It’s not—at least not yet—the guns or bombs of August, but there has been a rising crescendo of noise about an impending attack on Iran’s nuclear program. It is hard to miss a cover on The Atlantic that proclaims “Israel is Getting Ready to Bomb Iran” that sends the reader to Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Point of No Return” article that is based on extensive, but largely anonymous, interviews in Israel. While Goldberg’s piece has gotten all the attention on the Web and in the press, one has to have considerable sympathy for Robert Kaplan. Kaplan authored the following article in the very same issue of the Atlantic entitled, “Living with a Nuclear Iran.” Although Kaplan’s piece is better argued and more tightly edited it has attracted almost no attention.
What accounts for the resonance of the Bomb the Iranians NOW arguments? In part it is no doubt that August is a slow news month when it takes a lot of hype to move Americans to pay any attention to news at all. And when they pay attention it is more likely to be to the latest teenage phenom signing a $8 billion bonus contract to play baseball or the $100 million lineman who cannot run across the football field.
But there are at least two more reasons that are much more important for this burst of interest in yet another war in the Middle East. The first is that the Obama administration has embraced the Bush-era policy on Iran’s nuclear ambitions: Iran must not be permitted to acquire a nuclear weapons capability and economic sanctions will stop them. The brutal logic of this policy is that if you conclude—as have almost all experts who follow Iranian efforts have—that sanctions are not going to stop Iran’s nuclear program and you insist on clinging to the belief that under no circumstance can Iran be allowed to cross the red line of nuclear weapons capability then bombing Iran seems to be the only logical outcome. The only interesting question then becomes will Israel do it or will the far more capable U.S. military execute the strike.
What is amazing to me is the way the Obama administration has embraced the Bush argument that Iran with a nuclear weapon of whatever reliability will have military and political power that cannot be tolerated. Remember it is the Obama administration that has staked U.S. strategic nuclear posture on the argument that nuclear weapons are not of paramount importance in military or political relationships and is actively devaluing nuclear weapons as an instrument of national power. But at the same time it is arguing that if Iran was even thought to have one or more untested nuclear devices deliverable by unreliable and not terribly accurate missiles it would change the entire balance of power in the Middle East.
Not only is the Obama administration policy beset with cognitive dissonance, it is seriously wrong and more likely to ensure the outcome it does not want—an Iran with a small number of nuclear devices and a devastating war in the Middle East. Rather than hyping the threat of a nuclear Iran, the U.S. should be speaking truth to Iran about the realities of nuclear weapons. A state with a small number of questionable nuclear weapons and limited delivery means, with no effective early warning capability, with no strategic depth to provide warning and recovery time and surrounded by the military capability of the mass and quality that the U.S. and Israel possess is a far greater threat to its own survival than it ever will be to anyone else’s and any advantages that it thinks it would gain are really non-existent. More than economic sanctions and more than heated attack rhetoric in August, a change in Iran’s policy is likely to result from a frank laying out of the uselessness of nuclear weapons as a political or military tool and the likely suicidal consequences of the course upon which Iran has embarked.
A second important reason that accounts for the drums of August, and it is clearly seen in Goldberg’s article, is that Israel is engaged in psychological warfare with the Obama administration—and it only partly concerns Iran.
With regard Iran, Israel clearly understands that any unilateral military action it took against Iran without U.S. knowledge and support could have consequence of strategic importance for Israel and might even make an attack on Iran of limited benefit. Israel would much rather have the U.S. with it in an attack on Iran, or, even better, would be if the U.S. executed the attack entirely on its own.
But beyond Iran, of probably greater importance to the current Israeli government is avoiding the Obama administration pushing it into a choice between settlements and territorial arrangements with the Palestinians that it is unwilling to make and permanent damage to its relationship with the U.S. Hyping the Iranian nuclear program and the need for early military action is a nice bargaining counter. The U.S. certainly cannot join or lead an attack on Iran while pushing the Israeli government to the brink on settlements and concessions to the Palestinians. Or if the U.S. wants to avoid an imminent Israeli strike, it must make concessions to Israel on the Palestinian issues.
Soon summer will pass with all of its heat and passions and we all will have to return to our real worlds so what are the real consequence of a little summer war fever? The reality is that the U.S. over the last three administrations has pursued a policy toward Iran and its nuclear program that is a clear failure. We have hyped the threat of Iran to our friends when we should have been talking about the dead end that Iran is approaching which will leave it with no real advantages and put in real danger the survival of the Islamic Republic and even the Persian nation. We have seemed to give real political and military value to nuclear weapons in an administration that articulates a belief that such weapons have no value going forward. We cling to a belief, without any supporting evidence, that economic sanctions will stop Iran’s nuclear activities and we will not talk or think about how we can easily nullify the consequence of Iran succeeding in its nuclear ambitions and do so without venturing down the path of another war in the Middle East. The real question that outlasts the summer is why the U.S. has lost the strategic élan that successfully steered the world through the far more dangerous waters of the Cold War.