Earlier this week, Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel spoke (listen to audio here) at an Atlantic Council Iran symposium. He made some very incisive comments which are worth mentioning. First, he began his remarks with the colorful phrase which fittingly integrated the world political situation with the U.S. presidential elections:
There is saber rattling from Teheran to South Carolina.
Riedel asked the pointed question: does the U.S. want war? He noted that he uses the term “war” and deliberately rejects the common coinage, “military strike,” since that is a misnomer. Any attack on Iran, he points out, means a real war and not just a set of isolated military attacks “lasting an afternoon, maybe a couple of weeks” and ending at a time of our choosing. He warned, in fact, that if Iran doesn’t accept our terms, then the war would become open-ended and we might become involved “in another war in Asia,” a deliberate reference to the Vietnam War.
One of the particularly severe possible impacts of an Iranian counter-strike could make an already difficult situation for us in Afghanistan much worse. Iran is “supremely positioned” geographically to make our life miserable. Obama, who wants to end the Middle East wars we’re currently engaged in rather than prolonging them, can’t want such a possible outcome.
He asked whether war against Iran is “necessary.” Is an Iranian bomb the “apocalyptic end of time” portrayed by Bibi and the pro-war neocons? No, is his answer:
The overwhelming balance of power between Israel and Iran will remain in Israel’s favor even if Iran acquires nuclear weapons.
Riedel pointed out that the Iran arms embargo imposed by the UN in 2010, an especially effective one, essentially freezes that nation’s conventional weapons capability Even in their nuclear programs Israel dominates, with at least 100 nukes which can be delivered by any of three different delivery systems (Jericho, Dolphin and F-16).
He then asked whether military deterrence against Iran (instead of war) can work: his answer was that Iran, contrary to the arguments of Bibi and the neocon crowd, is “not suicidal nor seeking to end itself in a mass moment of Armageddon.” He then concluded that the overwhelming superpower presence of the U.S. on Israel’s side will deter Iran, which does not which to destroy itself, but rather seeks to preserve its domestic Islamic revolution.
Though Riedel supports sanctions and covert operations against Iran, he believes that ultimately they will fail because Iran views it as in its long-term interest to have the capability of defending itself with the most powerful weapon in the military arsenal:
If I was an Iranian national security planner I would want a nuclear weapon. Look at the neighborhood I live in: everyone else who matters has nuclear weapons and those who don’t, don’t matter and get invaded by the United States…
We have drifted into war so easily in the last decade. Let’s not make that mistake again.
In the Q&A session afterward, Riedel speaks about how the presidential election factors into an Israeli decision to attack Iran. He says that it’s “abundantly clear” that one of Bibi’s primary goals is “regime change on the Potomac.” An Israeli attack would, in the prime minister’s thinking, put Obama “in a tough place” because his range of responses will be limited by political considerations, even more so than were there no election (and even in that event, a president would not be as free to sanction Israel as he might wish).
That means that an Obama who is embarrassed is a good thing for Bibi and his political sugar daddy, Sheldon Adelson (whose money is on Newt Gingrich). One of the current president’s few strong suits in his first term has been national security. For an Israeli PM to tarnish that reputation by calling out a U.S. president might make the latter look small. Especially to be bested by a relatively small power like Israel. That is something Bibi would relish.
Also, Bibi bested Obama during the settlement freeze fiasco. He bloodied the new president’s nose and taught him a lesson that Israel’s right-wing leader wasn’t to be toyed with. As a result, the U.S. has been a paper tiger in its dealings on the Israel-Palestine question. Once someone like Bibi gets a taste of that heady stuff, of taking down a peg or two a president he views as insufficiently supportive of Israel, the impulse to do it again will be strong.
Possibly for that reason, Obama has summoned as many as three carrier task forces to the Gulf. If Israel is planning mischief, Obama wants Israel to know that it has the military capability in place to keep a lid on things if they get out of control. This show of force might also have a deterrent impact on the Iranians as they contemplate how to respond if they’re attacked. Obama knows that Iran could be his Achilles Heel in this election if he doesn’t handle it right.
And of course, the more Bibi ties us up dealing with Iran the less time or inclination we will have to muck about in the Israel-Palestine mess. Which is all to Bibi’s liking. He knows that the more time and attention the world gives to that conflict, the worse off it will be for Israel. That’s why Iran poses such a terrific distraction. As I’ve written here, I don’t fully believe Bibi or Barak truly believe Iran poses an existential threat to Israel. But they want the world to think they do. This aids and abets the plan to divert attention from the evils of Occupation and siege.
A separate story in Politico, of all places, notes the five top misconceptions about Iran, all of which subvert the underlying assumptions of current western approaches to that country. You know when a right-leaning online publication like Politico promotes such a pragmatic, realistic approach that they’re hedging their bets in case war fever turns out to be a bad deal. The story is written by an independent Iranian-American journalist who just returned from spending a year in Iran.
In Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl, a former U.S. Defense undersecretary responsible for Mideast affairs argues forcefully against any strike against Iran. He argues that the imminence theory of the pro-war crowd which argues that an Iranian nuclear weapon is on the horizon within the next six months is bogus. He says that Iran may have enough uranium to make a bomb within that time frame but not it cannot produce a weapon (if that is what it’s goal is, which is in some dispute) for well over another year beyond that.
The author reminds us once again of something Meir Dagan has tried to bring home to the Israeli audience again and again–that war with Iran will not be “surgical” or contained or short:
Any war with Iran would be a messy and extraordinarily violent affair, with significant casualties and consequences.
Prof. Cahl reminds us that even though we may see the mission of a military strike as confined solely to taking out Iran’s nuclear capacity, that’s not the way the Iranian leadership would understand things. They would perceive the goal of an attack as regime change and react accordingly.
He also notes that once an attack is unleashed there is little prospect of containing it even if both sides go into the conflict seeking a limited one. In the heat of war, decisions are made and buttons are pushed which can’t be unpushed. The results of those decisions kill people, many people. Once the genie is out of the bottle, you simply can’t know what will happen.
Laura Rozen has reported a new wrinkle on the cancellation of the Austere Challenge joint Israel-U.S. military exercise. Originally sources reported that the U.S. caused the cancellation out of piqué about Israel’s covert war with Iran, which led to yet another assassination of a nuclear scientist two weeks ago. Rozen reports that the event was cancelled not by the U.S., but by Israel. There is almost only one way of interpreting this act: as a sign of its preparation for an Iran strike. Israel doesn’t want U.S. military personnel on Israeli soil when war comes. If they’re there and get killed, it might put Obama in the precarious situation of having to choose between attacking Iran in retaliation or impeding Israel’s range of action.
Israel Defense also reports that the reason why Bibi has decided to postpone the naming of a new IAF chief is he wishes not to change horses in midstream, as he anticipates a possible Iran attack. The publication also says that Israel may’ve cancelled the joint missile tests with the U.S. because it would distract from preparations for the Iran attack.