It's Time to Get Tough on Iran

It may be Iran, not the United States or Israel, that strikes the blow that sets off an international conflict. President Obama must act firmly with the Islamic Republic to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control.

The media has recently been rife with speculation about the possibility of a U.S. or Israeli preventive strike on Iran's nuclear infrastructure -- from former CIA Director Michael Hayden's observation last month that the drift toward military action against Iran appears "inexorable" to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen's recent statement that the U.S. military has drawn up plans to attack the Islamic Republic. But, given recent developments in Iran, it is at least as likely that an increasingly belligerent Tehran will be the one that makes the move that sparks a conflict with the United States -- whether by an act of terrorism, by facilitating insurgent attacks in Iraq or Afghanistan, or by a military provocation in the Gulf or elsewhere -- unless Washington, acting with both caution and firmness, moves to avert such an eventuality.

There are a number of reasons that Iran, rather than the United States or Israel, may act first. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and other senior officials have proclaimed on numerous occasions their belief that the United States is a declining power, that the international order that underpinned U.S. influence is crumbling, and that U.S. strength has been sapped by long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In his September 2008 address to the U.N. General Assembly, Ahmadinejad asserted that the "American empire … is reaching the end of its road," while in his speech to the same body a year later, he heralded the coming demise of "liberalism and capitalism," decried the failure of "the political and economic structures created following … World War II," and called for the reform of the United Nations, the international economic order, and the entire system of international relations. Khamenei has likewise declared, during a meeting with Iranian legislators in Tehran this June, that "capitalism is collapsing" and that "big changes are taking place with regard to the position of the United States."

Iran has also been reassured by Israel's growing isolation, which it sees as part of a long-term process leading to the demise of the Jewish state, and has been emboldened by the slow but steady progress made by its own nuclear and missile programs. Thus, sensing weakness in its enemies and perceiving an opportunity, Iran's leaders might be tempted to hasten this process of "decline" by making a move intended to humiliate the United States and highlight the limits of American power.

Iran has been irked by the U.S. role in passing four rounds of U.N. sanctions and by what it sees as a hostile American hand behind the emergence of a popular democratic opposition movement. In response to the most recent round of sanctions, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said that any countries that "inspect Iranian air and ship cargos" for contraband in compliance with the sanctions would be the target of "tough action against their ships in the Persian Gulf and Sea of Oman." His warning, which was echoed by several senior military officials, might well set the stage for a naval confrontation.

Moreover, the Islamic Republic also blames the United States for the July 15 double suicide bombing of a Shiite mosque in the city of Zahedan, the latest in a series of attacks by Jundallah, a Sunni extremist group based in the southeastern province of Sistan and Baluchestan. Following the Zahedan attack, a senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer, Brig. Gen. Massoud Jazayeri, warned that the United States will face unspecified "fallout" for this incident.

Iran also appears to be stepping up support for insurgent attacks against departing U.S. troops in Iraq, in order to create the impression that the United States was forced out of the country. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, recently stated that Iran is arming and training three Iraqi groups -- Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Moqtada al-Sadr's Promised Day Brigade, and Kataeb Hezbollah -- and he warned that Kataeb Hezbollah was planning, with the help of Iranian advisors on the ground in Iraq, to ramp up attacks on U.S. troops. Indeed, one of these groups was likely behind the rocket attack three weeks ago that killed three security guards employed by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.

Relatively recent personnel changes in the Iranian military command structure have created additional concerns about Iranian intentions. Ahmadinejad's new defense minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, made his career in the Quds Force -- the branch of the IRGC involved in terrorism and the export of the Islamic Revolution. He was personally implicated in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. servicemen, as well as other acts of terrorism. And the recently appointed commander of the IRGC navy, Vice Adm. Ali Fadavi, led IRGC naval forces in the Persian Gulf near the end of the Iran-Iraq War, when they were bloodied by the U.S. Navy. He is reputed to be a hard-liner driven by a desire to avenge this humiliation and the accidental 1988 downing of an Iranian jetliner by the U.S. military. Both were among the chorus of voices warning foreign powers not to board and search Iranian ships in accordance with recent U.N. sanctions.

