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December 6, 2011
You remember the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Doomsday Clock which graced its monthly cover in the 1950s? Periodically, the organization would announce how close we were to Nuclear Midnight depending on how grave relations were between the two major nuclear powers, the Russians and U.S.
Similarly, each day developments concerning Iran move my Doomsday Clock a minute closer or farther from midnight. Right now, my sense is they’re at about four minutes till. Everyone has their own conception of how dire things may be. Maybe you’re at quarter till or one minute till. Regardless of how close to the threshold we are, most of us would agree we are somewhere very close to it.
If war comes, at least for me it will be qualitatively different from most of the wars the U.S. has pursued in my adulthood. The Gulf War you could justify based on Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Afghanistan you could justify based on 9/11. With the Iraq War at least Bush-Cheney ginned up severe threats of WMD and Saddam seemed a genuinely evil dictator. With Iran, if it happens, it will be different. Iran, unlike Iraq, has not invaded any country (we can leave aside the issue of terrorism for now since an invasion is qualitatively different from supporting proxies engaged in acts of terror). Unlike Iraq, it is ruled by strongmen-Ayatollahs, but this is nowhere near the dictatorial powers wielded in Iraq. Iran even has vestiges of a democratic system, though it isn’t fully democratic. Iran has a vastly more capable military force than Iraq with more sophisticated weapons. And Iran fought and vanquished Saddam in an eight year-long war that tested the nation’s mettle in a way that neither Americans nor Israelis have been tested in decades.
There is no international consensus to attack Iran as there was in the conflicts I referenced above. Obama and Netanyahu will have to face an intense level of opposition in the rest of the world to any strike against Iran. And once the Iranian response is felt, that opposition promises only to grow. As Obama enters a re-election campaign, I can’t imagine him winning if the Democratic left-liberals abandon him, as they would if he either participated in or supported an Israeli attack on Iran. He may count on a short war which would be long behind him by Election Day. But I can’t see how Iran turns into a short engagement given the latter’s resiliency in the face of other indomitable foes it’s faced. I fear Obama (and certainly Israel) is making a major and disastrous miscalculation.
That’s why I think the notion of a Doomsday Clock and Nuclear Midnight is apt in the case of Iran. Not to mention, that we’re once again arguing about nukes as we were with the Russkies in the 1950s. Though I don’t think the issues are anywhere near the same today. I think the issue of an Iranian bomb is not really the main issue. I don’t think anyone truly believes the Iranians will use a nuclear weapon, though that’s what the warhawks claims to believe. For Israel, as I’ve written here, the issues with Iran revolve around regional hegemony. The former has never liked having charismatic Arab leaders to compete with (viz. Nasser), and always takes the first opportunity to cut such figures down to size. Israel wants to maintain its prerogatives and will brook no opposition on that score. No one crimps Israel’s style.
Another fear that motivates Israeli bellicosity around Iran is that with a nuclear arsenal the latter can buttress its solidarity with the Palestinians and other frontline states. Not that Iran would threaten to use nuclear weapons. I think the Ayatollahs are too shrewd for that. But the mere fact that there is a regional Muslim power with a weapon acts as an unstated insurance policy for the Arab cause. It offers a red line beyond which Israel may not go unless it wishes to provoke the ire of a nuclearized Iran. This constraint on Israeli power is also viewed as insufferable by Tel Aviv.
Now an explanation from the day’s news why the situation today seems so dire: first, Bibi Netanyahu yesterday gave another one of his infuriating ‘history-lesson’ speeches about how he has a rendezvous with history. Except, instead of Churchill’s rendezvous with history, Bibi has a rendezvous with David Ben Gurion and Jewish history. You see, the decision to attack Iran is at least as decisive in the history of Israel as Ben Gurion’s decision to declare Israeli independence. At times like this I think back fondly on Lloyd Bentsen’s brilliant put down of Dan Quayle. In Israeli terms it would go like this: “I knew David Ben Gurion (or ‘BG’ in Israeli terminology), I was friends with BG, you are no BG!”
Here are some of Bibi’s words:
Great statesmen as well as friends of the Jews and of Zionism” warned Ben-Gurion that declaring a Jewish state in 1948 would bring an invasion of Arab armies and a “grave and difficult battle”, Netanyahu said.
