Saturday, December 26, 2009

Mainstreaming the Mad Iran Bombers, Marc Lynch

Editor's Preface: The cat's out of the bag. Now Israel's Defense Minister Ehud Barak has acknowledged that conventional bombs cannot knock out Iran's new nuclear enrichment facility near Qom, clearly implying that only a nuclear attack might work. So in addition to all the compelling reasons we already had why an Israeli preventive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities would be a terrible idea (see “Why Israel Can't Bomb Iranian Nuke Sites - New Study Bursts Myth of Israeli Military Option” and Why senior Israeli intel & military officers think an Israeli strike on Iran is a bad idea - Anthony Cordesman, Wall Street Journal), now comes the coup de grace: an effective conventional strike against Iran would not significantly erode its nuclear enrichment capabilities, given how dispersed these are among known and still unknown sites, and how well-protected they are (the new Qom site is buried deep inside a mountain.) There can no longer be any doubt: those Republicans, American Jewish neocons and Israeli hawks who attack Obama's approach and advocate instead a preventive Israeli strike are advocating a nuclear war against Iran. Dubbing them "mad bombers" couldn't be more apt.

Help us help President Obama fight back and get the truth out to the American Jewish community and the wider American public.
Marc Lynch:

Today's New York Times runs what I believe is its first op-ed explicitly advocating a military campaign against Iran. Such agitation for war isn't new -- John Bolton and friends have been obsessively demanding such an attack for a long time, adapting the argument for war as the only solution to whatever the current situation may be. It's one thing when the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Fox News or other conservative outlets advocate such a war. You expect that, and discount accordingly; an op-ed in Fred Hiatt's Washington Post demanding war on Iran is like a DC-based blogger complaining about the Redskins... it happens constantly, nobody takes it very seriously and it doesn't accomplish anything. But the New York Times doing so is a serious step towards mainstreaming the idea, akin to how Ken Pollack and Tom Friedman's support for the invasion of Iraq persuaded a lot of centrists and liberals. It's as if we as a country have learned nothing from the Iraq war debate.

Alan Kuperman, the NYT op-ed's author, is best known for defending the U.S. non-response to the genocide in Rwanda (leading the late, lamented Alison Des Forges to accuse him of playing "word games to rationalize the West's ignominious failure to halt genocide in Rwanda"). While he has no evident expertise in Iran, he has determined that Iranian domestic politics and a few months of negotiations conclusively prove that negotiations can never work and that there's only one way to stop Iran -- war.

His argument is like a caricature of such war advocacy, hitting each predictable theme like a sledgehammer.
  • Does he rule out the alternative policy by default? Yes he does! "peaceful carrots and sticks cannot work."
  • Does he reduce the policy options to two extreme positions, one of which is guaranteed to be rejected? Yes he does! "the United States faces a stark choice: military air strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities or acquiescence to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons."
  • Does he warn that Saddam, um, Ahmedenejad will give WMD to terrorists? Yes, yes he does. "if Iran acquired a nuclear arsenal, the risks would simply be too great that it could become a neighborhood bully or provide terrorists with the ultimate weapon, an atomic bomb." (the "neighborhood bully" is a nice touch.) Will, pray tell, the smoking gun be in the shape of a mushroom cloud?
  • Does he exaggerate the prospects for success? Yes, he does. Well, first he says "As for knocking out its nuclear plants, admittedly, aerial bombing might not work." But he quickly moves on from that, since that will not do. Oddly, his main example of success comes from Iraq, where he claims that the first Gulf war led to the uncovering of the Iraqi nuclear program --- not the Osirak raid -- which is accurate, but rather completely contradicts his argument.
  • Does he minimize the risks of military action? Yes, he does. "Yes, Iran could retaliate by aiding America’s opponents in Iraq and Afghanistan, but it does that anyway." Try telling that to U.S. military commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, or to leaders in the Gulf, who are slightly less cavalier with the lives of their people.
  • Does he suggest that if all else fails regime change would be easy and cheap? Yes, dear lord, he does. "If nothing else, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown that the United States military can oust regimes in weeks if it wants to." Truly, this was the lesson to be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan. I'm still marveling over how easily we overthrew Saddam and the Taliban and got out of Iraq and Afghanistan more or less costlessly. That was special. On the other hand, as Matt Duss helpfully points out, "if we don't have an Iran war, how are we supposed to have an awesome Iran surge?"
  • Does he accuse those who oppose military action of appeasement? Yes, yes, of course he does. "in the face of failed diplomacy, eschewing force is tantamount to appeasement."
Why spend so much time on a mediocre, unoriginal op-ed? The better question is why the NYT published it. Advocates of such a military strike have been agitating tirelessly for years to mainstream and normalize an idea once seen as mad, using precisely these arguments so often that their deep weaknesses may not even register anymore. Opponents of such a military strike -- on the grounds that it would not likely stop the nuclear program, would kill lots of innocent Iranians and inflame Iranian public opinion, would destroy Obama's hopes to transform America's relations with the Islamic world and inflame anti-Americanism back to Bush-era levels, and so on -- may not take this seriously enough.

The Obama administration almost certainly doesn't want to make such a wrong-headed move --- but, then, there are a lot of things which the Obama administration doesn't want to do but has been forced into by political realities (Gitmo, the public option, escalation in Afghanistan) and intentions aren't enough. Many people may have assumed that the legacy of Iraq would have raised the bar on such arguments for war, that someone making such all too familiar claims would simply be laughed out of the public square. The NYT today shows that they aren't. I suspect that one of the great foreign policy challenges of 2010 is going to be to push back on this mad campaign for another pointless, counter-productive war for the sake of war.

UPDATE: see also Matt Duss, Heather Hurlburt, Joe Klein, Steve Saideman and Dan Drezner. This kind of sustained pushback is exactly what is needed to prevent this dangerous idea from being mainstreamed.
Posted By Marc Lynch Thursday, December 24, 2009 Reposted from Foreign Policy

Friday, December 4, 2009

“Rep. Berman: ‘I Intend To Pass The Iran Sanctions Bill’… That No One Thinks Will Work And Which Iranian Dissidents Oppose” - Matt Duss

Politico reports that House Democratic leaders are planning to move forward with new sanctions legislation that “seeks to cut supplies of refined petroleum products, especially gasoline, into Iran as a means of convincing that regime to end its nuclear weapons programs”:

“I intend to pass the bill by the end of this year,” Berman, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told POLITICO. His bill has 339 co-sponsors in the House, and it might be taken up under a parliamentary process that allows quick approval of widely supported legislation.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) told fellow Democrats on Thursday morning that the bill would be brought to the floor within two weeks, according to Democratic aides. The Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee passed similar legislation at the end of October, although it is unclear if and when Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to bring that bill up for a vote. [...]

Berman and other backers of the measure hope that the economic pain caused by disruption of those imports would force Tehran to scale back its nuclear ambitions.

I don’t know of any analyst — right or left — who thinks that this legislation will be at all effective in changing Iran’s behavior. Back in August, Gal Luft wrote that “Iran is much less vulnerable to gasoline sanctions than is commonly believed on Capitol Hill, and its foreign gasoline dependence is dropping by the day.” Under President Ahmadinejad, Iran has both increased its refining capacity and enacted a more effective petrol rationing program, both of which have, according to Luft, “slashed Iran’s need to import petroleum products.”

Luft also noted that “Iran is becoming increasingly reliant on China for its refinery expansion program — and Beijing has shown little interest in abiding by any sanctions regime initiated by the United States.”

The American Enterprise Institute’s Iran Tracker website also looked at the potential impact of petroleum sanctions, concluding that “the imposition of sanctions might generate no significant change in Iranian policy in the short term.” AEI’s report also notes that “the group that should be the target of strengthened sanctions, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is least likely to be affected”:

Some analysts have argued that the IRGC actually benefits from a more economically isolated Iran because it no longer has to compete with foreign companies for government contracts. For example, one of the main engineering companies under IRGC control, Khatam al-Anbiya, has secured at least $7 billion in government oil, gas, and transportation contracts. Although IRGC companies do not always have the necessary technical expertise for some projects, they still generate revenue by acting as an intermediary between the government and international companies. IRGC members may continue to receive government contracts and subsidy money even if the government adjusted domestic economic policies.