While some of Iran's leaders may well be content to continue down the country's current path, pursuing a slow-motion nuclear breakout and stoking Arab-Israeli tensions in Gaza or Lebanon, others might welcome, for domestic political reasons, a limited conflict with the United States. This could take the form of a clash with U.S. naval forces in the Gulf or an act that prompts retaliatory U.S. airstrikes but spares Iran's economic infrastructure and its armed forces. Iran's leadership might hope that such a clash would divert attention from the economic hardships caused by sanctions, provide a pretext for a more severe crackdown on the domestic opposition, and rally a divided population behind an embattled and unpopular regime. For these reasons, diplomacy currently serves U.S. interests, while a limited conflict may serve the interests of some senior policymakers in the Islamic Republic.

All these factors, plus the insular nature of Iranian leadership, which sometimes seems to believe its own propaganda about U.S. decline and growing Iranian strength, could cause Iran to miscalculate or overreach, perhaps by sponsoring an act of terrorism, provoking U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf -- as Iranian small boats have done in the past -- or ramping up support for insurgent groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The United States should respond to this heightened potential for conflict by putting Tehran on notice that it is prepared for these eventualities, by quietly sending unambiguous signals to Iran through diplomatic and military channels and the media. This should give Tehran reason for pause, because a covert attack against an alert enemy is less likely to succeed and more likely to be traced to its source. Indeed, Odierno's recent warnings that Iranian-sponsored groups were planning attacks in Iraq are a good first step in this regard.

The United States should also indicate that it is prepared to respond firmly to future Iranian provocations. Washington's ability to deter aggressive Iranian actions is undermined by a track record of not responding, or responding tentatively, to past Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks, such as the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Lebanon and the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. The United States has also eschewed responding to Iranian provocations, such as mock attacks and simulated mining of the Persian Gulf. In the past, restraint may have had the merit of avoiding further escalation. However, given the current mindset of key leaders in Tehran, restraint is likely to be interpreted as weakness -- and will only embolden and strengthen hard-liners, begetting further challenges.

Washington should also inform Tehran that it will not necessarily respond in a symmetrical or proportionate manner to Iranian provocations, as it did when trying to contain a recalcitrant Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, a terrorist attack will not necessarily prompt limited strikes that are restricted to terrorist training camps, and provocations at sea may not jeopardize only the boats that participated in these activities. This should cause hawkish leaders in Tehran to question whether they can effectively manage the risk associated with a confrontation, thereby strengthening U.S. deterrence vis-à-vis Iran.

Finally, it is important to understand how events elsewhere in the world will be read in Tehran. For instance, Iran will be watching how the United States handles the ongoing crisis caused by the recent sinking of a South Korean corvette -- apparently by a North Korean submarine. Continued tensions on the Korean Peninsula could create an impression in Tehran that the U.S. military is stretched too thin to respond effectively to a crisis in the Gulf, while a failure to maintain pressure on North Korea might convince Iran that it has room to engage in brinkmanship with the United States.

In light of these concerns and the high stakes involved, it would be prudent to take precautionary measures to avert a confrontation with Tehran that could provide a pretext for a crackdown on Iran's democratic opposition, further complicate ongoing nuclear diplomacy, and perhaps lead to further escalation.

President Barack Obama came into office committed to reducing tensions with Iran and transforming the troubled relationship between the two countries by offering an outstretched hand and an open dialogue with that country's leaders. These are, of course, laudable goals that remain on the table. Ironically, however, if diplomacy is to still have a chance and he is to achieve these goals, Obama will also have to convince Tehran that his outstretched hand can be formed into a fist. While continuing to pursue dialogue, Washington must act cautiously yet firmly with the Islamic Republic to succeed in managing tensions today and avoiding a larger confrontation in the future.



The Weak Case for War with Iran

Jeffrey Goldberg's new article in the Atlantic is deeply reported -- and deeply wrong about the Middle East. But it's his misunderstanding of America that is most dangerous of all.

Amid widespread skepticism that sanctions will stop Tehran's nuclear development and grudging, belated recognition that the Green Movement will not deliver a more pliable Iranian government, a growing number of commentators are asking the question, "What does President Obama do next on Iran?"

