes. If that war had never been fought, if it had been prosecuted successfully, if the allegation that Iraq was developing WMDs had not been exploded (thus denying legitimacy to the venture, successful or otherwise), then a US threat to use force in Iran's case might have been credible enough to work. Because the Iraq war turned out so badly, because the rationale offered for it turned out to be a mistake, because the US appetite for more of the same is zero, Iran may very well calculate that any US threat will be a bluff, and will call it.

When you have finished reading Goldberg's piece--but, do yourself a favor, not before--also take a look at the articles discussing it by Fred Kaplan on Slate and by Flynt and Hillary Leverett at Foreign Policy.