Perhaps just as significantly, leaders and spokespersons of Iran’s Green Movement have rejected these sanctions, arguing that they would hurt the Iranian people while doing little to affect the regime. In September, Mir Hossein Mousavi said sanctions “will impose agonies on a nation who suffers enough from miserable statesmen.”

In a recent interview with the Washington Times’ Barbara Slavin, Iranian dissident Mohsen Makhmalbaf “specifically rejected gasoline sanctions, “saying [they] would hurt average people.” While Makhmalbaf also said that “it was better to focus on the Revolutionary Guards,” as the above reports indicate, sanctions on refined petroleum products — especially of the unilateral sort proposed in the Berman bill — are a particularly ineffective instrument for doing this. Far from forcing Iran to scale back its nuclear program, the threat of these sanctions seems only to have motivated the Iranian regime to move more quickly to harden itself against their effects.

Originally published on 12/3/09 at the Wonk Room

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

"Afghan debacle rules out US-Iran war": Ex-CIA expert & Obama adviser Bruce Riedel

The US is too bogged down in Afghanistan to engage Iran militarily over its nuclear program, an ex-CIA South Asia expert and current adviser to US President Barack Obama said in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Bruce Riedel, a senior Brookings Institute and Saban Center fellow for political transitions in the Middle East and South Asia, addressed scholars and journalists at Tel Aviv University's Institute for National Security Studies.

He warned that the US was fighting a losing battle against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, and that Washington would soon have to make difficult choices on beefing up troop levels there.

"Israelis need to understand that there's going to be a huge drain on resources, attention and capital, and that will have implications," Riedel told The Jerusalem Post before his talk. He acknowledged that those implications would primarily affect the Iran question.

During his address, Riedel referred to the US's commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan, and said, "We've got two wars. You've got to be bold to say, let's start a war against a third party, particularly when the third party can hit you in the first two fronts."

The US has learned that it "can't fight two medium-sized wars simultaneously," he said. Riedel retired from the CIA in November 2006 after 30 years of service. In 2007, he was asked by then-senator Barack Obama to be an expert volunteer adviser on counterterrorism.

"In June this year, the president called," Riedel said. Obama asked him to assemble a strategic review of US policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan. "The president has inherited a disastrous war that is being lost," Riedel said. "Pakistan, next-door to Afghanistan, is being destabilized. Pakistan is the fastest growing nuclear arms state in the world, and has more terrorists per square kilometer than any other country," he continued.

Riedel said the scenario that kept him up at night was the potential for a jihadi sweep to power in Pakistan via a violent coup. "That is the nightmare outcome," he warned. Such a development would certainly destabilize the entire world, Riedel said, and would have severe implications for Israel, too. "Pakistan would be a patron state sponsor of terrorism. Hamas would find a lucrative Sunni sponsor," he added, noting that a jihadi Pakistan would be a more attractive patron to Hamas than its current sponsor, the Shi'ite Islamic Republic of Iran.

"We're losing... It's getting worse in Afghanistan," Riedel said. The US could either remain in its current position, which would, in effect, mean that the Taliban would control the Afghan countryside and NATO forces would control the cities, or a decision can be made to withdraw, Riedel added.

"President Obama has ruled that [a withdrawal] out. I think correctly," Riedel said. But the option of a troop surge was not simple either, he noted. "Every soldier sent to Afghanistan costs the US a million dollars a year. Thirty thousand soldiers cost $30 billion. Extremely large resources are involved," he said. "America is broke."

Riedel's Afghanistan review ended with the conclusion that recent recommendations by US Gen. Stanley McCrystal, to send tens of thousands of more troops to Afghanistan, should be tried.
"Within 18 to 24 months, we will know whether Obama inherited a dead patient on an operating table," Riedel said. "The question of sending more troops will define Obama's first term in office."

Nov. 18, 2009, Yaakov Lappin , THE JERUSALEM POST

Monday, October 19, 2009

Five Myths About Iran's Nuclear Program, By Joseph Cirincione (Washington Post)

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Iran's expanding nuclear program poses one of the Obama administration's most vexing foreign policy challenges. Fortunately, the conditions for containing Tehran's efforts may be better today than they have been in years. The recent disclosure of a secret nuclear facility in Iran has led to an apparent agreement to allow in U.N. weapons inspectors and to ship some uranium out of the country, and the United States and Europe seem to be closing ranks on the need for sanctions and engagement.

Of course, the matter is far from resolved; Russia and China are sending mixed signals on their position, while even a weakened Iranian regime remains duplicitous. But the prospects for developing a strategy with a solid chance of success improve if we dispose of five persistent myths about Iran's nuclear program:

1. Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear weapon.

For years we've heard conflicting accounts on this issue. There have been claims since the 1990s that Iran was a few years away from a bomb. Then, two years ago, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran had discontinued its dedicated nuclear weapon efforts in 2003. Today, the consensus among experts is that Iran has the technical ability to make a crude nuclear device within one to three years -- but there is no evidence that its leaders have decided to do so.

The regime's most likely path to the bomb begins in Natanz, in central Iran, the site of the nuclear facility where over the past three years about 1,500 kilograms of uranium gas has been enriched to low levels. Iran could kick out U.N. inspectors, abandon the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reprocess the gas into highly enriched uranium in about six months; it would take at least six more months to convert that uranium into the metal form required for one bomb. Technical problems with both processes could stretch this period to three years. Finally, Iran would need perhaps five additional years -- and several explosive tests -- to develop a Hiroshima-yield bomb that could be fitted onto a ballistic missile.

Of course, the United States and others would see Tehran moving in this direction, and exposure or inspection of suspected facilities would complicate Iranian objectives. We can further lengthen this timeline by ridding Iran of the essential ingredient for a bomb: low-enriched uranium. On Oct. 1, Iran agreed to ship most of this uranium to Russia for fabrication into reactor fuel; we will know in the next few weeks if it will keep that pledge. If it does, Iran's "break-out" capability -- the ability to produce a bomb quickly -- would be eliminated, at least for the two years it takes to enrich more uranium.

2. A military strike would knock out Iran's program.

Actually, a military attack would only increase the possibility of Iran developing a nuclear bomb.
"There is no military option that does anything more than buy time," Defense Secretary Robert Gates said last month. "The estimates are one to three years or so." And that's if the United States struck hundreds of targets. A less powerful Israeli attack could only damage, not destroy, Iran's facilities.

Worse, after such a bombing, the Iranian population -- now skeptical of its leadership -- would probably rally around the regime, ending any internal debates on whether to build a bomb. Iran would put its nuclear program on fast-forward to create weapons to defend itself. It could also counterattack against Israel or other U.S. allies. This month, a top official of Iran's Revolutionary Guard threatened to "blow up the heart of Israel" if the United States or Israel attacks first.

On the merits of a U.S. strike, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said he worries about "the possible unintended consequences of a strike like that . . . having an impact throughout the region that would be difficult to predict."

Attacking Iran would not end the problem; it could start a third U.S. war in the region.

3. We can cripple Iran with sanctions.

Sanctions rarely, if ever, work on their own. There is no silver bullet that can coerce Iran into compliance or collapse.

Some mix of sanctions -- whether restricting travel, making it harder for Iranian banks to do business, further limiting foreign investment or even denying Iranian citizens basic needs, such as gas -- may be necessary if Tehran does not restrain its nuclear program or live up to its pledges. But the key is to couple such pressure with a face-saving way out for the Iranian leadership. As the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate on Iran put it, a sanctions strategy must feature "opportunities for Iran to achieve its security, prestige, and goals for regional influence in other ways." These could include Iran's inclusion in regional security talks, the suspension of sanctions and a secure supply of reactor fuel, leading up to normalized relations with the West.

No nation has ever been forced to give up nuclear programs, but many have been persuaded to do so, including Brazil, Argentina, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, South Africa, Iraq and, most recently, Libya.

4. A new government in Iran would abandon the nuclear program.

Some believe that an irrational, apocalyptic government now rules Iran and that regime change is the only solution. But there is broad support across Iran's political spectrum for the right to peaceful uses of nuclear energy.

Recall that the country's nuclear program began with the shah, a U.S. ally who had plans to build 20 nuclear reactors, similar to the plans the mullahs promote today. The shah also started covert work on nuclear weapons. The U.S. government knew about this research but looked the other way, going as far as selling Iran its first nuclear reactor.

Even with a reformist government, it is unlikely that Iran would quickly end its nuclear program. But its leaders might be persuaded to limit the program's nuclear weapons capabilities. "Tehran's decisions," according to the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, "are guided by a cost-benefit approach rather than a rush to a weapon irrespective of the political, economic, and military costs."

