Conventional Wisdom

Last weekend we attended the American Israel Public Affairs Committee convention in Washington, D.C.  Appearing were President Obama, Israeli President Shimon Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, various Senators and Representatives of both parties as well as the three major Republican presidential candidates (Santorum in person, Romney and Gingrich by satellite).

The American politicians, including the President, were there to court the “Jewish vote,” and their remarks reflected that.  They each offered their version of what the audience wanted to hear, with whatever amounts of sincerity they may actually hold.  Netanyahu, on the other hand, was there to promote the Israeli agenda, which is admittedly looking at the “situation” through a different lens.

The “situation” is, of course, Iran.  Both Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have made Iran’s position on Israel quite clear:
Israel is a cancerous tumor that must be cut out and it should be wiped off the map.

Not surprisingly then, Iran was the topic that dominated the conference.  What was surprising, however, was that given the difference of assessment within the American political community and the reality that three Jews in a room will have at least four
opinions, there was a consistent point of view on the subject; Iran must be stopped from acquiring nuclear weapons.

There was a brief side show about President Obama’s remarks on the above statement in that he did not say the Iranians should not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons “capability.”  This was parsed in detail by the Republican speakers, elected officials and candidates alike, as they searched for any crumb of an issue to challenge the Democrats and the man at the top of their ticket.  The irony of it all is the decrying from both parties that the Israel-Iranian problem is too important to be used as a political football, as they proceeded to do it anyway.

Now that I am no longer in Washington and safely home in Chicago, where we don’t have to deal with the amateur politics at the Federal level (our own being the real thing), I wish to put politics aside and simply try to understand the issue.  To this end, we attended several sessions that took up the matter and have done some additional reading on the side.  Let us share with you the consensus of why Iran should be prevented from going nuclear.

At one session, a panelist offered a neat six point agenda that Iran is
pursuing.  Having the bomb serves all of these:

  • Preserve the power of the present regime
  • Dominate the region
  • Destroy Israel
  • Eliminate the Wahhabi influence in Saudi Arabia
  • Undermine the United States
  • Dominate OPEC

Another panelist outlined some of the threats that Iran poses if it actually obtains nuclear weapons:

  • Actually using nuclear weapons
  • Setting off a nuclear race in the Middle East as its neighbors feel the need to also possess weapons in order to keep Iran at bay
  • Providing their proxy terrorist groups with nuclear weapons to use against its local enemies
  • Engage in heightened terrorist acts of their own, as they are accused of doing in Thailand, India and Georgia
  • Expand their influence in Syria
  • Engage in terrorist activities in the United States

One thing that needs to be made clear is that we cannot look at Iranian nuclear weapons as the same as we have here in America.  Their first generation bombs will be smaller in scope, and while devastating, they will affect smaller areas.  One would take out Tel Aviv, for example, but not the entire country of Israel.  But they could also be placed in cargo containers and destroy port cities, or in packed football stadia or transportation centers as the dirtiest of dirty bombs.  The conventional wisdom at this
convention was unanimously on the side of stopping Iran from accomplishing its drive toward becoming a member of the nuclear club.

In fact, the only nuance in the American line of thinking lies in the timing, i.e. where is the “red line?”  The fact that the Obama administration is looking for more time for
sanctions and diplomacy to work, and the Republicans are somewhat more bellicose and at the ready to attack, at least in pre-election bluster, both their  endgames seem to lead to the military option.

Adding in the Israeli point of view also includes the not-so-subtle question of whose military will provide the military option.  Each side would prefer that the other initiate the first strike for obvious reasons.  If Israel strikes first, the U.S. can avoid looking like an imperial bully.  If the U.S. takes the first cut, then Israel is spared the increased enmity of its neighbors and the public relations hit that would ensue. The Panglossian view would be that Iran strike first and allow both Israel and the U.S. to play defense.

