Are Americans Sliding Into Another War?

Paul Pillar

The current U.S. administration has wrapped up U.S. involvement in a mistaken war in Iraq (albeit on a schedule set by the previous administration, and with subsequent reintroduction of some U.S. military personnel into Iraq), has wound down U.S. involvement in a war in Afghanistan that had metamorphosed from a counterterrorist operation into a nation-building attempt (albeit only after an Obama-era “surge” and now with apparent second thoughts about how much longer the 13-year-old U.S. military involvement will continue), and has resisted pressure to throw U.S. troops into the civil war in Syria (albeit while employing other forms of U.S. military involvement, including airstrikes). The general direction of the administration's policies (though not some of the exceptions and detours) has been sound in terms of both the proper criteria for expending American blood and treasure and the effectiveness, or limitations thereof, of applying U.S. military force in internal conflicts such as the ones in those lands. Some observers would say that this overall direction also has been good politics given the lack of enthusiasm of the American public, still feeling some effects of an Iraq War syndrome, for getting involved any time soon in anything that could be described as—in the legally fuzzy but politically relevant term in the administration's draft authorization for use of military force against ISIS—“enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

That last element may be changing. A just-released poll of American opinion by the Pew Research Center shows a significant shift in the last few months in favor of more extensive use of military force against ISIS. A question asked in October 2014 about possible use of ground forces against the group showed 39 percent in favor and 55 percent opposed. The same question in February 2015 showed an almost even split: 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. There have been comparable shifts over the past year in responses to questions about support for the overall campaign against ISIS and about the best approach to “defeating global terrorism.” On that last question, those saying “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism” rose from 37 percent in March 2014 to 47 percent in February 2015. Those saying that “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred and more terrorism” decreased from 57 percent to 46 percent.

Several patterns in American public attitudes toward—and hence also in the political handling of—use of military force are at work in the views recorded by such polls, and have been displayed repeatedly in the past. One is that sentiments, either for or against use of military force, fade over time as whatever gave rise to the sentiment recedes farther into the past. There is regression toward the mean. This is true of militancy-stoking events, but it also is true of war-avoiding syndromes following failed wars.

Also at work is a heavy dose of emotion, usually embracing anger as well as fear, associated with the militancy-stoking events but also resting on beliefs that such events signify some broader threat. Probably the most glaring example is the American public response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, which involved an abrupt upward surge in militancy and in the willingness of the American public to use military force. The emotion concentrated on that one event was associated in the public mind with a broader perceived terrorist threat against the United States. The slide of the United States into the Vietnam War featured specific emotion-arousing incidents such as attacks (or supposed attacks) against U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, seen as manifestations of a larger Communist threat against U.S. interests.

Today ISIS arouses emotions especially with its grisly killings of captives, including Americans and other Westerners. There is again a popular perception of a connection with broader and more direct threats against the West and the United States. The significant shift over the past four months in sentiment about use of force against ISIS is probably connected to high-profile attacks in Western cities that—even though there may be little or no organizational connection to the ISIS that is waging war in Iraq and Syria—have been seen in the American public mind as all part of the same threat, and a threat to which the United States is vulnerable. Polling five months ago was already showing a large majority of Americans believing that ISIS had resources in place to conduct attacks within the United States.

Another mechanism in play is a classic form of the slippery slope, in which even a small degree of commitment to some objective overseas leads incrementally to larger commitments of resources on behalf of the same objective. The main decisions of the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s to escalate in a big way in Vietnam were based directly on the positing of the objective during the Kennedy administration of keeping South Vietnam non-Communist. The makers of the Iraq War in the George W. Bush administration were able to point to legislation signed by President Clinton that declared regime change in Iraq to be a U.S. policy objective, and to ask whether the United States was going to act to realize that objective. Besides the sheer slipperiness of such slopes, there also is commonly invoked the argument, however invalid, that U.S. credibility would suffer if the United States were to back away from any such objectives or perceived objectives.

Finally, not least important, partisanship and fears of domestic political losses often are a major factor. When Lyndon Johnson was deciding how to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 he was running for his own presidential term against Barry Goldwater, who was beating the drums about Vietnam, criticizing the president (in Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican convention) for not clearly indicating “whether or not the objective over there is victory,” and saying, “I needn't remind you, but I will, it has been during Democratic years that a billion persons were cast into Communist captivity and their fates cynically sealed.”