5. Iran is the main nuclear threat in the Middle East.

The real threat posed by Iran's nuclear program is that other states in the region feel they must match it. The race has already begun.

While Israel's possession of nuclear weapons has not spurred other countries in the area to develop their own, over the past three years a dozen states in the Middle East, including Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Libya (again), have begun civilian nuclear programs. These programs, alas, are not about reducing the countries' carbon footprint -- they are a hedge against Iran. These states have begun the decades-long process of developing the technical, commercial and engineering capabilities to build nuclear weapons, should they decide to do so. At this point, it is not clear that stopping Iran would stop these programs.

The real danger is not a nuclear-armed Iran but a Middle East with more nuclear-armed nations and unresolved territorial, economic and political disputes. That is a recipe for disaster, and that is why there is no country-specific solution; we cannot play nuclear whack-a-mole.

A comprehensive plan must build barriers against acquiring nuclear weapons and must reduce the motivation to do so. This means dealing with the regional security and prestige issues that motivate most countries to start nuclear programs. It requires a global approach that deals with both sides of the nuclear coin: disarmament and proliferation. Reducing existing nuclear stockpiles creates the support needed to stop the spread of the weapons; stopping the spread creates the security needed to continue reductions. We must keep flipping that coin over. Each flip, each step, makes us a little safer.

Joseph Cirincione is president of the Ploughshares Fund and the author of "Bomb Scare: The History and Future of Nuclear Weapons." He is an expert adviser to the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Why senior Israeli intel & military officers think an Israeli strike on Iran is a bad idea - Anthony Cordesman, Wall Street Journal

Veteran security guru Anthony Cordesman's analysis sheds light on the many problems with an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran - not all of which are discussed here: Cordesman neglects to acknowledge, as he has elsewhere, the likelihood that an Israeli strike would catalyze a protracted and unwinnable regional war into which the US would be dragged. But the pitfalls that Cordesman highlights are serious enough:

After reviewing them he concludes: "These problems are why a number of senior Israeli intelligence experts and military officers feel that Israel should not strike Iran, although few would recommend that Israel avoid using the threat of such strikes to help U.S. and other diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to halt. For example, retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom advocates, like a number of other Israeli experts, reliance on deterrence and Israel's steadily improving missile defenses."

So most Israeli intelligence and military officials believe that Israel should make threats to strike that, in fact, aren't really credible to the Iranians because the many problems Cordesman highlights are well known to the Iranians as well. And because a successful strike on Iran's nuclear capacity would require the US to attack Iran as well, for all the reasons laid out by Cordesman, Israeli threats to attack Iran may actually be accelerating its quest for nuclear weapons. Cordesman warns that an Israeli attack will definitely accelerate Iran's pursuit of nuclear bombs, and since Israel lacks the capacity to continue re-striking Iran's capabilities effectively, the net result of an Israeli attack will be either: forcing the US into a state of perpetual hot war with Iran, or speeding up the acquisition of nuclear weapons by an Iran now bent on vengeance for the Israeli attack: a case of self-fulfilling prophesy if ever there was one.

All in all, the military option remains unworkable and incalculably foolhardy - both in practise and as a threat.

The Iran Attack Plan, Anthony H. Cordesman, The Wall Street Journal, 9/26/09

Iran's acknowledgment that it is developing a second uranium-enrichment facility does little to dispel the view that the regime is developing a weapons program. Israel must consider not just whether to proceed with a strike against Iran—but how.

When the Israeli army’s then-Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Halutz was asked in 2004 how far Israel would go to stop Iran's nuclear program, he replied: "2,000 kilometers," roughly the distance been the two countries.

Israel's political and military leaders have long made it clear that they are considering taking decisive military action if Iran continues to develop its nuclear program. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned at the United Nations this week that "the most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons."

Reporting by the International Atomic Energy Agency and other sources has made it clear that whether or not Iran ties all of its efforts into a formal nuclear weapons program, it has acquired all of the elements necessary to make and deliver such weapons. Just Friday, Iran confirmed that it has been developing a second uranium-enrichment facility on a military base near Qom, doing little to dispel the long-standing concerns of Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.S. that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

Iran has acquired North Korean and other nuclear weapons design data through sources like the sales network once led by the former head of Pakistan's nuclear program, A. Q. Khan. Iran has all of the technology and production and manufacturing capabilities needed for fission weapons. It has acquired the technology to make the explosives needed for a gun or implosion device, the triggering components, and the neutron initiator and reflectors. It has experimented with machine uranium and plutonium processing. It has put massive resources into a medium-range missile program that has the range payload to carry nuclear weapons and that makes no sense with conventional warheads. It has also worked on nuclear weapons designs for missile warheads. These capabilities are dispersed in many facilities in many cities and remote areas, and often into many buildings in each facility—each of which would have to be a target in an Israeli military strike.

It is far from certain that such action would be met with success. An Israeli strike on Iran would be far more challenging than the Israeli strike that destroyed Iraq's Osirak reactor in 1981. An effective Israeli nuclear strike may not be possible, yet a regional nuclear arms race is a game that Iran can start, but cannot possibly win. Anyone who meets regularly with senior Israeli officials, officers and experts knows that Israel is considering military options, but considering them carefully and with an understanding that they pose serious problems and risks.

One of the fundamental problems dogging Israel, especially concerning short-ranged fighters and fighter-bombers, is distance. Iran's potential targets are between 950 and 1,400 miles from Israel, the far margin of the ranges Israeli fighters can reach, even with aerial refueling. Israel would be hard-pressed to destroy all of Iran's best-known targets. What's more, Iran has had years in which to build up covert facilities, disperse elements of its nuclear and missile programs, and develop options for recovering from such an attack.

At best, such action would delay Iran's nuclear buildup. It is more likely to provoke the country into accelerating its plans. Either way, Israel would have to contend with the fact that it has consistently had a "red light" from both the Bush and Obama administrations opposing such strikes. Any strike that overflew Arab territory or attacked a fellow Islamic state would stir the ire of neighboring Arab states, as well as Russia, China and several European states.

This might not stop Israel. Hardly a week goes by without another warning from senior Israeli officials that a military strike is possible, and that Israel cannot tolerate a nuclear-armed Iran, even though no nation has indicated it would support such action. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues to threaten Israel and to deny its right to exist. At the same time, President Barack Obama is clearly committed to pursuing diplomatic options, his new initiatives and a U.N. resolution on nuclear arms control and counterproliferation, and working with our European allies, China and Russia to impose sanctions as a substitute for the use of force.

Mr. Ahmadinejad keeps denying that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, and tries to defend Iran from both support for sanctions and any form of attack by saying that Iran will negotiate over its peaceful use of nuclear power. He offered some form of dialogue with the U.S. during his visit to the U.N. this week. While French President Nicolas Sarkozy denounced Iran's continued lack of response to the Security Council this week, and said its statements would "wipe a U.N. member state off the map," no nation has yet indicated it would support Israeli military action.

Most analyses of a possible Israeli attack focus on only three of Iran's most visible facilities: its centrifuge facilities at Natanz, its light water nuclear power reactor near Bushehr, and a heavy water reactor at Arak it could use to produce plutonium. They are all some 950 to 1,000 miles from Israel. Each of these three targets differs sharply in terms of the near-term risk it poses to Israel and its vulnerability.

The Arak facility is partially sheltered, but it does not yet have a reactor vessel and evidently will not have one until 2011. Arak will not pose a tangible threat for at least several years. The key problem Israel would face is that it would virtually have to strike it as part of any strike on the other targets, because it cannot risk waiting and being unable to carry out another set of strikes for political reasons. It also could then face an Iran with much better air defenses, much better long-range missile forces, and at least some uranium weapons.

Bushehr is a nuclear power reactor along Iran's southwestern coast in the Gulf. It is not yet operational, although it may be fueled late this year. It would take some time before it could be used to produce plutonium, and any Iranian effort to use its fuel rods for such a purpose would be easy to detect and lead Iran into an immediate political confrontation with the United Nations and other states. Bushehr also is being built and fueled by Russia—which so far has been anything but supportive of an Israeli strike and which might react to any attack by making major new arms shipments to Iran.