For hawks, the answer is war. Last month, in The Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht made the case for an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets. With the publication of Jeffrey Goldberg's "The Point of No Return" in the Atlantic, the campaign for war against Iran is now arguing that the United States should attack so Israel won't have to.

To be sure, Goldberg never explicitly writes that "the United States should bomb Iran." But he argues that, unless Israel is persuaded that Obama will order an attack, "there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July."  And Goldberg's Israeli interlocutors readily acknowledge that the United States could mount a far more robust air campaign against Iranian nuclear targets than Israel could. A much more limited Israeli strike "may cause Iran to redouble its efforts-this time with a measure of international sympathy-to create a nuclear arsenal [and] cause chaos for America in the Middle East," he acknowledges. Goldberg believes the Obama administration understands that "perhaps the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real." But there is a clear implication that, if threat alone does not work, better for the United States to pull the trigger than Israel.

Goldberg's reporting on Israeli thinking about Iran -- reflecting interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers" -- including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- is exemplary. Unlike Gerecht, Goldberg does not skirt the potentially negative consequences of war. But Goldberg's reporting also reveals that the case for attacking Iran -- especially for America to attack so Israel won't -- is even flimsier than the case Goldberg helped make for invading Iraq in 2002, in a New Yorker article alleging that "the relationship between Saddam's regime and Al Qaeda is far closer than previously thought."

Goldberg's case for war on Iran starts with the Holocaust -- and a view of the Islamic Republic as a latter-day Third Reich, under ideologically obsessed, anti-Semitic leadership to which "rational deterrence theory ... might not apply." Israelis across the political spectrum have bought the argument that Iran is an "existential threat," he writes. But, as Goldberg himself acknowledges, this is not true. He recounts his realization of the "contradiction" captured in a photograph of Israeli fighter planes flying over Auschwitz that he saw "in more than a dozen different offices" at Israel's defense ministry:

"If the Jewish physicists who created Israel's nuclear arsenal could somehow have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent a squadron of fighters back to 1942, then the problem of Auschwitz would have been solved in 1942. In other words, the creation of a serious Jewish military capability-a nuclear bomb, say, or the Israeli air force-during World War II would have meant a quicker end to the Holocaust. It is fair to say, then, that the existence of the Israeli air force, and of Israel's nuclear arsenal, means axiomatically that the Iranian nuclear program is not the equivalent of Auschwitz." (emphasis added)

Moreover, the Islamic Republic is not Hitler's Germany, particularly regarding Jews. No matter how many anti-Zionist or even anti-Semitic quotes Gerecht, Goldberg, and others may marshal from Iranian politicians, inconvenient realities undermine the Islamic Republic/Third Reich analogy: Roughly 25,000-30,000 Jews continue living in Iran, with civil status equal to other Iranians and a constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary seat. It is illegal in the Islamic Republic for Muslims to consume alcohol --but Jews (and Christians) are permitted wine for religious ceremonies and personal consumption. Iranian politicians frequently question Israel's legitimacy and predict demographics will ultimately produce a "one-state" solution in Palestine. It's true that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made provocative statements questioning the Holocaust. But neither Ahmadinejad nor any other Iranian leader has threatened to destroy Israel by initiating military conflict.

Fixating on Ahmadinejad's rhetoric obscures the fact that normalized U.S.-Iranian relations would profoundly benefit Israel -- just as Henry Kissinger's engagement with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s decisively changed regional dynamics to preclude any possibility of another generalized Arab-Israeli war. It is only in retrospect that Sadat -- an open admirer of Hitler who worked with Germany against Britain during World War II and not only made vicious anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic statements but launched a war that killed and injured thousands of Israelis -- is depicted as a "man of peace."

Goldberg ascribes Netanyahu's concern about the "existential threat" from Iran to the influence of Netanyahu's father -- a revisionist scholar who upended historiography of the Spanish Inquisition by focusing on its anti-Semitic roots. But Netanyahu père's worldview does not permit rational calculation of threat or diplomatic contributions to Israel's security. Ben Zion Netanyahu opposed Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin over peace with Egypt and, in an interview last year, said of Arabs that they are "an enemy by essence ...  [T]he only thing that might move the Arabs from the rejectionist position is force."