And now, Republican presidential contenders see a push for more extensive U.S. military involvement against ISIS as an opportune, or maybe even a necessary, campaign strategy. As Jonathan Martin and Jeremy Peters write in the New York Times, this tack “is a tacit acknowledgment by Republicans that, with the economy improving, they need another issue to distinguish themselves from Democrats. And it offers them a way to link former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to President Obama on an issue where the president's approval ratings are weakening.”

Note that none of these factors shaping popular sentiment, and its reflection in what the political class says, are ingredients in sound foreign policy. They are instead a matter of popular inattention, public emotion, the hazards of incremental decision-making, and partisan politicking. Such things have led the United States in the past into bad, costly policies overseas, and they could do so again.

Note also that the American public doesn't seek long, costly wars. Americans just think, mistakenly as it has sometimes turned out, that uses of military force they do favor will be short and not all that costly. The pollster John Zogby notes that although public support for use of military force against terrorists was quite high in the wake of 9/11, the degree of support went down precipitously if the question projected a duration of the use of military force extending beyond a couple of years.

A lesson is to be very careful in the early stages of an overseas commitment, keeping in mind that it could be the first part of a slippery slope even if it is not immediately recognizable as such, and to eschew objectives the pursuit of which could become much costlier in the future than they are so far. Some past disasters might have been averted near the beginning of the slide if this sort of thinking had prevailed. This would have meant avoiding, two or three years before Johnson escalated the country into what we know as the Vietnam War, any declaration that Communist unification of Vietnam was a major U.S. objective. It also would have meant not enshrining as the law of the land in the 1990s an objective of regime change in Iraq.

The poll results about growing public support for use of ground troops against ISIS are an indication that we may again be on the first part of a slide into a larger war. We might not go far down the slide during the remainder of Barack Obama's term, but that guarantees nothing about what will subsequently happen regarding U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria. Although it is possible that ISIS will flame out by then, that isn't guaranteed either. The civil war in Syria in particular seems likely to be long-lasting. And even if ISIS isn't generating as much fear a couple of years ago as it is now, we no doubt will hear reminders about how removal of the Assad regime was supposedly a U.S. objective too.                                                 

TopicsIraq Syria ISIS RegionsMiddle East

Al-Shabaab Threatens U.S. Attacks: Should You Be Worried?

The Buzz

Al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked militant group in Somalia, has sympathizers in the United States, but likely does not have the ability to strike targets in the West, despite its recent threat to do so, according to Atlantic Council analyst J. Peter Pham.

“Shabaab has always had a transnational reach, but it has never struck transnationally beyond the region,” Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said in an interview.

“There has also been no evidence of an active sleeper cell, but there has been more than sufficient evidence of sympathizers,” he added.

A small number of Western citizens, including Americans, joined the ranks of al-Shabaab. Shirwa Ahmed, the United States’ first suicide bomber in the modern era, came from the Somali-American community in Minnesota.

Shabaab’s leadership is betting on inciting anyone among a small minority of Shabaab sympathizers in the United States to carry out a terrorist attack, said Pham.

“It would be a feather in their cap coming at a time when militarily they are weak and really the third tier among terrorist groups in Africa behind Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Libya,” he said.

In a video posted online on February 21, al-Shabaab called for attacks on shopping malls in Canada, Britain, and the United States. The video lists the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, as a target. Minnesota is home to the United States’ largest Somali community.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called on visitors to the Minnesota mall to be “particularly careful.”

Al-Shabaab is trying to “inspire a copy cat event” similar to the attack in Nairobi, and they’re “trying to wreak economic havoc” in the United States by threatening to strike malls, Atlantic Council Chairman Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. said on MSNBC.

Al-Shabaab has rarely carried out major attacks outside Somalia, but in September of 2013 it attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 60 people and injuring hundreds.

The United States is well prepared to foil such an attack, said Huntsman.

“I don’t think the nation has ever been better prepared… for these kinds of scenarios. We’re a whole lot better than we were before 9/11,” he added.

The State Department designated al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in 2008.

In February of 2012, al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Shabaab also has ties to two al Qaeda affiliates — al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Al-Shabaab has suffered significant setbacks in Somalia in 2011 and 2012, including losing control of the strategic port city of Kismayo.

Al-Shabaab is “a good example of being a victim of your own success,” said Pham, referring to the setbacks the group has suffered following natural disasters in areas that were under its control and under pressure from African Union and U.S. military operations.