The centrifuge facility at Natanz is a different story. It is underground and deeply sheltered, and is defended by modern short-range Russian TOR-M surface-to-air missiles. It also, however, is the most important target Israel can fully characterize. Both Israeli and outside experts estimate that it will produce enough low enriched uranium for Iran to be able to be used in building two fission nuclear weapons by some point in 2010—although such material would have to be enriched far more to provide weapons-grade U-235.

Israel has fighters, refueling tankers and precision-guided air-to-ground weapons to strike at all of these targets—even if it flies the long-distance routes needed to avoid the most critical air defenses in neighboring Arab states. It is also far from clear that any Arab air force would risk engaging Israeli fighters. Syria, after all, did not attempt to engage Israeli fighters when they attacked the reactor being built in Syria.

In August 2003, the Israeli Air Force demonstrated the strategic capability to strike far-off targets such as Iran by flying three F-15 jets to Poland, 1,600 nautical miles away. Israel can launch and refuel two to three full squadrons of combat aircraft for a single set of strikes against Iran, and provide suitable refueling. Israel could also provide fighter escorts and has considerable electronic-warfare capability to suppress Iran's aging air defenses. It might take losses to Iran's fighters and surface-to-air missiles, but such losses would probably be limited.

Israel would, however, still face two critical problems. The first would be whether it can destroy a hardened underground facility like Natanz. The second is that a truly successful strike might have to hit far more targets over a much larger area than the three best-known sites. Iran has had years to build up covert and dispersed facilities, and is known to have dozens of other facilities associated with some aspect of its nuclear programs. Moreover, Israel would have to successfully strike at dozens of additional targets to do substantial damage to another key Iranian threat: its long-range missiles.

Experts sharply disagree as to whether the Israeli air force could do more than limited damage to the key Iranian facility at Natanz. Some feel it is too deeply underground and too hardened for Israel to have much impact. Others believe that it is more vulnerable than conventional wisdom has it, and Israel could use weapons like the GBU-28 earth-penetrating bombs it has received from the U.S. or its own penetrators, which may include a nuclear-armed variant, to permanently collapse the underground chambers.

No one knows what specialized weapons Israel may have developed on its own, but Israeli intelligence has probably given Israel good access to U.S., European, and Russian designs for more advanced weapons than the GBU-28. Therefore, the odds are that Israel can have a serious impact on Iran's three most visible nuclear targets and possibly delay Iran's efforts for several years.

The story is very different, however, when it comes to destroying the full range of Iranian capabilities. There are no meaningful unclassified estimates of Iran's total mix of nuclear facilities, but known unclassified research, reactor, and centrifuge facilities number in the dozens. It became clear just this week that Iran managed to conceal the fact it was building a second underground facility for uranium enrichment near Qom, 100 miles southwest of Tehran, and that was designed to hold 3,000 centrifuges. Iran is developing at least four variants of its centrifuges, and the more recent designs have far more capacity than most of the ones installed at Natanz.

This makes it easier to conceal chains of centrifuges in a number of small, dispersed facilities and move material from one facility to another. Iran's known centrifuge production facilities are scattered over large areas of Iran, and at least some are in Mashad in the far northeast of the country—far harder to reach than Arak, Bushehr and Natanz.

Many of Iran's known facilities present the added problem that they are located among civilian facilities and peaceful nuclear-research activities—although Israel's precision-strike capabilities may well be good enough to allow it to limit damage to nearby civilian facilities.

It is not clear that Israel can win this kind of "shell game." It is doubtful that even the U.S. knows all the potential targets, and even more doubtful that any outside power can know what each detected Iranian facility currently does—and the extent to which each can hold dispersed centrifuge facilities that Iran could use instead of Natanz to produce weapons-grade uranium. As for the other elements of Iran's nuclear programs, it has scattered throughout the country the technical and industrial facilities it could use to make the rest of fission nuclear weapons. The facilities can now be in too many places for an Israeli strike to destroy Iran's capabilities.

Israel also faces limits on its military capabilities. Strong as Israeli forces are, they lack the scale, range and other capabilities to carry out the kind of massive strike the U.S. could launch. Israel does not have the density and quality of intelligence assets necessary to reliably assess the damage done to a wide range of small and disperse targets and to detect new Iranian efforts.

Israel has enough strike-attack aircraft and fighters in inventory to carry out a series of restrikes if Iran persisted in rebuilding, but it could not refuel a large-enough force, or provide enough intelligence and electronic warfare capabilities, to keep striking Iran at anything like the necessary scale. Moreover, Israel does not have enough forces to carry out a series of restrikes if Iran persisted in creating and rebuilding new facilities, and Arab states could not repeatedly standby and let Israel penetrate their air space. Israel might also have to deal with a Russia that would be far more willing to sell Iran advanced fighters and surface-to-air missiles if Israel attacked the Russian-built reactor at Bushehr.

These problems are why a number of senior Israeli intelligence experts and military officers feel that Israel should not strike Iran, although few would recommend that Israel avoid using the threat of such strikes to help U.S. and other diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to halt. For example, retired Brigadier General Shlomo Brom advocates, like a number of other Israeli experts, reliance on deterrence and Israel's steadily improving missile defenses.

Any Israeli attack on an Iranian nuclear target would be a very complex operation in which a relatively large number of attack aircraft and support aircraft would participate. The conclusion is that Israel could attack only a few Iranian targets—not as part of a sustainable operation over time, but as a one-time surprise operation.

The alternatives, however, are not good for Israel, the U.S., Iran's neighbors or Arab neighbors. Of course being attacked is not good for Iran. Israel could still strike, if only to try to buy a few added years of time. Iranian persistence in developing nuclear weapons could push the U.S. into launching its own strike on Iran—although either an Israeli or U.S. strike might be used by Iran's hardliners to justify an all-out nuclear arms race. Further, it is far from clear that friendly Arab Gulf states would allow the U.S. to use bases on their soil for the kind of massive strike and follow-on restrikes that the U.S. would need to suppress Iran's efforts on a lasting basis.

The broader problem for Iran, however, is that Israel will not wait passively as Iran develops a nuclear capability. Like several Arab states, Israel already is developing better missile and air defenses, and more-advanced forms of its Arrow ballistic missile defenses. There are reports that Israel is increasing the range-payload of its nuclear-armed missiles and is developing sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missiles for its submarines.

While Iran is larger than Israel, its population centers are so vulnerable to Israeli thermonuclear weapons that Israel already is a major "existential" threat to Iran. Moreover, provoking its Arab neighbors and Turkey into developing their nuclear capabilities, or the U.S. into offering them a nuclear umbrella targeted on Iran, could create additional threats, as well as make Iran's neighbors even more dependent on the U.S. for their security. Iran's search for nuclear-armed missiles may well unite its neighbors against it as well as create a major new nuclear threat to its survival.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page W1
Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Don't throw Ahmadinejad a Lifeline - why a gasoline embargo is a terrible idea, By Hossein Askari and Trita Parsi

In an effort to squeeze Iran into submission over its nuclear policy, Congress and the White House are edging toward a gasoline embargo. This would do nothing to force Iran into submission. In fact, it would be a blessing for the hard-line government to once again be able to point to a foreign threat to justify domestic repression and consolidate its base at a time when opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is increasing among conservatives.

An effective gasoline embargo can only be implemented through a naval blockade. This would require U.N. Security Council approval — a tortuous process with no certain outcome. An embargo without U.N. approval is an act of war according to international law, and Iran has declared that it would be met with force.

But even if the Security Council were to miraculously unite, success would still be out of reach. The economics of a gasoline embargo simply doesn’t make sense. Iran imports roughly 40 percent of its domestic gasoline consumption at world prices and then sells it along with domestically refined gasoline at a government-subsidized price of about 40 cents per gallon. As a result, domestic gasoline consumption is high. It is also smuggled and sold to neighboring countries.

Over the past 10 years, this policy has cost Iran in the range of 10 to 20 percent of its G.D.P. annually, depending on world prices and the government-mandated pump price. Yes, a whopping 10 to 20 percent of G.D.P. In need of additional revenues, the regime has wanted to eliminate this subsidy, raise the price to world levels and reduce consumption, but has been paralyzed by the specter of a domestic backlash.

Even assuming that a gasoline embargo would be effective, what would be its result? Consumption would decline by 40 percent and government revenues would go up, because no payment would be needed for gasoline imports.

