Today, there are two interesting reports with divergent points of view about U.S. strategy toward Iran. But each is worth noting. First, readers will know the respect in which I hold Alex Fishman, the military correspondent of Yediot. He was the only mainstream journalist willing to take on the IDF’s lies about the Eilat attack and call them what they were. He also wrote a compelling story about the tension between the U.S. and Iran regarding how to proceed with Iran.
Frankly, I think a good deal of what Fishman reports here is wishful thinking on the part of his American interlocutors [my interpolations are inside brackets]. But still it’s worth considering as a window into the mind of a centrist, pragmatic Israeli journalist and U.S. policymakers. These officials are telling him that they believe they have a secret weapon in the struggle to bring Iran to the negotiating table and resolve the nuclear issue: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Because of the split between the president and Ayatollah Khamenei, whom the latter has allied himself with the most obstreporous clerical hardliners, Americans are hoping that the president might be willing to broker a deal regarding the nuclear program.
If this really is American thinking, it seems bound to fail as Ahmadinejad is in no position to face down and best Khamenei on this issue. Foreign and security policy are the bailiwicks of the Ayatollah, not the president. For this reason, I half wonder if the Americans are putting this forward knowing that it is almost sure to fail, and that they can then proceed with equanimity to Plan B, military attack.
Returning to Fishman’s story, the parameters of the deal the U.S. is offering involve: 1. ending the effort to enrich uranium to 20% and restricting enrichment to the 5% level. In return a third country will provide nuclear fuel for its Bushehr reactor. 2. Iran will agree to transfer to a third country the 80 KG of uranium already enriched to 20% purity. 3. Cessation of all advanced nuclear research at the secret Qom facility. The U.S. and Israel see the impregnability of this facility and the fact that Iran’s most advanced centrifuges are being moved there as a sign that the secret work toward building a bomb will proceed there. Once ensconced there, the nuclear program is fully protected from attack.
If Iran agrees to the third condition, the U.S. will freeze all sanctions it has imposed [I presume this means it will cease enforcing them though the meaning of the word “freeze” is open to question]. The Russians and Europeans have already agreed to this proposal. Ahmedinejad, if this story can be believed, is willing to return to talks on the basis of this plan because his primary goal is to relieve pressure imposed on the nation’s economy by the sanctions regimen.
The Americans are holding out to Iran what they call the “Doomsday Weapon.” Putting Iran’s central bank under sanction, which, so the article claims, would grind Iran’s entire economy to a halt because, supposedly, it will no longer be able to sell its oil on the international market. The U.S. claims that even if the Security Council refuses to approve this extreme measure it can impose it effectively with the support of several other leading nations.
If this offer isn’t reciprocated (which it’s highly unlikely it would), the Americans are telling the Iranians that all bets are off and Israeli jets and missiles will be on their way to their targets in the spring of 2012. By then, there will few U.S. troops remaining in Iraq and Iraqi airspace will no longer be controlled by the U.S. That would allow Israel free reign to overfly Iraq on its way to Iran.
Fishman also notes the announcement this week that the U.S. was deploying a new 15,000 ton bunker buster bomb that would be capable of penetrating Iranian bunkers. On a separate note, readers of this blog have noted that Israeli air power could not convey such a large weapon, which would require delivery by a U.S. B-2 stealth bomber, and hence U.S. participation in any strike.
The Israeli reporter notes that last September, the Iranians organized a massive display of military power in Teheran in which they displayed their most advanced new missile systems. They didn’t even leave it to the intelligence photographic analysts to figure out the technical details of the weapons. The Iranians provided them explicitly. This massive exhibition of firepower confirmed that the Iranians the missile program is one of the three “legs” of its nuclear program. Fishman coyly notes that “someone” (hint, hint) was so “impressed” with the display that they decided they needed to eliminate the program’s architect. That was how the decision was made to assassinate Brig. Gen. Hassan Moghadam a few days ago. Though the Iranians immediately denied the event had been sabotage, this was the greatest nightmare to befall the project and meant that someone had penetrated the project security and who knows what they did or left behind?