This is a strategically obtuse outlook, the influence of which on the current Israeli government's decision-making can only be pernicious. But Goldberg's reporting on his conversations with Israeli generals, national-security policymakers, and politicians makes clear that, in fact, those at the top of Israel's political order understand Iran's nuclear program is not an "existential threat." His interlocutors recognize Iran is unlikely to invite its own destruction by attacking Israel directly. Rather, they say, a nuclear Iran "will progressively undermine [Israel's] ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens," according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality," Barak tells Goldberg. "Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here ... Our young people can consciously decide to go other places [and] stay out of here by choice."

Ephraim Sneh, retired general and former deputy defense minister, also describes the non-existential nature of the Iranian "threat":

"[Israelis] are good citizens, and brave citizens, but the dynamics of life are such that if ... someone finishes a Ph.D. and they are offered a job in America, they might stay there ... The bottom line is that we would have an accelerated brain drain."

In other words, Israeli elites want the United States to attack Iran's nuclear program -- with the potentially negative repercussions that Goldberg acknowledges -- so that Israel will not experience "a dilution of quality" or "an accelerated brain drain." Sneh argues that "if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a ‘natural safe haven', then its raison d'être will have been subverted."

To be sure, the United States has an abiding commitment to Israel's security. But, just as surely, preventing "dilution of quality" or bolstering Israelis' perceptions regarding their country's raison d'être can never give an American president a just or strategically sound cause for initiating war. And make no mistake: Bombing Iran's nuclear facilities would mean war.

Netanyahu himself admits that the challenges posed by a nuclear Iran "are more subtle than a direct attack," noting that "you'd create a sea change in the balance of power in our area." This is another major point in the Israeli case for war that deserves unpacking -- and debunking. Goldberg points out that "Persian and Jewish civilizations have not forever been enemies." In fact, the Islamic Republic and Israel have not forever been enemies. During the Iran-Iraq war, Israel -- over Washington's objections -- sold weapons to Iran, and was involved in U.S. President Ronald Reagan's subsequent outreach to Tehran (which imploded in the Iran-Contra scandal).

However, Israeli-Iranian geopolitical dynamics changed with the Cold War's end, the Soviet Union's collapse, and the removal of Iraq's military as a factor in the regional balance of power through the first Gulf War. Since then, Israel has deemed Iran its principal rival for regional hegemony -- and the Islamic Republic views what it sees as Israel's hegemonic ambitions as threatening its vital interests.

Israeli elites want to preserve a regional balance of power strongly tilted in Israel's favor and what an Israeli general described to Goldberg as "freedom of action" --the freedom to use force unilaterally, anytime, for whatever purpose Israel wants. The problem with Iranian nuclear capability -- not just weapons, but capability  -- is that it might begin constraining Israel's currently unconstrained "freedom of action." In May, retired Israeli military officers, diplomats, and intelligence officials conducted a war game that assumed Iran had acquired "nuclear weapons capability." Participants subsequently told Reuters that such capability does not pose an "existential threat" to Israel -- but "would blunt Israel's military autonomy."

One may appreciate Israel's desire to maximize its military autonomy. But, in an already conflicted region, Israel's assertion of military hegemony is itself a significant contributor to instability and the risk of conflict. Certainly, maximizing Israel's freedom of unilateral military initiative is not a valid rationale for the United States to start a war with Iran. Just imagine how Obama would explain such reasoning to the American people.

So, what should Obama do? Goldberg concludes with a story told by Israeli President Shimon Peres about Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. When Ben-Gurion met U.S. president-elect John F. Kennedy in late 1960, Kennedy asked what he could do for Israel. Ben-Gurion replied, "What you can do is be a great president of the United States."

Regarding Iran, what constitutes "greatness" for Obama? Clearly, Obama will not achieve greatness by acquiescing to another fraudulently advocated and strategically damaging war in the Middle East. He could, however, achieve greatness by doing with Iran what Richard Nixon did with Egypt and China -- realigning previously antagonistic relations with important countries in ways that continue serving the interests of America and its allies more than three decades later.