Wednesday, March 14, 2012

When Will Israel Attack Iran

The question keeps being asked, but I think the answer remains pretty much the same: Israel is not going to attack Iran. If it were going to do so, we would be having the same sort of after-the-fact discussion we had when Israel bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor back in 1981, or Syria's under-construction reactor in 2007. Instead we are seeing an odd form of lobbying and advocacy - to the effect of, "We're going to bomb Iran soon, perhaps within weeks or even days, but we'll refrain from bombing Iran if you (the U.S.) promise to do the job for us at a fixed point in time in the future."

Let's also recall that we've been warned that Iran is only a few years away from developing nuclear weapons for roughly twenty years - by the same guy who's presently pressing for war. Let's also remember that an attack means at best a delay of two, three, five years before we're either back to war or confronting a nuclear-armed Iran. That is, assuming everything goes perfectly, the day after we successfully obliterate Iran's entire nuclear weapons program it will remain accurate to say that Iran could have nuclear weapons in two or three years. And things won't go perfectly.

So far, President Obama appears to have outmaneuvered Netanyahu, imposing sanctions that (like most sanctions) are probably counter-productive but make it look like the west is "doing something", engineering a probable new round of negotiations with Iran with a possibility of weapons inspections, giving Israel some new bunker-busters (again) that it can use should it decide to bomb Iran (and work out the logistics of getting its jets there and back - easier said than done), and made the Republican candidates' demagoguery sound pretty childish. (Unilateral sanctions, anyone?) Perhaps, though, it's more accurate to say that Obama has outmaneuvered the voices in the Republican Party and his own that are pushing for yet another war, with Netanyahu being more of the spokesperson for that mindset than the driving force behind the "war now" crowd.

Pat Buchanan cynically imagines that an October showdown or war with Iran that "will mean the nation rallies around [President Obama] and he wins a second term". I think it's pretty obvious that's not either how the President sees things, nor is it consistent with reality. Again, if we were talking Syria in 2007 or Iraq in 1981, this would be a done deal. We're talking instead about a nation that could cause real problems for the U.S. in its continuing missions in the Middle East, and could cause problems for Israel around the globe. The last thing the President needs is for gas prices to spike and the economy to tank, right before an election, even if he could thump his chest and say "We're at war." Any showdown short of war will look pretty much like the status quo.

Two big issues that don't seem to get enough attention in the coverage of the push for war are what the war would look like, and what would be the likely result or benefit. If we assume that Iran's nuclear program could be mostly eliminated exclusively through a sustained bombing campaign, I suspect that we would be hitting enough nuclear and nuclear-related sites in civilian centers that the pictures of collateral damage coming out of Iran would be highly inflammatory and harmful to U.S. interests. A land war? Some may want it, but given recent history I don't think that there's a high probability of that type of multi-trillion dollar war of choice. I've heard a number of accounts suggesting that there is strong opposition to an attack on Iran from within the U.S. military - and I can't say I find that surprising. National security writer Thomas Ricks shares his perspective,
A nuclear Iran is not good, and not preferable, but it is not the end of the world. To bomb makes little sense and may be the policy equivalent of committing suicide out of the fear of death.
Ricks compares containment to what we face with Pakistan and North Korea, but I suspect that it would actually be easier to contain Iran, as it's my impression that Iran's goal is to be at the point that it can assemble and test a nuclear weapon at any time it chooses, but that it does not actually intend to do so (for religious and practical reasons) unless its hand is forced. Before Iran is a meaningful threat to the region it not only needs to successfully test a nuclear device, it needs to have a viable means of delivering that device into another nation's territory. Iran knows that there's a substantial chance that a successful nuclear test will trigger an immediate war with the U.S., whereas being the turn of a key away from producing a weapon would allow it to demonstrate a nuclear deterrent should a foreign nation start to mobilize for attack.

Tom Engelhardt sees the President's position as unduly hawkish,
The president had offered a new definition of “aggression” against this country and a new war doctrine to go with it. He would, he insisted, take the U.S. to war not to stop another nation from attacking us or even threatening to do so, but simply to stop it from building a nuclear weapon - and he would act even if that country were incapable of targeting the United States. That should have been news.
But it's not news, because the same thing has been implied for the past twenty years. Also, I expect that the U.S. would (continue to) justify its actions under the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, and would push hard for UN approval of any military action. Beyond that, rhetoric about nations that are "our enemies" has been at times over-the-top pretty much since the time we started to have Presidents.

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