If Tehran allowed the reduced supply of gasoline to be sold at a price that would equate demand to supply, the price would increase to a level that would eliminate the subsidy, meaning no subsidy for imported gasoline and no subsidy for domestically refined gasoline. The government would have more revenue to spend elsewhere. The sanctions would have done what Tehran has wanted to do for years and the government would not be held responsible!

What about the political fallout? Proponents of the embargo believe that increased economic pressure would cause Iranians to revolt against their unpopular rulers. This is a fundamental misreading of the psychology of an embargoed people.

Iranians have suffered tremendous hardships under the Islamic Republic. And while the Iranian economy is in tatters today, Iranians have seen much worse times. During the Iran-Iraq War, they faced unprecedented economic hardships. This did not ignite a popular uprising.

What caused Iranians to rise up two months ago was not economic hardship, but dashed hopes in anger over the fraudulent election.

If the back of the Iranian economy is broken, the first casualty will be hope. Economic misery will kill people’s faith in a better future. The result will be political apathy. And rather than blaming Mr. Ahmadinejad, Iranians are likely to blame the United States.

Moreover, Iran’s ruling hard-liners are in disarray. The politics of fear is their bread and butter; they have long benefited from invoking foreign plots and Washington’s discredited regime-change policy. But now — with President Obama’s new outreach to Iran — the hard-liners have lost their 9/11. President Obama has deprived them of their perennial boogeyman.

This has helped the opposition find the maneuverability to challenge Iran’s vote-robbers. The hard-liners have no credible threat to rally around. Their disgraceful show trials on Iranian TV reveal their desperation. This has not only allowed fissures between various factions in Iran to grow, but also increased tensions among the conservatives themselves.

Mr. Ahmadinejad is desperately in need of a threat to help consolidate his conservative base and lend credibility to accusations of conspiracy against his moderate opposition. Imposing a gasoline embargo could be his last, best hope. Congress and the White House should think long and hard before throwing a lifeline to Iran’s vote-robbers.

Hossein Askari is professor of international business and international affairs at the George Washington University. Trita Parsi is president of the National Iranian American Council and author of “Treacherous Alliance — The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the United States.”

NY Times Op-Ed, Aug. 14, 2009

Friday, July 31, 2009

Why the Role Reversal on Iran? Advocates of engagement understand that Iran isn't able to negotiate now, given its internal paralysis

The ultra-hardline Iranian newspaper Kayhan argued yesterday that the West is confused about how to engage Iran in the aftermath of Iran’s election and crackdown on peaceful demonstrators. However, it isn’t confusion that they’re witnessing – it’s a surprising role reversal. Many people who previously advocated for engagement now say that we need to hold off for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that Iran’s fragmented political system is in too much disarray to respond to U.S.-backed diplomacy. Conversely, many hawks in the U.S. are now arguing that engagement must begin immediately.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has made it clear what the Obama administration thinks. “We’ve certainly reached out and made it clear that’s what we’d be willing to do, even now, despite our absolute condemnation of what they’ve done in the election and since, but I don’t think they have any capacity to make that kind of decision right now,” she said. As one blogger astutely put it, demanding Iran to talk to the U.S. right now would be akin to Russia demanding that the United States negotiate an arms reduction treaty in the midst of Bush v. Gore.

Rather than benefiting from Iran’s vulnerabilities, engaging now could lead to the most dangerous scenario. As Dr. Trita Parsi said yesterday in Foreign Policy magazine:

"Of all scenarios the Obama administration could end up facing — an Iran that refuses to come to the table, for example, or an Iran that only uses talks to play for time — the worst scenario is another one: where the parties begin talks according to the set timetable, but fail to reach an agreement due to an inability to deliver. If talks fail, U.S. policymakers will be left with increasingly unpalatable options as a result."

Perhaps this explains why advocates of sanctions and/or war, who not long ago were saying that we shouldn’t talk to Iran at all, are now saying that the U.S. should engage Iran immediately with a short timetable.

Why the role reversal? Many in Washington believe engagement is a pointless exercise and are eager to impose sanctions and/or bomb Iran. The perma-skeptics of diplomacy think we should impose an artificial deadline, rush to engage, and then run headlong into Iran’s political paralysis. Their plan would have us miss the deadline, sanction Iran as much as possible, and then lobby for the U.S. to bomb Iran when sanctions fail to stop Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Of course, this is an incredibly foolish “solution.” As every Iran expert worth their salt has noted, bombing Iran is perhaps the only thing that can cement this government’s hold on power indefinitely into the future.

With Israel’s head of intelligence publicly saying Iran won’t be able to develop a deliverable nuclear weapon until 2014 at the earliest, the U.S. can and should wait for the right time to engage.

Reposted from NIAC Insight

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Iranian Nuclear Threat, Obama and Israel, by Gidon D. Remba, Israel Horizons, Summer 2009

As published in Israel Horizons, Summer 2009 (and the Meretz USA blog: Part 1 and Part 2)

Barack Obama was swept into the White House promising to reverse the Bush administration’s aversion to diplomatic engagement with new overtures to the Arab and Islamic worlds. While the Obama administration remains committed to direct talks with Iran in the wake of its fraudulent election and brutal suppression of peaceful protests, the message has been leavened with new signals. The administration will not yield to the demands of Republicans, Israeli government hardliners, AIPAC and others in the organized American Jewish community to enact “enhanced sanctions” now. It understands that doing so would quash any hope of Iranian openness to a deal preventing the development of highly-enriched weapons-grade uranium and nuclear arms through a new system of robust monitoring.

Obama now says that there is a September “time frame” for Iran to respond to offers to discuss its nuclear program. If by then Iran has not accepted the invitation to talk, the United States and “potentially a lot of other countries” are going to say “we need to take further steps.” The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations is planning a “Washington Day” on Sept. 10 that “would bring together 300 to 500 leaders from across the United States to press for [new] sanctions legislation.” But the ongoing schism among clerical leaders within the Iranian regime may make it impossible for even secret talks with the US to begin within that short a time-line.

The administration will need to co-opt Congressional leaders to resist any action on new sanctions legislation, if it believes there is a chance for an arrangement with Iran. This will lead to new tensions between President Obama and much of the organized Jewish community, who will be calling even more vociferously for the administration to abandon diplomacy and ratchet up economic pressure on Iran.

On the other hand, if, after a fair trial, diplomacy fails, and the administration decides, in concert with other countries, to move ahead with new sanctions, those who pressed for a backup plan to engagement will demand a new Plan B in case enhanced sanctions prove unable to halt Iran’s march down the nuclear path. The Obama administration could develop a new policy based on nuclear deterrence and containment of Iran, as General John Abizaid, who headed the US Central Command, has suggested.

In short, the US, Israel and the Arab world would live with a nuclear Iran, one which might have the capability to develop nuclear weapons. Prying Syria from Iran’s orbit through an American-backed peace accord with Israel would reinforce this approach, weakening Iran strategically. Or Israel could, more insistently than before, demand US acquiescence or support for a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear sites.

Alan Dershowitz opined in a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “Has Obama Turned On Israel?”: “If the Obama administration were to shift toward learning to live with a nuclear Iran and attempt to deny Israel the painful option of attacking its nuclear targets as a last resort, that would…weaken the security of the Jewish state.”

But it’s far from clear that opposing an Israeli preemptive strike would harm Israel’s security. It may well be the converse: an attack on Iran may be the single most dangerous course, embroiling the US and Israel in a new, unwinnable, catastrophic region-wide war.

Vice President Joe Biden recently signaled a more forceful tone by reminding Iran that Israel has the sovereign right to pursue a military option after the diplomatic window closes. “We cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do…if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.”

Both Biden and Obama made clear that the door remains open to engagement with Iran, but Biden suggested that if Iran wishes to avoid a host of negative consequences—“isolation” and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike—its leaders had better engage soon with the US on the nuclear issue. Alluding to the administration’s commitment to pursue negotiations with Iran despite Israeli objections, Biden stressed that “there is no pressure from any nation that’s going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed. What we believe is in the national interest of the United States…we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world.”

Would the US deny to Israeli aircraft over-flight rights in Iraq? The Vice President offered that “Israel has a right to determine what’s in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what’s in our interests.” Translation: Iran should consider that even if the US were to deny over-flight rights to Israeli planes seeking to reach Iran via Iraq, Israel might still opt to strike Iran some other way, if Iran does not come to terms with the US.

