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.



How to Debate Ahmadinejad

Five tips for winning an argument with the Iranian president. 

Last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad publicly challenged U.S. President Barack Obama to a face-to-face televised debate on solving the world's problems. For understandable reasons, the White House quickly dismissed the invitation, just as President George W. Bush did with a similar offer in 2006. But Ahmadinejad's gambit is a tantalizing opportunity to imagine how Obama's rhetorical abilities might stand up in a direct competition with his Iranian counterpart.

Despite the popular perception in the United States that the Iranian president is an irrational and unstable character, the reality is that Ahmadinejad is a shrewd politician with a skillful command of debating tactics. His preferred method of debate is to masterfully spin out rhetorical questions, combative statements, ad hominem arguments, and sarcastic remarks in order to muddle the discussion to an extent that the original topic of conversation becomes indistinct to both his rivals and audience.

As a master of the fine art of spin, he can appeal to groups of diverse backgrounds by speaking a language to which they can relate. In the 2005 presidential debates, he successfully defeated the powerful conservative politician Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani by portraying himself as a liberal-minded politician and, hence, a supporter of middle-class segments of Iranian society. During the televised presidential debates in 2009, he cleverly outmaneuvered his rivals by questioning their motives, personal integrity, and loyalty to the regime. In one particular debate, he was so effective at portraying the reformist Mehdi Karroubi as a corrupt insider who had taken campaign donations from convicted criminals that some of Karroubi's supporters turned against their candidate.

So, in an imaginary debate, how could Obama defeat Ahmadinejad? What follows are a few suggested tactics based on observing his past performances. They do not guarantee a victory, but they could surely raise serious problems for a controversial leader who has built his popular appeal largely on a series of rhetorical postures.

1. Force him to focus on what he wants to avoid.

Ahmadinejad is famous for his use of red herrings. When it comes to avoiding a problematic topic or evading a question, he peppers his opponents with random questions in order to change the subject or simply use up their time and force them move on to a new subject. In a May interview with ABC's George Stephanopoulos, Ahmadinejad was asked about the possibility that Osama bin Laden was residing in Iran and whether he would expel the al Qaeda leader if he were found there.

"If you did know that Osama bin Laden was in Tehran, would you show him hospitality? Would you expel him? Would you arrest him?" Stephanopoulos asked after several attempts at a straight answer. "I heard that Osama bin Laden is in Washington, D.C.," Ahmadinejad quickly responded. Several minutes of back and forth followed in which the Iranian president continued to avoid the question by talking about bin Laden's alleged close relations with Bush. When an exasperated Stephanopoulos finally asked point blank if Ahmadinejad would deny that bin Laden was in Iran, Ahmadinejad responded, "Rest assured that he's in Washington. I think there's a high chance he's there." That was the end of the interview.

One way of beating Ahmadinejad at this rhetorical game is to throw at him a question or a statement that shifts back to the topic of debate. This is what Mohsen Rezaee, the former Revolutionary Guard commander and conservative candidate, did during the televised presidential debates for the June 2009 election. When Ahmadinejad tried to divert attention from his administration's mishandling of the Iranian economy by posing numerous questions about his opponent's experience in government, Rezaee skillfully reverted back to the economy by urging viewers to read his economic plans online. When Ahmadinejad tried to ask more questions to disrupt the flow of Rezaei's economic argument, the candidate fought back by posing new questions on the president's poor economic record.

In that particular debate, watched by millions of Iranians, Ahmadinejad seemed frustrated. Unable to successfully perform his usual tactics of diversion, he kept shifting to subtle attacks on his opponent's character and personal integrity. Although of course he eventually won the elections under controversial circumstances, many believe he lost the debate with Rezaee by throwing cheap shots and making insignificant arguments that only revealed his arrogance, especially on economic issues.

2. Be specific.

Ahmadinejad's debating style consists of a set of statements that are more like slogans than actual arguments. Like all populists, he usually shies away from specifics, and when he does refer to actual facts, he usually does it to expand on sweeping assertions about the economy or foreign affairs. The fact that Ahmadinejad has been able to avoid discussing nearly any issue in any specificity for so long shows just how skillful a debater he can be.

In a September 2006 interview with NBC's Brian Williams, a question was raised about Iran's large missile arsenal. Ahmadinejad's answer was a generic claim about Iran's desire for justice and peace and how in fact it is the United States that poses the greatest threat to world security because of its conventional and nuclear weapons. He then turned to some general remarks about world history before Williams had a chance to follow up. In the same interview, Williams inquired about Ahmadinejad's rarely seen wife, to which the president replied, "She is an Iranian woman. And just as I am an Iranian too."