The dissenting voice in this wilderness was not at the convention. It belongs to Paul Pillar in the recent Washington Monthly.  His article, “We Can Live With a Nuclear
Iran,”
(http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/magazine/marchapril_2012/features/we_can_live_with_a_nuclear_ira035772.php) discusses many, if not all, of the goals and threats and dismisses them.  Pillar’s point is at all the reasons and threats brought up are mere conjecture.  Iran could do this or
that.  Iran would be capable of (fill in the blank).  He finds very little real analysis to support the need for draconian measures at this point because there are no indications
of these tendencies in Iranian behavior.

Pillar believes that many of these issues are driven by American election-year politics and by Israel’s desire to maintain its position as the only nuclear power in the region, and to use Iran to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian problem.

To be fair, Pillar does allow that having the bomb may make Iran bolder in dealing with some other countries, including and most notably the U.S. and Israel. And he also allows that it may lead to nuclear proliferation in the region.  At least he is asking the
questions that must be addressed before decisions are made to consider another
war in the Middle East.  The accusations against Iran are coming from an emotional place and are painting a “worst-case” scenario.  The projections of an actual war are, on the other hand, being predicated on a “best-case” scenario.  Drones and surgical strikes will not cut it, he states, so ask yourself if a “boots-on-the-ground” conflict is an alternative you can find palatable.

A major question that must be considered, if not answered, is whether Iran is a rational actor.  The first-cut response from both a conference speaker and Pillar (and for that matter the Joint Chiefs of Staff) is yes.  Khamenei’s regime is not suicidal.  Iran’s actions in ending the war with Iraq and other examples show this to be the case.  Preservation of power is the first order of business.  Power and hegemony are not
available to one not in power.

We continue to hear antagonistic rhetoric from Iran, but that is not a battle cry.  What they do is more important than what they say.  The American and Israeli reactions are certainly a response to the rhetoric.  Beyond that, there is a disconnect between the intelligence as it is understood in Washington and Tel Aviv.  Part of this is due to one country being half a world closer to the action should it occur. Perhaps another part could be election-year politics.

War with Iran will not be pretty.  Whether Alphonse or Gaston goes in first, the U.S. will be seen as an aggressor and become more of an enemy to the Muslim population.  If they leave the first strike to Israel that only puts a middleman into the picture, and we will be there soon enough.  Iran has an arsenal of firepower that will not be a pushover.  Such a decision cannot be made lightly.

We cannot, however, think that a nuclear Iran will be a positive in any sense, at least from the American point of view, the Israeli take on it being a foregone conclusion.

In addition to our election cycle, we must consider the Iranians’ own.  Ahmadinejad’s term is up in August 2013 and he cannot run again.  Khamenei can insert a puppet of his choosing as he continues to solidify his power.   He is only 73 and can enjoy several more years of power as he is not beholden to an election cycle or an opposition, short of a revolt.

Pillar may be right about the lack of solid analysis. In his article he quotes Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad and subject of a 60 Minute interview this past Sunday
night.  His opinion, greatly at odds with his Prime Minister (which may also explain his no longer heading up the agency), calls a pre-emptive strike “the stupidest thing” to do and that Iran may be as much as three years away from a bomb.  Any attack would only delay the inevitable.

He also believes Khamenei to be a rational actor.  Disrupting the regime and supporting dissident groups is a better option, one that may eventually topple the government.   Clearly, Dagan does not want to see Iran with nuclear weapons, so Pillar’s use of his opinion has its limitations.

But we do see that there are multiple points of view that extend beyond the question of
timing.  That the issue is receiving this airing is the strength of the United States, and of Israel.  You can be sure that in Tehran, there is only one opinion.  This is a complex problem with no ideal solutions among the most likely outcomes.

We are reminded of the comment by Woody Allen: “We are at a crossroads … one road leads to hopelessness and despair; the other leads to total extinction.  Let us pray we choose wisely.”

3.13.12

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