Pham spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: Is al-Shabaab transforming from a regional threat to a transnational one?

Pham: Al-Shabaab has changed dramatically in the last several years and is increasingly primarily a terrorist group and less of an insurgency, which it was for a good number of years.

It is a good example of being a victim of your own success. A combination of the famine and drought, Shabaab’s mishandling of those calamities, its overreach in trying to impose an alien ideology on the Somali people, the efforts of the better trained and equipped African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the marginally increased capacity of the Somali central government, and interventions by Somalia’s neighbors has contributed to the Shabaab being severely degraded as a military force. It has lost a lot of the territory it once held; its conventional forces have either surrendered or defected; and US special operations strikes in Somalia have decimated the senior leadership, including al Shabaab’s extremist emir Ahmed Godane who was killed last September.    

The result of this degradation is that Shabaab’s nationalist factions have largely melted away, but the hardcore jihadist element has remained and now represents the preponderant force. This minority within Shabaab has asserted itself in ongoing terrorist attacks in Somalia and low-intensity attacks in parts of Kenya, especially the northeastern areas.

Shabaab has always had a transnational reach, but it has never struck transnationally beyond the region. There have been US citizens, Canadians, Europeans who have joined Shabaab as fighters, including America’s first suicide bomber who came from the Somali community in the Twin Cities. There have been Americans who have been charged by the US government with material support for Shabaab.

So there has always been a small niche — a minority within the Somali American community — that has responded to Shabaab. They have primarily responded to the fight in Somalia, but Shabaab’s current leadership is betting that somewhere within this minority there might be a person that they could incite to violence. If they succeed in that it certainly would be a major feather in their cap.

It would be a feather in their cap coming at a time when militarily they are weak and really the third tier among terrorist groups in Africa behind Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Libya.

Q: Does al-Shabaab have the ability to attack targets in the U.S.?

Pham: There does not seem to be any evidence of direct command and control. The video seems to be more of incitement and giving specific suggestions. It doesn’t seem to be an order to an existing group, but inciting someone who is sympathetic to do so.

There has also been no evidence of an active sleeper cell, but there has been more than sufficient evidence of sympathizers. There is a niche they are appealing to. While only a few, it only takes, in a situation like this, one of them to act.

Q: What success has al-Shabaab had in recruiting among the Somali-American community?

Pham: It is only a very small minority that has been sympathetic and an even smaller group that has actually done anything. We are talking about several dozen young men who have gone over as fighters.

We’re dealing with a network of active sympathizers in maybe the low hundreds. We’re not dealing with a great number of people. As within any large minority group there will be some people who will be disaffected and they are the problems.

The key to rooting those out is having good relations with the community as a whole so it can become the first line of defense.

Q: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was behind the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. What sort of relationship exists between AQAP and al-Shabaab?

Pham: Shabaab and AQAP have had a long-standing history of helping each other when they were down and out. After the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in 2006 when Shabaab was on its heels it was the al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen that later became AQAP that provided a lifeline to Shabaab in terms of training and weapons.

Later when Shabaab acquired territorial dominion in Somalia it hosted training camps for militants who later filled the ranks of AQAP.

In 2012, AQAP facilitated Shabaab’s declaration of allegiance to al Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

AQAP and Shabaab have had links, there is coordination and, if you will, good neighborliness between terrorists. But I don’t think there is any AQAP command and control in Shabaab’s recent declaration.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council. This article originally appeared on the New Atlantist, an Atlantic Council blog

Image: Flickr/Albany Associates


5 Things You Need to Know about Low Oil Prices

The Buzz

The Council on Foreign Relations hosted a symposium yesterday on the causes and consequences of the oil price crash. Our three panels tackled the reasons for the crash and the future of oil prices; the economic fallout from the crash in the United States and around the world; and the geopolitical consequences of the oil price crash, both to date and going forward. (These links will take you to video of each session.) I trust that everyone took distinct conclusions away from the day. Here are five things I learned or hadn’t properly appreciated before:

Don’t believe what financial markets tell you about long-run oil prices.