“He understood full well the decision carried a heavy price, but he believed not making that decision had a heavier price,” Netanyahu said. “We are all here today because Ben-Gurion made the right decision at the right moment. Today we are all in agreement it was a considered, correct and responsible decision. I want to believe we will always act with responsibility, courage and determination to make the right decisions to ensure our future and security,” Netanyahu said.
Although Netanyahu didn’t mention Iran or its nuclear program in his speech, it was quite clear that Netanyahu was using his speech to draw a comparison between himself and Ben-Gurion, and between Ben-Gurion’s decision to proclaim the foundation of the State of Israel and the decisions he, Netanyahu, is facing today to counter the Iranian nuclear threat.
How dare this two-bit tin-pot megalomaniac take the mantle of Winston Churchill or David Ben Gurion. World War II and 1948 were indeed periods in which humanity was in the crucible of history. Epochal decisions were made. The decision to attack Iran, if it is made, will be nothing more than an expression of one leader and nation’s deep level of paranoia. Such an attack will go down in history as a monumental catastrophe for all parties involved. At least Avner Cohen can be consoled because he believes such idiocy can be redeemed by the declaration of the Middle East as a nuclear free zone. I wish I had Avner’s optimism. I think it might lead the region even deeper into the swamp of fratricide, if not genocide.
Besides Bibi’s “Sword of David” speech, the Telegraph reports that Ayatollah Khameini and Iran’s highest military officials have raised the readiness of the country’s armed forces to their highest level. Presumably, leaves have been cancelled, readiness drills are underway, missiles and other advanced weapons systems are being dispersed throughout the country in order to prevent their being targeted in an attack and enabling them to survive to deal a return blow against any attacker:
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s spiritual leader, issued a directive to the heads of all the country’s military, intelligence and security organisations to take all necessary measures to protect the regime.
Gen Jaafari responded to this directive by ordering Revolutionary Guards units to redistribute Iran’s arsenal of long-range Shahab missiles to secret sites around the country where they would be safe from enemy attack and could be used to launch retaliatory attacks.
In addition, the Iranian air force has formed a number of “rapid reaction units”, which have been carrying out extensive exercises to practice a response to an enemy air attack.
The Iranian leadership fears the country is being subjected to a carefully co-ordinated attack by Western intelligence and security agencies to destroy key elements of its nuclear infrastructure.
In a related matter, the U.S. finally conceded that the drone which crashed inside Iran was, as the Iranians had claimed, its most advanced Sentinel RQ-170 stealth vehicle. It also acknowledged that the craft was being operated by the CIA, thus confirming that its flight had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but was rather a secret spying mission inside Iran. We did deny, though, that the Iranians shot down the plane, saying instead that there was a communications failure that caused it to crash. This would explain why it was relatively intact when it landed. And it would counter the Iranians claim that they succeeded in downing the plane themselves.
This incident calls to mind another one which rattled two earlier superpowers: the Russian downing of Francis Gary Powers’ U-2, which led to a massive escalation in tension between Russia and the U.S. The confrontation was defused by two relatively adult, mature leaders, Kennedy and Khrushchev, who negotiated a prisoner exchange which brought Powers home. Frankly, I doubt we have such a quality of leadership. Today, our leaders are more likely to drag us deeper into a quagmire than extricate us from one as the two leaders did in 1962.
As in those days, everyone in Iran and the U.S. knows that we’re doing this, but to have the evidence right out in the open creates an even higher level of paranoia on both sides (but especially the Iranian). If it weren’t for the loss of its most advanced surveillance and stealth technology, I don’t think the U.S. would mind the level of anger this will generate within Iran. Our policymakers would say: if it gets the average Iranian riled up, it might make the Ayatollahs do something really stupid which we can exploit and use against them.
The Iranians aren’t the only ones who are paranoid and misconstruing reality. A top state department non proliferation expert rattled sabers today:
“Iran…is becoming a pariah state,” Robert Einhorn, the U.S. State Department senior adviser for non-proliferation and arms control, told a news conference in the South Korean capital.
“The situation in Iran has become more and more worrisome. The timeline for its nuclear programme is beginning to get shorter, so it is important we take these strong steps on an urgent basis.
“If we do not, pressures will grow for much stronger actions. The U.S. favours a diplomatic solution pressure, but if we cannot achieve a diplomatic solution soon, inevitably interests will grow in a different kind of solution.
“Nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Know what I mean?” to quote Monty Python.