In the very same news cycle, it was reported that an Israeli sub (which can be equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles) traversed the Suez Canal with Egypt's permission, putting it in closer range to Iran in case Israel opted to launch a preemptive strike or a second strike. At the same time, the Mossad chief reportedly assured Netanyahu that the Saudis had agreed to Israel overflying their territory in a mission that would serve their “common security interests”—a report immediately denied by the Saudis, as expected. Nevertheless, Iran was meant to get the hint.

President Obama wasted no time in clarifying that the US had “absolutely not” given Israel a green light for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. “We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East," said the President.

Ynet reported on July 16 that two “Israeli missile-firing warships sailed through the Suez Canal to the Red Sea, ten days after a submarine capable of launching a nuclear missile strike. The Times of London quoted an Israeli official as saying, ’Israel is investing time in preparing itself for the complexity of an attack on Iran. These maneuvers are a message to Iran that Israel will follow up on its threats.’ The report described [the naval maneuvers] as ‘a clear signal that Israel was able to put its strike force within range of Iran at short notice.’”

Are such threats of Israeli military action simply bluster, a way of exerting pressure on Iran to reach agreement with the US? Or will Israel launch a preemptive assault on Iran?

Israeli Strike or Bust?

Neoconservatives have lost no time beating the drums of war and insisting that the time for an Israeli attack on the Iranian nuclear program is now. “With no other timely option, the already compelling logic for an Israeli strike is nearly inexorable,” urged John Bolton. Ridiculing the administration’s willingness to attempt direct talks with Iran as a “theological commitment to negotiations”—a projection of Bolton’s own ideological opposition to them under any circumstances—Bolton asserts that there is no point to waiting for talks to play out with Iran.

“Unfortunately, the Obama administration has a ‘Plan B,’” he continues, “which would allow Iran to have a ‘peaceful’ civil nuclear power program while publicly ‘renouncing’ the objective of nuclear weapons. Obama would define such an outcome as ‘success,’ even though in reality it would hardly be different from what Iran is doing and saying now.” But the point of negotiations is to establish an intrusive inspections system not unlike the one that succeeded in preventing Saddam from re-developing weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, a fact that Bolton finds too inconvenient to acknowledge.

In April 2008, Benjamin Netanyahu, then leader of the opposition, said to Stephen Hadley, then President George W. Bush’s national security adviser: “Ahmadinejad is a modern Hitler and the mistakes that were made prior to the Second World War must not be repeated.” Soon after he became prime minister of Israel, Netanyahu repeatedly issued warnings about the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons: “These are not regular times,” he said. “The danger is hurtling toward us. The real danger [is] underestimating the threat. . . My job is first and foremost to ensure the future of the state of Israel…the leadership's job is to eliminate the danger. Who will eliminate it? It is us or no one.”

Such statements from Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have stoked apocalyptic fears among the Israeli Jewish public, and much of the mainstream American Jewish leadership. A former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations has written that “If President Obama’s diplomatic efforts and subsequent tougher sanctions fail, then the president and the world should understand and support Israel's engagement in military action, if it so undertakes, to halt or delay Iran's capability of dropping a nuclear bomb on Tel Aviv. One Holocaust is enough for the Jewish people.”

The “mad mullahs” picture of a regime driven by a martyr complex—a nation of irrational, undeterrable suicide bombers—has become firmly rooted in the Israeli Jewish psyche. But a series of reports has cast doubt on this view of Israel’s situation—and on the entire incendiary complex of fears propelling us towards an Israeli attack on Iran. Yediot Ahronoth security correspondent Ronen Bergman reported that “Major General Aharon Zeevi Farkash, the former chief of military intelligence, described Israel's public perception of the Iranian nuclear threat as ‘distorted.’ His view—which is shared by many in Israel's security and intelligence services—is that Israel is not Iran's primary target,” nor its main motive for seeking a nuclear weapons capacity, and therefore, “Israel must not attack Iran unilaterally.”

Israel’s intelligence services recognize, continues Bergman, that “throughout its 30 years of existence, the Iranian regime has shown pragmatism and moderation whenever its survival was at stake. And the Iranians clearly understand that a nuclear attack against Israel would lead to a devastating Israeli counterstrike that, among other things, would mean the end of the revolutionary regime. Finally, the Mossad and military intelligence believe that the real reason the Iranians are intent on acquiring nuclear weapons … is to deter US intervention and efforts at regime change.”

It is widely understood among those who have closely studied the Iranian regime that it operates according to the principle of maslehat, “expediency,” taking a cost-benefit approach to decision-making. “Far from being a suicidally ideological regime,” observes Iran expert Mohsen M. Milani, “Tehran seeks to ensure the survival of the Islamic Republic while advancing the country’s interests through negotiations.” Internal repression and détente with the US both serve these ends, as they did for post-Tiananmen China and Soviet Russia.

According to Dr. Reuven Pedatzur, a miltary affairs scholar at Tel Aviv University, an exhaustive study by Abdullah Toukan and Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington concluded that “it is questionable whether Israel has the military capability to destroy Iran's nuclear program, or even to delay it for several years.” The odds of success from a military point of view are not great, the study's authors conclude. Second, Israel would only attack Iran's known nuclear sites. But it is likely that following such a strike—which would be unlikely to succeed even against the known sites—Iran would accelerate its uranium enrichment efforts in its secret sites, thus negating any possible benefits of a successful attack.

Third, Iran would certainly retaliate against Israeli targets with Shahab-3 missiles, as would Hezbollah and Hamas with many thousands of their own rockets, while also dispatching waves of suicide bombers into Israel. “Hezbollah now has some 40,000 rockets; Israel does not have a response to these rockets. The rocket defense systems now being developed (Iron Dome and Magic Wand) are still far from completion, and even after they become operational, it is doubtful they will prove effective against thousands of rockets launched at Israel.” The Israeli strike would also sow instability throughout the Middle East and potentially spur attacks against US forces and American allies in the region, while squelching Iran’s reformist movement.

The Pentagon’s top military and civilian leaders have long opposed an Israeli preemptive strike on Iran. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized that military action “could have grave consequences and would be very destabilizing.” Mullen also suggested that President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise. But the window for diplomacy to avert a dangerous Middle East nuclear arms race is closing, he warned.

Will Israel continue to huff and puff and threaten that it might hit Iran? Will it strike? Israel is unlikely to attack while the US is attempting to engage Iran; such action would jeopardize Israel’s good relations with the United States. But what if diplomacy, and sanctions, fail?

Political scientist Steven Cook has suggested that “all those indications portending an Israeli attack – the strike against Syria in September 2007, the large air exercises over the Mediterranean in the summer of 2008, and the recent countrywide drills that the IDF’s Home Command conducted [and Israel’s more recent naval maneuvers, coupled with the upcoming Arrow missile interceptor tests at a US missile range in the Pacific]—might actually indicate that Israel is trying to figure out how to deter Iran, rather than attack it.”

But security analyst Bergman has reached less sanguine conclusions from his conversations with Israeli government officials: “As Iran approaches nuclear weapons capability—some time in 2010, according to current Mossad estimates—an increasing number of people in Netanyahu's circle will adopt the view that Israel needs to take action and that the United States will be understanding of Israel's needs. And if the Obama administration is not so understanding? Israel may decide that the existential danger posed by a potential second Holocaust warrants risking even a serious rift with the United States. Ultimately, the fear of a nuclear-armed state whose leader talks openly of destroying Israel may outweigh the views of the country's intelligence experts.”

Gidon D. Remba is executive director of the Jewish Alliance for Change (, a nonprofit organization which supported Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy and advocates for a progressive domestic and foreign policy agenda. He also edits the group’s “Say No To War With Iran” site ( and blogs at Tough Dove Israel ( He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, 1977-1978, during the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David peace process.

Clinton Speaks of Shielding Mideast from Iran, suggesting a nuclear Iran can be deterred by the U.S.

"The best way to blunt [the] threat [of Iranian nuclear weapons] - which is still not imminent - has always been deterrence and containment, a policy that worked against Stalin and Mao and works against North Korea, a far more unstable and bizarre regime. Secretary Clinton correctly outlined such a policy last week." Fareed Zakaria wrote on Saturday in Newsweek

Key European nations -- probably including Russia and Germany -- now believe the world will have to live with such an Iranian capability rather than take military action or impose harsh sanctions. Jim Hoagland wrote in Sunday's Washington Post

PHUKET, Thailand —Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warned Wednesday that the United States would consider extending a “defense umbrella” over the Middle East if the country continued to defy international demands that it halt work that could lead to nuclear weapons.

