Fears of a bomb in Tehran’s hands are overhyped, and a war to prevent it would be a disaster.
The sanctions on Iran have probably contributed to Tehran’s willingness to negotiate as well. Unless carefully wedded to diplomacy, however, sanctions risk being a counterproductive demonstration of Western hostility. Besides being serious about searching for a mutually acceptable formula of inspections and procedures that would safeguard against Iranian use of nuclear material for military purposes (and which may need to permit some Iranian enrichment of uranium), Western negotiators need to persuade the Iranians that concessions on their part will lead to the lifting of sanctions. This may be hard to do, partly because the legislation that imposes U.S. sanctions on Iran mentions human rights and other issues besides the nuclear program, and partly because many U.S. hawks openly regard sanctions only as a tool to promote regime change or as a necessary step toward being able to say that “diplomacy and sanctions have failed,” and thus launching a war is the only option left. The challenge for the Obama administration is to persuade Tehran that this attitude does not reflect official policy.
Why would anyone, weighing all the costs and risks on each side of this issue, even consider starting a war with Iran? The short answer is that neocon habits die hard. It might seem that the recent experience of the Iraq War should have entirely discredited such proclivities, or at least dampened policymakers’ inclination to listen to those who have them. But the war in Iraq may have instead inured the American public to the extreme measure of an offensive war, at least when it involves weapons of mass destruction and loathsome Middle Eastern regimes.
The Iranian government has provided good reason for Americans to loathe it, from its harsh suppression of the Green Movement to the anti-Semitic rants and other outrageous statements of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Unfortunately the belligerent rhetoric in Iran feeds belligerent rhetoric in the United States and vice versa, in a process that yields beliefs on each side that go beyond the reality on the other side. The demonization of Iran in American discourse has gone on for so long that even unsupported common wisdom is taken for granted. The excesses of the Republican primary campaign have contributed to the pattern. Michele Bachmann, for example, may be out of the race, but when she stated that the Iranian president “has said that if he has a nuclear weapon he will use it to wipe Israel off the face of the Earth,” it was the sort of untruth that has tended to stick in the current climate (never mind that Iran claims it doesn’t even want nuclear weapons).
As for Israel, it is impossible to ignore how much, in American politics, the Iran issue is an Israel issue. The Netanyahu government’s own repeated invocation of an Iranian nuclear threat has several roots, including the desire to preserve Israel’s regional nuclear weapons monopoly, the usefulness of having Iran stand in as the region’s “real problem” to divert attention from the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and simple emotion and fear. What American politicians don’t seem to understand but any reader of Haaretz would know is that many leading Israelis, whose experience demonstrates both their deep commitment to Israel’s security and their expertise in pronouncing on it, see the issue differently. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan described the idea of an Israeli air strike on Iranian nuclear facilities as “the stupidest thing I have ever heard.” Another former Mossad head, Efraim Halevy, and the current director of the service, Tamir Pardo, have both recently denied that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an existential threat to Israel. Even Defense Minister Barak, in an interview answer from which he later tried to backtrack, acknowledged that any Iranian interest in a nuclear weapon was “not just about Israel,” but an understandable interest given the other countries that are already in the nuclear club.
If Iran acquired the bomb, Israel would retain overwhelming military superiority, with its own nuclear weapons—which international think tanks estimate to number at least 100 and possibly 200—conventional forces, and delivery systems that would continue to outclass by far anything Iran will have. That is part of the reason why an Iranian nuclear weapon would not be an existential threat to Israel and would not give Iran a license to become more of a regional troublemaker. But a war with Iran, begun by either Israel or the United States, would push Israel farther into the hole of perpetual conflict and regional isolation. Self-declared American friends of Israel are doing it no favor by talking up such a war.
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