Bomb, Bomb Iran?

Hillary Clinton says that the United States should “obliterate” Tehran if it launches an attack on Israel, even though the likelihood of that occuring is next to nil. Are Barack Obama and John McCain any more realistic?

Presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton has heralded her own foreign-policy credentials, but last week she sounded more like an action anti-hero than a presidential candidate, in declaring that the United States could obliterate Iran. Although Clinton's words were presumably intended for domestic consumption, they naturally traveled around the world, prompting a response Wednesday from Tehran.

On Good Morning America last week, Clinton said:

"Well, the question was if Iran were to launch a nuclear attack on Israel, what would our response be? And I want the Iranians to know that if I'm the president, we will attack Iran. And I want them to understand that. Because it does mean that they have to look very carefully at their society, because whatever stage of development they might be in their nuclear weapons program in the next ten years, during which they might foolishly consider launching an attack on Israel, we would be able to totally obliterate them." 

The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency said that Iran sent on Wednesday a letter of protest to the United Nations and the UN Security Council over Clinton's remarks, which it called "provocative, unwarranted and irresponsible."

Clinton's comments are indeed revealing. To Financial Times columnist Philip Stephens, they demonstrate the lengths, or the depths, to which she will go to in order to win the nomination: "Of course, Mrs Clinton's reinvention of herself as the mad general in Dr Strangelove is not unconnected to this ambition. Her comments on Iran were all of a piece with the effort to undermine Mr. Obama's national security credentials." Equally significant, Clinton's statements seem to indicate a lack of assimilating lessons of the Iraq war; the endangered state of U.S. global interests; or the dynamics of Iranian popular opinion.

In and of itself, Clinton's commitment to a U.S. security "umbrella" guarantee for Israel is not highly controversial. A good number of reasonable policy experts and elected officials have stated their support for such an explicit or de facto umbrella. In response to Clinton's statements, Senator Barack Obama said on Good Morning America that "I was absolutely clear about the fact that if Iran used nuclear weapons on Israel, or any of our allies, we would respond forcefully and swiftly." Even John Mearsheimer (who is on the advisory council of this magazine) and Stephen Walt state in their book on the Israeli lobby: "We think the United States should stand willing to come to Israel's assistance if its survival were in jeopardy."

But Clinton stated her commitment to a security guarantee with counterproductive belligerence-a point that Obama made in the recent interview: "Talk using words like obliterate doesn't actually produce good results." And other aspects of her comment seem to be dangerously misleading.

Clinton's suggestion that Iran could attack Israel with nuclear weapons in the next ten years is excessively alarmist. The theocrats in Iran are not a novelty. Since the 1979 revolution, they have not demonstrated a bent for mutually assured destruction with Israel-which would be the effect of a hypothetical nuclear attack on that country, with or without a U.S. security umbrella. Indeed, Iran would have to be a great deal more than foolish to attack Israel. Such an act would be suicidal. The mullahs must know that Israel could handily "obliterate" their country-if perhaps not erase it from the pages of history. It is for this reason that the Israelis surely acquired a nuclear deterrent in the first place.

Indeed, Iran has been intent on hurting Israel and its citizens by proxy, through groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad. And it is also true that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made some bellicose statements regarding Israel that are beyond reckless. Indeed, Israel must stay highly vigilant of Iran and plan for all contingencies. But the Iranian president is not a member of the entrenched theocracy, his power is limited, his popular support is questionable and he has been repeatedly countered and challenged by high-ranking mullahs. Still, there is one way to summarily bolster support for Ahmadinejad and other firebrands in Tehran: threaten the country-or, even better, hold forth about America's ability to "obliterate" it. Most thoughtful experts on Iran agree that such rhetorical aggression rallies domestic support for the regime. And given such statements, it is no wonder Tehran would covet a nuclear deterrent.

Clinton provided no caveats in her statement about the unlikelihood of an Iranian nuclear attack on Israel. Perhaps such nuance is underappreciated in focus groups. And so Clinton is contributing to the post-September 11 fears that helped to lay support for the Iraq War. Clinton's comments are not as misleading as those of then-National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice or Vice President Cheney, in which they conjured mushroom clouds expanding over the homeland, but they do contribute to the agitation that a legion of pundits and other "experts" seem to be promulgating into a virtual niche service.

That is worrisome not because America does not face threats, but because those kinds of pronouncements distract the country from what the likely dangers are. A "foolish" decision by Tehran to dispatch nuclear weapons to Israel does not seem high on the list. How the United States is going to cope with the enormous but incumbent challenge of exiting Iraq-and the threats that could generate-is a more pressing concern. Despite the short-term security (but not strategic) gains that have come with the surge in Iraq, the onslaught of civilian communities-particularly in Shia communities that were not virulently hostile to U.S. forces-could come at considerable cost to U.S. interests.