Futures markets are good at predicting near-term spot oil prices. They’re even good at telling you what smart people think oil prices will be in a few months or a year. But when it comes to their predictions for oil prices five years from now? Forget about it. Markets for long-dated futures – say, for February 2019, where Brent crude last settled at $76 a barrel – are idiosyncratic and reflect the needs of a small number of players. Better, then, to rely on fundamental analysis. Unfortunately – as Citi’s Ed Morse, CIBC’s Catherine Spector, and the EIA’s Howard Gruenspecht all confirmed on our first panel – there’s little agreement on what those are. Still, if you’re uncertain, at least you won’t be wrong.

Consumer spending hasn’t yet responded to the oil price drop.

The oil price drop is supposed to act like a big tax cut – with all the stimulus that entails. As Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics noted on our second panel, a one dollar drop in the price of a gallon of gas should translate into a thousand dollars in annual household savings, which in turn should boost consumer spending, turbocharging the economy. Yet, as both he and Harvard’s Jim Stock observed, while we’ve seen some increased saving, we haven’t seen the expected boost in consumer spending yet. Part of the explanation might be that people wait a few months for savings to pile up before going out and spending. Neither Zandi nor Stock was particularly nervous yet – but Zandi warned that if consumer spending didn’t pick up soon, he’d start to get more anxious.

Falling oil prices have been a big help to emerging market economic policymakers. Emerging market oil importers obviously benefit from falling import costs. And I’ve written before that falling oil prices have allowed some emerging market policymakers to cut fuel subsidies. Charles Collyns of the Institute for International Finance (IIF) pointed out a third big dividend during our second panel: falling oil prices have eased inflation pressures and thus allowed emerging market central banks to cut rates and juice their economies. It’s easy to overlook this when you’re focused on the big developed economies; Europe and Japan are worried about deflation, not inflation, and the United States doesn’t have room to cut rates (though it can delay raising them). But when you’re more like India – with an inflation rate that hit eight percent in July of last year but now stands closer to five – this matters a lot.

Watch out for geopolitical fallout in the big oil exporters’ backyards.

As oil prices have plummeted, all eyes have been on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and on the Iranian nuclear negotiations, as observers have looked for signs that Moscow or Tehran might change tack. On our third panel, Georgetown’s Angela Stent and former U.S. ambassador Michael Gfoeller reported little change on either front, and warned not to expect much. But both of them – along with former State Department energy envoy David Goldwyn in his remarks on Venezuela – told people to look in the three big oil exporters’ backyards. As Russia faces budget and economic challenges, there will be economic and political spillovers in Central Asia; as Iranian revenues slide, Iran’s ability to support Hezbollah and other Shiite allies will decline; and as Venezuela tumbles, its ability to support others in the region through Petrocaribe will weaken, a dynamic that some have already argued played a role in U.S. rapprochement with Cuba.

Even the good geopolitical news often comes with a downside.

It might look like Egypt and Jordan – both energy importers – might benefit from falling oil prices. But, as Michael Gfoeller pointed out, both also receive support from a now-less-flush Saudi Arabia. It might also seem that climate change efforts could get a boost due to falling natural gas prices in Asia and Europe (gas and oil prices there are linked to varying degrees) – but, as David Goldwyn warned, the politics of falling oil prices could actually sap some of the sense of urgency from climate discussions. And as Angela Stent observed, economic turmoil for U.S. adversaries doesn’t necessarily lead to political change – something she noted for Russia but that applies more broadly.

This only skims the surface of what I took from the panels – and I’m sure others gleaned different things. You can watch all the three panels (priceseconomicsgeopolitics) at, and add your own takeaways in the comments.

Michael A. Levi is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. This piece originally appeared on CFR’s Energy, Security, and Climate blog.

Image: Flickr/miracc


A Global Popularity Contest

The Buzz

Is Russia making a global comeback in spite of Western sanctions and political pressure from the United States and Europe? On the surface, it certainly seems like it.

Earlier this month, Russian president Vladimir Putin paid a very public two-day visit to Egypt, cementing the burgeoning strategic partnership he has diligently cultivated with the regime of Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. The lavish reception he received—complete with street placards bearing his likeness and wall-to-wall coverage in the Egyptian press—left no questions about Cairo’s attitudes toward the Kremlin. New political forces on the Old Continent, like Greece’s recently elected left-wing Syriza government, have likewise embraced an increasingly pro-Russian outlook. And the Russian leader apparently enjoys massive popularity in China, where his biography is a bestseller and his authoritarian political style is the subject of serious study. All of which led Foreign Policy magazine to dub Putin the “new model dictator,” and the gold standard for autocrats everywhere.