By being specific on certain topics -- say, the exact purpose of secret nuclear facility near the city of Qom, or the names of those in the intelligence complex who unleashed violence against the protesters after the disputed 2009 election -- a skillful opponent can slow down or disrupt the flow of Ahmadinejad's generalities. Again, Rezaee is an instructive example. During his debate with Ahmadinejad, he cited the government's own statistics on inflation to discredit the president's claims about the improving economy. Ahmadinejad could only stare on dumbfounded as his argument was picked apart.

This won't stop him from moving on to discuss other unrelated subjects, but it can undermine some of his sound bites and cliché statements that are meant to make the discussion as opaque as possible.

3. Test his knowledge.

Despite his claima of expertise, Ahmadinejad is actually clueless on a wide variety of topics, including his country's political history. This is what Joe Klein of Time magazine discovered during a 2009 interview. After inquiring about Rafsanjani's famous Quds Day speech in 2001, in which the conservative cleric talked about the need for an "Islamic bomb," Ahmadinejad bluntly denied such a speech had actually taken place. Unfortunately, for the president, Klein had actually been present when Rafsanjani had made the remarks. The denial of these events reeks of dishonesty of the highest sort. But maybe it shows that Ahmadinejad is actually not that well informed about subjects in which he claims expertise.

Consider, for instance, the topic on which the president has generated the most international controversy, the Holocaust. A number of American and European reporters have pressed Ahmadinejad on this topic, but no one has to this day asked him what he exactly knows about the Holocaust. What does he know about Auschwitz? What are his thoughts about the Iranian diplomat in Paris who saved many Jews from persecution by issuing them Iranian passports to flee Europe? Rather than debating Ahmadinejad's assertions on this subject, his interlocutors might find it more effective to simply expose how little he knows about it. Such a tactic would have been welcome last weekend when Ahmadinejad told reporters that he doubted 3,000 people were actually killed in the 9/11 attacks and asserted that "Zionists" had been warned in advance.

4. Don't let him under your skin.

Ever since John F. Kennedy wiped the floor with a sweaty, combative Richard Nixon in 1960, smart politicians have understood that in televised debates, what you say is less important than how you say it. Ahmadinejad is no exception. His humble looks, grey jacket, and unkempt beard might not win him points in a fashion show, but his tough-talking style has won him supporters from the impoverished southern neighborhoods of Tehran to the streets of Jakarta, Indonesia, where he enjoys high popularity for his anti-Western views. In the 2009 presidential debates, Ahmadinejad prevailed over one rival, Mehdi Karroubi, by using simple and easy-to-understand arguments about Iran's nuclear policy and relations with Arab states and, more importantly, appearing combative against his opponent's alleged corrupt activities. The performance was superb because he managed to convince many Iranians that he is an anti-elite politician on a crusade against governmental corruption, personified by Karroubi.

All in all, effectively debating Ahmadinejad would require the ability to convey complex ideas in a way that a broad audience could understand. More importantly, it would be wise to avoid big words or disorganized ideas and sentences. This is the mistake that Mir Hussein Mousavi made during his debate with Ahmadinejad. When replying to the president's accusation that his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, was not qualified to be an assistant professor, Mousavi let his emotions got the better of him, leading him to throw out an array of difficult-to-follow ideas and arguments that appeared muddled with anger, ultimately making him look awkward and edgy. Ahmadinejad won huge points because of his rival's inability to coherently fight back. A shrewder opponent would have anticipated these accusations and calmly refuted them without losing emotional control.

5. Have fun!

Ahmadinejad is notorious for making sarcastic remarks when arguing with his opponents. In an interview with Britain's Channel 4, host Jon Snow asked Ahmadinejad about Obama's recent Cairo speech and whether he would be receptive to the U.S. president's outstretched hand. "Which hand did he extend? His right hand or left hand?" Ahmadinejad quipped.
In his debate with Karroubi, he would make fun of his opponent's status as a clergy man.

So, one way of undermining his image as a savvy debater would be to come back with your own quips and sarcasm. For instance, if he argues that Iran is the freest country in the world, which he often does, quickly respond with the following question: "Freer than Nazi Germany?"

Obviously, this tactic is not respectful, but it would sure be fun and perhaps could even expose the cheap rhetorical tricks that have allowed Ahmadinejad to stay in power for so long.