…Speaking during a televised town hall meeting in Bangkok, Mrs. Clinton said, “We want Iran to calculate what I think is a fair assessment, that if the U.S. extends a defense umbrella over the region, if we do even more to support the military capacity of those in the gulf, it’s unlikely that Iran will be any stronger or safer, because they won’t be able to intimidate and dominate, as they apparently believe they can, once they have a nuclear weapon.”…

Mrs. Clinton later clarified her comments on Iran, delivered in advance of a regional meeting here, saying her warning that the United States might create such an umbrella did not represent any backing away from the Obama administration’s position that it must prevent Tehran from obtaining a bomb capability. But her words suggested that the administration was developing a strategy should all efforts at negotiation fail.

…Israel’s minister of intelligence and atomic energy, Dan Meridor, told Israeli Army radio: “I was not thrilled to hear the American statement from yesterday that they will protect their allies with a nuclear umbrella, as if they have already come to terms with a nuclear Iran. I think that’s a mistake.” (NY Times, July 23, 2009)

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Clinton: We will engage Iran and offer its leaders a clear choice: join the international community as a responsible member, or further isolation

"...[S]mart power counsels that we lead with diplomacy, even in the case of adversaries or nations with whom we disagree. We cannot be afraid or unwilling to engage. Yet some suggest that this is a sign of weakness or naiveté - or acquiescence to these countries' repression of their own people. That is wrong.

"The President and I believe that refusing to talk to countries rarely punishes them. And as long as engagement might advance our interests and our values, it is unwise to take it off the table. Negotiations can provide insight into regimes' calculations and the possibility - even if it seems remote - that a regime will, eventually, alter its behavior in exchange for the benefits of acceptance into the international community.... exhausting the option for dialogue is also more likely to make our partners more willing to exert pressure should persuasion fail."

"We watched the energy of Iran's election with great admiration, only to be appalled by the manner in which the government used violence to quell the voices of the Iranian people, then tried to hide its actions by arresting foreign nationals, expelling journalists, and cutting off access to technology. As we ... have made clear, these actions are deplorable and unacceptable. We know very well what we inherited with Iran. We know how far its nuclear program has advanced - and we know that refusing to deal with the Islamic Republic has not succeeded in altering the Iranian march toward a nuclear weapon, reducing Iranian support for terror, or improving Iran's treatment of its citizens.

"Neither the president nor I have any illusions that direct dialogue with the Islamic Republic will guarantee success. But we also understand the importance of trying to engage Iran and offering its leaders a clear choice: whether to join the international community as a responsible member or to continue down a path to further isolation. Direct talks provide the best vehicle for presenting and explaining that choice..... Iran can become a constructive actor in the region if it stops threatening its neighbors and supporting terrorism. It can assume a responsible position in the international community if it fulfills its obligations on human rights. The choice is clear. We remain ready to engage with Iran, but the time for action is now. The opportunity will not remain open indefinitely."

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

US Joint Chiefs Chair Adm. Mullen: Iran strike would be "very destabilizing;" "Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise"

A military strike to thwart Iran's nuclear weapons capability remains on the table but could have grave consequences and would be "very destabilizing," the top U.S. military officer said Tuesday.

"I worry a great deal about the response of a country that gets struck," said Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "It is a really important place to not go, if we can not go there in any way, shape or form."

Iran is perhaps one to three years away from getting the bomb, leaving a small and shrinking opening for diplomacy to avert what he said could be a dangerous nuclear arms race in the Middle East, Mullen said. "I think the time window is closing."

Mullen said President Barack Obama's diplomatic outreach to Iran holds promise, despite political upheaval and deadly protests following Iran's disputed presidential election.

Obama told The Associated Press last week that persuading Iran to forgo nuclear weapons has been made more difficult by the Iranian government's handling of claims that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stole re-election.

Mullen pointedly said "the strike option" - is one possible outcome. He suggested that a strike, meaning missile or other attacks to blow up Iran's known nuclear facilities, is a last resort. It would be "very destabilizing," Mullen said.

Mullen was referring to Iran's response should it be attacked by either the United States or Israel, although he was careful to say that Israel can speak and choose for itself. His remarks made clear that the Obama administration wants to avoid a strike by either country.

Mullen, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said it is critical to find a solution "before Iran gets a nuclear capability, or that anyone ... would take action to strike."

On Sunday, Vice President Joe Biden had suggested that the new U.S. administration would not stand in the way of an Israeli strike [sic: that is not in fact what Biden said]. That is not the message U.S. officials have been trying to deliver in public and private, but spokesmen insisted Biden was not speaking out of turn.

The United States would join European nations, Russia and China in negotiations over Iran's disputed nuclear program, if Iran agreed to terms for beginning the talks. Obama has also said he would hold direct talks with Iran's leadership if it would help.

The leaders of Group of Eight countries, set to meet in Italy, have yet to forge a common position on Iran's violent crackdown on post-electoral protests, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said Tuesday on the eve of the summit.

Berlusconi, who chairs the gathering of world leaders opening Wednesday, noted that some countries, such as France, were calling for tougher action against Tehran, while others, such as Russia, favored a softer stance to keep dialogue open.

Iran claims its fast-track nuclear development project is intended only for the peaceful production of electricity. Mullen, like other U.S. officials, said he is sure Iran intends to develop weapons and is working hard and fast to do so.
U.S. army chief: Iran strike would be 'very destabilizing'
By The Associated Press

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

President Obama: No green light to Israel for attacking Iran; US policy is to resolve the nuclear issue "in a peaceful way using diplomatic channels"

Jerusalem Post: The US has "absolutely not" given Israel a green light for a possible attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, US President Barack Obama said Tuesday. Obama was qualifying comments Vice President Joe Biden had made Sunday that left the impression the US would not stand in the way of an Israeli action.

"We have said directly to the Israelis that it is important to try and resolve this in an international setting in a way that does not create major conflict in the Middle East," said Obama, currently in Russia, during a CNN interview. Obama said it was "very important that I'm as clear as I can be, and our administration is as consistent as we can [be] on this issue."

The president said that Biden had simply been stating the "categorical fact" that "we can't dictate to other countries what their security interests are. What is also true is that it is the policy of the United States to resolve the issue of Iran's nuclear capabilities in a peaceful way through diplomatic channels," he said.

On Sunday, Biden was asked on ABC's This Week whether the US would stand in the way militarily if Israel decided to take out Iran's nuclear program. The US "cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do," he said. "Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else," he said. Israel had no formal comment on either the Obama or Biden remarks.
Nevertheless, the IDF has taken into consideration the possibility that it will not receive US permission to fly over Iraq on the way to Iran, and has drawn up an operational plan for this contingency. While its preference is to coordinate with the US, defense officials have said in the past that Israel was preparing a wide range of options for such an operation.
The Washington Times reported Tuesday that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his top deputies had not formally asked for US aid or permission for a possible military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities, since they feared the White House would not approve.
The report quoted two unnamed Israeli officials.
An anonymous senior Israeli official was quoted as saying that Netanyahu was determined that "it made no sense" to press the matter after the negative response former US president George W. Bush. Bush gave the prime minister's predecessor, Ehud Olmert, a negative answer when he asked early last year for US assistance for possible military strikes on Iran.
"There was a decision not to press this because it was probably inadequate for the engagement policy and what we know about Obama's approach to Iran," the official said.
Yaakov Katz contributed to this report.

'No US green light for attacking Iran'

Sunday, July 5, 2009

White House: Now is the time for direct diplomacy with Iran; Biden: "we will engage if Iran wants to engage;" US opposes new sanctions on Iran

While the hawks are calling on the Obama administration to abandon any plan to negotiate with Iran over the nuclear issue (see, for example, neocon uber-hawk John Bolton's "Time for an Israeli Strike?" in the Washington Post, July 2, 2009), the administration has remained steadfast in its commitment to keeping the door open to talking with Iran in the hope of working out a diplomatic solution. At the same time, the administration is now signalling a more forceful tone by reminding Iran that the "bad cop"--Israel--has the sovereign right to pursue a military option against Iran if it decides it needs to do so after the diplomatic window closes by the end of this year.