Perhaps he is. But look a bit closer, and you’re liable to find that Russia’s recent geopolitical advances are very much the exception rather than the norm. A year into the Kremlin’s asymmetric campaign in Ukraine, its global image—and its alliances—is much the worse for wear.

The problems begin close to home. Last month’s summit of the Eurasian Economic Union—a bloc that ranks as Putin’s premier regional initiative—was a decidedly lackluster affair. Against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis, the Union’s constituent members (Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan) are increasingly wary of Moscow’s regional policies and of the possibility that they, too, could become the targets of the Kremlin’s territorial acquisition. Additionally, Western sanctions and a plunge in global oil prices have hit Russia’s economy hard, making Moscow increasingly unable to bankroll its political and economic vision for the region.

As a result, there’s growing dissension in the ranks. "Those who think that the Belarusian land is part as what they call the Russian world, almost part of Russia, forget about it!" Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko recently told reporters in Minsk. "Belarus is a modern and independent state." That Belarus—once Russia’s staunchest ally in the region—feels empowered to take such a stance speaks volumes about the Kremlin’s plummeting regional cachet.

Belarus, moreover, isn’t the only one. Neighboring Kazakhstan has also begun distancing itself from Moscow—albeit more quietly. Last year, the Moscow Times notes, Kazakhstan’s imports to the Russia-led Eurasian Customs Union fell to just 6.1 percent, roughly half of what they were in 2010. That’s as telling a sign as any that Kazakhstan’s leaders no longer have much confidence in Russia’s political and economic projects.

But the now-likely demise of the Eurasian Union could end up being the least of Putin’s problems. Increasingly, Russia is losing ground globally.

Just how much can be seen in a mid-2014 poll of global attitudes toward Russia carried out by the Pew Research Center. That study found that anti-Russian attitudes had skyrocketed among the majority of the forty-four countries surveyed. More than half of Middle Eastern countries polled now see Russia negatively, anti-Russian sentiment is on the rise across Latin America, and Europe is unified in its anti-Russian position as a result of the Ukraine crisis.

Indeed, of all the nations polled by Pew, Russia’s global image had improved in just nine. And only in two—China and the Palestinian Territories—did it grow by double digits.

In other words, countries like Egypt and Greece—which are now making common cause with the Kremlin—are political outliers, rather than representatives of an emerging global consensus. And Russia’s increasingly frenetic global activism isn’t a sign of strength or defiance. Rather, it should be seen for what it truly is: a desperate attempt to stave off deepening international isolation.

Ilan Berman is Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Agência Brasil/Roberto Stuckert Filho​/CC by 3.0 br


Sorry, Al Jazeera: A Leaked Mossad Cable Doesn’t Reveal Netanyahu Lied to the UN

The Buzz

Qatari television network Al Jazeera has obtained a cache of secret intelligence cables, apparently from South Africa, and they’re eagerly promoting them as “the largest intelligence leak since Snowden.” Yet one of the first baubles plucked from this alleged treasure trove is fool’s gold—even with their attempts to represent it otherwise.

The Qatari-government-funded station argues that the cables reveal that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu “misled” the United Nations in his famous September 2012 address to the United Nations General Assembly—that Israeli intelligence had an assessment of the Iranian nuclear program that “appears to contradict the picture painted by Netanyahu of Tehran racing towards acquisition of a nuclear bomb.” There were plenty of things wrong with that Netanyahu speech, and there’s plenty of evidence that Netanyahu and his intelligence services don’t always see eye to eye on Iran. But what the network has uncovered doesn’t contradict Netanyahu, and offers little that wasn’t already known to the public.

A cable from October 2012, apparently from the Mossad, assesses the state of Iran’s nuclear program. Al Jazeera notes that the document says that “Iran at this stage is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons,” but “is working to close gaps in areas that appear legitimate such as enrichment, reactors, which will reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time instruction is actually given.” They contrast this with “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's 2012 warning to the UN General Assembly that Iran was 70 per cent of the way to completing its ‘plans to build a nuclear weapon’” and (in their video report) with his line that “by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, they will have finished the medium enrichment and move on to the final stage.”

The Mossad report doesn’t actually contradict this.