Yesterday, Leon Panetta got into the act. In a speech in which he practically pistol-whipped Israel and told it to “get back to the damn table” with the Palestinians, he made some outrageous overstatements about the Iranian threat and what we plan to do about it:
Mr. Panetta spoke to the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution…[and] identified Iran as the most significant national security threat facing the United States, allies and partners in the region.
Notable was the phrasing of a warning to Iran: that any action to block free transit of regional oil shipments and other commerce would be a “redline,” a term describing an unacceptable action that would be countered with an American response.
“No greater threat exists to the security and prosperity of the Middle East than a nuclear-armed Iran,” Mr. Panetta said, noting that a “pillar of our approach to the region is our determination to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.”
He pledged the United States was committed to deterring Iran’s “destabilizing activities, particularly those that could threaten the free flow of commerce throughout this vital region. That is a ‘redline’ for the United States.”
American policy to shape Iranian action would use both inducements and penalties, diplomacy and economic sanctions, he said. But the Pentagon would always have military options ready for the president’s consideration, Mr. Panetta said.
“That’s a responsibility I take very seriously, because when it comes to the threat posed by Iran, the president has made it very clear that we have not taken any options off the table,” Mr. Panetta said.
There are several outrageous, but interesting aspects to this passage. First, Panetta warns Iran that closing the Straits of Hormuz would be a casus belli in American eyes. Of course, Iran has not threatened to do so unless IT is attacked. So either the U.S. is deliberately distorting the scenario so it appears that Iran might engage in an act worthy of a U.S. declaration of war; or he’s warning the Iranians that if future attacks against Iran which the U.S. and Israel have planned, ever give the regime the idea that it can use closing the Straits as a tactical tool, they ought to think again.
Second, Panetta’s claim that Iran is the greatest threat to the stability and security of the region is blatantly false. Whatever level of threat Iran may pose, Israel poses as great or greater one. It has 200-400 nuclear weapons. It, as Panetta himself conceded in this same speech, is a pariah in the region despised by almost everyone in ways it wasn’t as recently as a year or two ago. Israel, contrary to Iran, has shown itself more than willing to attack and invade neighboring countries in attacks causing the deaths of thousands of civilians. Israel, contrary to its claims, has remained unwilling to compromise in ways that might resolve the serial conflicts with any of the frontline states.
Returning to the issue of sanctions, another NY Times article about their disruptive impact not just on the Iranian economy but on the world oil economy contains this prescient warning from a prominent Iranian-American analyst:
“At some point, sanctions become an act of war,” said Vali Nasr, a professor at Tufts University and an expert on Iranian affairs. “If you cut Iran out of the oil market, this is no longer economic pressure.”
What especially troubles me is that we, the U.S. are being led by the nose in this belligerency toward Iran. This is not our fight. Iran is not our mortal enemy. It does not pose an existential threat to us. Nor does it to Israel, but that’s another topic I’ve previously addressed. Even with a nuclear weapon, Iran will pose no greater threat to world stability than Pakistan or North Korea. The key is to manage the threat and not to eradicate it with violence.
I am not arguing that Iran is not a danger to the region. It clearly is. But it does not pose as great a danger, to my mind, as Israel does. Instead of contemplating war to end the Iranian threat, we ought to be contemplating what inducements we could offer the Iranians to end their program. Barring that, we should begin considering George Kennan’s approach of containing Iranian power, rather than going toe to toe against it.
The series of conflicts we’ve engaged in over the past decade have shown that American power is no long pre-eminent or omnipotent. America can lose. If a foe is persistent enough and has access to lethal-enough means, our enemies can make us bleed. And America is growing weary of its boys dying on desert sands in faraway lands. I don’t think Pres. Obama can make the case for going into yet another Middle East guerrilla conflict whose impact could last years.
I foresee an attack on Iran possibly turning into the type of morass which Napoleon and Hitler entered when they each decided to invade Russia. This in turn led to them each facing a monumental defeat that led to their ultimate demise. Iran too might be that sort of black hole for U.S. and Israeli power. No, we wouldn’t be invading Iran in the same way they did. But an attack on Iran would draw such a furious counterattack, that even against our will we might be drawn into a campaign of regime change. Such a plan would require boots on the ground and an invasion. Then we would be talking along the lines of Napoleon and Hitler’s folly.
As days like this mount up, as the threats, paranoia, and bellicosity rise, I become more and more convinced that an attack is likely.
This article appeared at Tikun Olam