I am asked from time to time what I worry about the most in national security affairs. My current answer—with the criteria for worrying being a significant probability of an event occurring and severely negative consequences for U.S. interests if the event does occur—is an Israeli military strike against Iran. Recent months have seen an acceleration of commentary about the possibility of such a strike, or of the United States conducting such an attack itself. The major new article by Jeffrey Goldberg on the subject in The Atlantic provides insight into why an Israeli attack on Iran within the next year or so has a disturbingly large chance of occurring. I leave aside the issue of what may be Goldberg’s own agenda, which others have addressed. The article, based on interviews with a wide assortment of Israeli officials, portrays the outlook that could lead to such a step. Goldberg discusses the relevant influences on Prime Minister Netanyahu (including the influence of his unyielding 100-year-old father) but the state of mind he describes runs across much of the Israeli political spectrum. It is a state of mind—one that is more a matter of the amygdala and emotion than of the cortex and thought—that sees the possibility of an Iranian nuclear weapon as a fight-at-all-costs threat to the existence of Israel.
I have in the past enumerated the many questions about militarily going after the Iranian nuclear program that are too seldom asked, let alone answered. Careful answering of those questions leads to the conclusion that a military attack on Iran would be a disaster for U.S. interests, for reasons ranging from Iran’s violent asymmetrical responses to the economic costs of upending the oil market and the further poisoning of U.S. relations with future Iranian regimes and the broader Muslim world. I will not rehearse those reasons now—others have done some careful analysis of the consequences of an attack—but instead just raise for consideration why a possible action that ought to be condemned and dismissed as outrageous has become a subject of respectable discourse as if it were just another policy option for dealing with a foreign policy problem. From the standpoint of U.S. interests, most of the considerations that would apply to a U.S. attack on Iran also would apply to an Israeli attack—which would be widely perceived to have been approved or even assisted by the United States, and which would trigger most of the same responses and consequences.
The action in question would be an act of aggression, against a state whose offense is the production of fissile material (which many other nations, including Israel and the United States, also produce). Such an act is so contrary to what had been, until recently, a longstanding American tradition of non-aggression and opposition to the aggression of others that this fact alone ought to be enough to condemn in advance the possibility of such an attack, even apart from the more specific deleterious consequences for U.S. interests. And the aggression would not be on behalf of some larger laudable principle such as keeping nuclear weapons out of the Middle East. Instead, it would be on behalf of preserving Israel’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the Middle East. The nation that enjoys that monopoly has already initiated more wars than the Islamic Republic of Iran—despite the execrable rhetoric of its leaders—ever has.
Perhaps one reason a prospective launching of a war against Iran has not gotten the condemnation it deserves is that the one big recent exception to the American tradition of non-aggression—the Bush administration’s war in Iraq—has shifted the terms of reference and the definition of the mainstream so much that even an offensive war has come to be considered a policy option worthy of consideration. And this has happened despite the mess in Iraq that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein and despite George W. Bush’s restraining (to his credit, as mentioned in Goldberg’s article) of hotheads in his administration who were itching to attack Iran.
Another obvious reason is the strong influence on U.S. discourse and U.S. policy of interests associated with Israel and more specifically the Israeli political right. The added twist regarding an attack on Iran is that such attack—taking a long-term, well-reasoned view—would hurt Israeli interests as well as U.S. ones. Goldberg notes this, saying that an Israeli attack, whether successful or not in setting back the Iranian nuclear program, would stand a good chance of
“sparking lethal reprisals, and even a full-blown regional war that could lead to the deaths of thousands of Israelis and Iranians, and possibly Arabs and Americans as well; of creating a crisis for Barack Obama that will dwarf Afghanistan in significance and complexity; of rupturing relations between Jerusalem and Washington, which is Israel’s only meaningful ally; of inadvertently solidifying the somewhat tenuous rule of the mullahs in Tehran; of causing the price of oil to spike to cataclysmic highs, launching the world economy into a period of turbulence not experienced since the autumn of 2008, or possibly since the oil shock of 1973; of placing communities across the Jewish diaspora in mortal danger, by making them targets of Iranian-sponsored terror attacks, as they have been in the past, in a limited though already lethal way; and of accelerating Israel’s conversion from a once-admired refuge for a persecuted people into a leper among nations.”
Steve Clemons, in an extended riff on Goldberg’s article, suggests that Israeli leaders may be posturing more than being genuinely concerned about Iran as a dire threat—otherwise, he says, why wouldn’t they make some progress on the Palestinian issue, which would help in multiple ways to defuse that threat? Steve is right about the salutary effect that progress on the Palestinian issue would have. But I am less optimistic about the statements of Israeli leaders being more for effect than evincing a genuine feeling strong enough to cause them to bomb Iran. It is precisely because the Israeli state of mind on this subject is more a matter of emotion than careful calculation that Netanyahu’s government might launch an attack that would be detrimental to Israel’s own interests.
A major U.S. objective should be to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. Goldberg’s interviews with U.S. officials suggest that this indeed is a goal of the Obama administration, a goal administration officials hope to achieve through a combination of talking up the effectiveness of sanctions and saying enough about the U.S. preserving its own military option to keep Israeli leaders hoping that the United States might launch its own strike. The trouble with the second part of this strategy is that it helps to make aggression respectable. It is time instead to return to the tradition, which had served the United States well during the twentieth century, of opposing aggression rather than entertaining it as a possibility.