Fishman explicitly calls Moghadam’s death an ‘assassination,’ and compares it with the assassination of three previous Iranian nuclear scientists which many have attributed to the Mossad. He claims, and here I disagree with him, that these breaches have persuaded the Iranians that they’re exposed and that their program is naked to the world. This sense of vulnerability, he claims, will cause them to hesitate before proceeding to the stage of building an actual weapon.
Iranian engineers have told the senior figures in the regime that they are ready to proceed to weaponization, but the regime is afraid of a major project failure and therefore hasn’t yet given its assent. They don’t know how the U.S. and Israel (possibly to avoid censorship he refers to them by the names “Big Satan” and “Little Satan”) penetrated the project [this is the first indication I’ve seen that attributes U.S. involvement in the missile base explosion, but I’ve thought from the beginning that this was possible and even likely]. And that, more than sanctions and even more than a possible attack, troubles and gives them pause.
This, at any rate, is the U.S.’ thinking and they don’t appreciate anyone else (i.e. Israel) attempting to impose its own agenda on the proceedings by implementing an attack on Iran before the potential for this plan has been exhausted.
The second article is by Harper, one of the contributing authors at Pat Lang’s blog. He offers an alternate picture of U.S. policy planners as he’s talking mostly to defense analysts, who have a different perspective than the political operatives Fishman likely consulted with inside the adminstration. Harper says that the U.S. is engaged in a low-intensity conflict with Iran which it hopes might propel Iran into an extreme reaction that could be used to launch a full-scale attack against it. This, of course, is why Iran doesn’t admit that the missile base attack was sabotage since it doesn’t want to play into such expectations.
One option under consideration aside from the current policy approach is:
A full scale war, involving a massive U.S. bombing campaign that would go on for 3-6 months, wiping out the entire infrastructure of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other power centers. This option has been unanimously rejected by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and by a vast majority within the U.S. intelligence community as “premature” and far too costly. However, there are grave uncertainties over how President Obama would respond to a preemptive Israeli strike, that would do little damage to Iran’s nuclear energy sector, but would put the U.S. on the spot to “finish the job.” Given electoral considerations, the demonstrated power of AIPAC and the Christian Zionists in the Congress, military brass and intelligence community leaders worry that Obama could draw the United States into an escalating war that could get out of control under virtually every scenario considered.
In the past, I would’ve ruled out entirely the possibility that Obama would allow himself to be sucked into such a conflict. But given his flaccid approach to Israel on so many fronts I think we can no longer rule out that he might agree to a follow-on to an Israeli attack. This would threaten to turn it into a full-scale regional conflict, since a number of Iranian proxies and possibly a nation like Turkey might take an exceedingly dim view of such goings on.
Harper portrays the current black ops strategy as an alternative to an Israeli attack, which is precisely why Meir Dagan was such a devout adherent of the approach:
[The idea behind the] “war avoidance” plan [according to] some U.S. military planners I have spoken with…is to disrupt and delay the Iranian nuclear program, as a way of forcing Israel to back off from their threats of preemptive action.
This passage echoes one in Fishman’s report:
An Iran specialist, with whom I spoke recently, posed a challenging question: At what point are the Iranians forced to take action against this clandestine war? There have been bombings, kidnappings and assassinations on the streets of Tehran that have been impossible to conceal from the Iranian population. Is this going to prove to be a war delay/war avoidance strategy, or a provocation that leads Iran to retaliate and provide Israel or others with the pretext for general war? This question is yet to be answered. So far, the Iranians have been restrained, choosing not to even retaliate with a low-level attack on Israeli or American targets outside of the region (the bombing of the Jewish Center in Buenos Aires more than a decade ago is a good example of past such Iranian retaliatory actions).
I see no evidence whatsoever that the sabotage/black ops plan will deter Iran in the least. Nor do I see full-scale military assault as one that would work. The Iranians have fought tough battles before. There are at least as many dangers facing Israel and the U.S. from such a strategy as facing Iran. It will be a lose-lose proposition for all. Which doesn’t mean the parties won’t either choose or fall into such a confrontation. Unfortunately, the policymakers on all sides have shown little propensity for pragmatism or common sense. The worst could easily happen.