Making nuclear weapons is complicated. A working warhead is the result of several distinct lines of technical development. You need enough enriched uranium to sustain a rapid chain reaction (the core of the bomb), and you need a way to induce that chain reaction (the mechanism of the bomb). (You’ll also probably want a way to deliver the bomb, a third line of technology.) Netanyahu’s argument rested on this distinction: he said that the world must draw a red line on Iran’s activities that could be useful for making a core because those activities are much harder to hide than those for making the mechanism:

For Iran, amassing enough enriched uranium is far more difficult than producing the nuclear [detonation mechanism] takes many, many years to enrich uranium for a bomb. That requires thousands of centrifuges spinning in tandem in very big industrial plants. Those Iranian plants are visible and they’re still vulnerable. In contrast, Iran could produce the nuclear a lot less time, maybe under a year, maybe only a few months. The detonator can be made in a small workshop the size of a classroom. It may be very difficult to find and target that workshop...So in fact the only way that you can credibly prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, is to prevent Iran from amassing enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

Bibi was, in other words, not asserting that an Iranian nuclear device was coming soon—he was saying that Iran was approaching the end of the phase in which its nuclear program would be easiest to interrupt. The Mossad’s statement that Iran “is not performing the activity necessary to produce weapons” doesn’t contradict that, particularly when read with their line that Iran’s activities at the time would “reduce the time required to produce weapons from the time instruction is actually given.” Iran was taking steps that made weaponization easier, even if it wasn’t weaponizing. A closer reading of the speech, and a better understanding of the underlying technical issues, would have revealed the harmony between the two positions.

That closer reading also would have answered the question the presenter asks at the end of the video report: “The ‘Spy Cables’...begs [sic] the question: where did [Netanyahu] get this information?” As Netanyahu said at the time: “What I told you now is not based on secret information. It’s not based on military intelligence. It’s based on public reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Anybody can read them. They’re online.”

So the Qatari-backed press might not be the best source for news on Israel. But there are still two interesting points of tacit discord between Netanyahu and his spies, points which Al Jazeera does not acknowledge.

The first: Netanyahu says that “by next spring, at most by next summer at current enrichment rates, [the Iranians] will have finished the medium enrichment and move [sic] on to the final stage. From there, it’s only a few months, possibly a few weeks before they get enough enriched uranium for the first bomb.” In other words, enriching to weapons grade will follow the accumulation of enough medium-enriched uranium—Iran will take the next step as soon as it is able. The Mossad document is agnostic on that—it has Iran taking the next steps “when the instruction is actually given” by its leaders. Netanyahu’s Iran is in a mad dash to the bomb; technical obstacles are the only things slowing it down. It will only respond to the threat of force—to the declaration of a red line. Mossad’s Iran is more cautious—it’s taking steps to reduce the time it needs to build a weapon and to “preserv[e]” and “retain” its old weaponization infrastructure. But the choice to actually weaponize has not been made. There’s no mad dash and perhaps no inevitability.

The issue of Iranian caution points us to a second dissonance. Netanyahu argues that Iran is on the brink of “finish[ing] the medium enrichment” phase along the path to having enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb. “Finishing” this phase, and being ready to move on to the next one, has two inputs: centrifuges and medium-enriched uranium. With enough of both, you can quickly get to weapons grade—and speed is essential, since taking this final step would remove many doubts about what Iran’s nuclear program is for. Yet, as the Mossad report notes, Iran’s stockpile of medium enriched uranium was not expanding at the time, “as some [of it] is being converted to nuclear fuel for [the Tehran Research Reactor].”

This was widely perceived as an attempt to reduce tensions by limiting the size of the most threatening part of its nuclear stockpile. This is not behavior we’d expect from Netanyahu’s mad-dashing Iranian fanatics. In Bibi’s defense, there was debate at the time on how meaningful conversion was—the Institute for Science and International Security, for example, would complain a year later that “although conversion of uranium hexafluoride into uranium oxide and fabrication into fuel elements does limit Iran’s ability to quickly use this material in a breakout scenario, the only iron-clad way to prevent further enrichment is for an outside country to hold this material in escrow prior to irradiation” in a reactor. But it is worth noting that the Mossad report does not seem to take such concerns seriously: it flatly states that “the amount of 20% enriched uranium is...not increasing,” citing the conversion activity.

Netanyahu’s speech was far from perfect. But his most questionable statements were about Iran’s intentions and motivations, not about the details of its nuclear program. His apparent divergences with the Mossad on that matter are largely a matter of framing, not of fact.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences(Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsNuclear Proliferation RegionsIranIsrael