The message remains, as reflected in Joe Biden's remarks on 'This Week': ABC's George Stephanopoulos Goes Behind the Scenes with Vice President JoeBiden in Iraq, (July 5, 2009), "if the Iranians seek to engage, we will engage." But the administration is sending a message to the mullahs that if they want to avoid a host of negative consequences--Biden alludes to "isolation" and the possibility of an Israeli preemptive strike--they had better get engaged with the US on the nuclear issue soon.

Another indication that the administration is seeking to initiate nuclear negotiations with Iran is a report in this weekend's Ha'aretz that "The United States is opposed to enacting a new set of financial sanctions against Iran that are due to be discussed in the G8 summit next week, diplomatic officials in New York reported Friday....American officials expressed concern that a decision to enact harsh steps against Iran during the G8 meeting could badly hurt the prospect of Tehran agreeing to renew negotiations with the permanent Security Council members."

"White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Biden's remarks did not signal any change of approach on Iran or Israel. 'The vice president refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed," Vietor said. "Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the president believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options.'"

Moreover, Biden emphasized that the US will not abandon a real effort to work out an agreeement with Iran to prevent its developing nuclear weapons (despite the clamor from Israel and American neocons about the supposed need to give up the administration's plan to try direct negotiations with the Iranian regime): "But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed," Biden said. "What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world."

That's not a "theological" commitment to negotiations, as Bolton and other administration critics would have it. It's a recognition that despite the Iranian coup, our fundamental national interests remain unchanged: a diplomatic solution to the threat of Iranian nuclear weapons is still the best of all available options, and the US must fully and exhaustively explore this option with Iran.

(PS: See also "Despite Crisis, Policy on Iran is Engagement" in the New York Times today (7/6/09), which reports that President Obama said in an interview with the Times this weekend "that the accelerating crackdown on opposition leaders in Iran in recent days would not deter [him] from seeking to engage the country’s top leadership in direct negotiations.")

Biden interview transcript excerpt on Iran:

BIDEN: Well, the way you do it is if they choose to meet with the P5, under the conditions the P5 was laid out, it means they begin to change course. And it means that the protesters probably had some impact on the behavior of an administration that they don't like at all. And it believes and I believe that means there's consequences to that.Now, if they in fact decide to shut out the rest of the world, clamp down, further isolation, I think that takes them down a very different path.

STEPHANOPOULOS: How do you respond to those who say that it's the United States now that should hit the pause button, there should be a cause correction, and we shouldn't rush to sit down...

BIDEN: Well, we're not. We're not rushing to sit down. As I said to you, we have to wait to see how this sort of settles out. And there's already an offer laid out there by the permanent five plus one to say we're prepared to sit down and negotiate with you relative to your nuclear program. And so the ball's in their court.

STEPHANOPOULOS: When I saw President Ahmadinejad back in April, his response to that was that we need to see more from the United States first.Is it fair to say now that there will be absolutely no more concessions to the Iranians in advance of those discussions?BIDEN: It's fair to say the position the president has laid out will not change.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But there will be engagement -- if the Iranians want to...(CROSSTALK)

BIDEN: If the Iranians seek to engage, we will engage.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, the clock is ticking...

BIDEN: If the Iranians respond to the offer of engagement, we will engage.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But the offer is on the table?

BIDEN: The offer's on the table.

STEPHANOPOULOS: And meanwhile, Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it pretty clear that he agreed with President Obama to give until the end of the year for this whole process of engagement to work. After that, he's prepared to make matters into his own hands.Is that the right approach?

BIDEN: Look, Israel can determine for itself -- it's a sovereign nation -- what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Whether we agree or not?

BIDEN: Whether we agree or not. They're entitled to do that. Any sovereign nation is entitled to do that. But there is no pressure from any nation that's going to alter our behavior as to how to proceed.What we believe is in the national interest of the United States, which we, coincidentally, believe is also in the interest of Israel and the whole world. And so there are separate issues.If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But just to be clear here, if the Israelis decide Iran is an existential threat, they have to take out the nuclear program, militarily the United States will not stand in the way?

BIDEN: Look, we cannot dictate to another sovereign nation what they can and cannot do when they make a determination, if they make a determination that they're existentially threatened and their survival is threatened by another country.

STEPHANOPOULOS: You say we can't dictate, but we can, if we choose to, deny over-flight rights here in Iraq. We can stand in the way of a military strike.

BIDEN: I'm not going to speculate, George, on those issues, other than to say Israel has a right to determine what's in its interests, and we have a right and we will determine what's in our interests.


U.S.: Letting Israel act freely on Iran isn't policy change

By Haaretz Service

Tags: Barack Obama, Iran

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said on Sunday that the Obama administration would not stand in Israel's way should the latter chooses to take military action to eliminate Iran's nuclear threat.

White House officials said that the vice president's remarks demonstrated only U.S. allowance of Israeli sovereignty, and not a change in policy on the part of the Obama administration.

Biden told ABC reporter George Stephanopoulos that Israel has the right to determine its own course of action with regard to the Iranian nuclear threat, regardless of what the Obama administration chooses to do, .

When asked whether the Obama administration would restrain Israeli military action against Iran, Biden responded:

"Israel can determine for itself - it's a sovereign nation - what's in their interest and what they decide to do relative to Iran and anyone else."

Stephanaopoulos posed the question three times, and each time Biden repeated that Israel was free to choose its actions. "If the Netanyahu government decides to take a course of action different than the one being pursued now, that is their sovereign right to do that. That is not our choice."

White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said Biden's remarks did not signaling any change of approach on Iran or Israel.

"The vice president refused to engage hypotheticals, and he made clear that our policy has not changed," Vietor said. "Our friends and allies, including Israel, know that the president believes that now is the time to explore direct diplomatic options."

During the interview, Biden hinted that President Barack Obama was looking to take a harder line toward Iran over the latter's contentious nuclear program.

He said that Obama's offer for dialogue with Tehran remained on the table, but rejected the notion that the U.S. would make concessions for such negotiation to take place.

"The ball's in their court," Biden said. "If they choose to meet with the P-5 under the conditions the P-5 has laid out, it means they begin to change course. And it means that the protestors probably had some impact on the behavior of an administration that they don't like at all."

Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Sunday, when asked about Biden's comments, that the U.S. position on Iran and a military strike involves a political decision.

"I have been, for some time, concerned about any strike on Iran. I worry about it being very destabilizing, not just in and of itself but unintended consequences of a strike like that," Mullen said on CBS' Face the Nation.

"At the same time, I'm one that thinks Iran should not have nuclear weapons. I think that is very destabilizing," he said.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Top Obama Advisor David Axelrod: US "looking to sit down and talk to the Iranians."

U.S. officials insist the door remains open [to negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue], despite questions about the legitimacy of Ahmadinejad's re-election and his anti-American rhetoric.

"It's in the United States' national interest to make sure that we have employed all elements at our disposal, including diplomacy, to prevent Iran from achieving that nuclear capacity," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, said Washington was "looking to [...] sit down and talk to the Iranians."

Still he qualified his comments with a veiled threat of further U.N. sanctions should Iran remain defiant...Axelrod said that any negotiations with Tehran will offer "two paths [...] one brings them back into the community of nations, and the other has some very stark consequences."

Associated Press, Wed Jul 1, 12:58 pm ET

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Sen. John Kerry: Ultimately, we are going to deal with a government in Iran because the nuclear issue is so compelling, urgent, dangerous

Ha'aretz/Reuters: The Obama administration has rescinded invitations to Iranian diplomats to attend U.S. independence day celebrations on July 4, the White House said on Wednesday.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Iranian diplomats had in any case not replied to invitations already sent out. Initially, the administration had said that the invitation still stood, but by Wednesday afternoon announced otherwise.

"As far as I know not a single Iranian accepted the invitation to 4 of July celebration? said State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said earlier Wednesday. "They are celebration of our basic values of independence and freedom, which are exactly what Iranians demand on the streets."

U.S. officials and analysts believe that the political turmoil in Iran surrounding its contested June 12 presidential election has dimmed immediate prospects for U.S. dialogue with Tehran, but say U.S. President Barack Obama's hopes for engagement have by no means been snuffed out.

Officials acknowledge that the Iranian authorities bloody crackdown on street protests sparked by the election have made it less likely that Tehran will wish to engage and harder for the Obama administration to do so.

However, Obama has deliberately not withdrawn his open-hand policy toward Iran even as the authorities displayed an iron fist to intimidate demonstrators in the biggest anti-government protests since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

"The president's policy of engagement is obviously delayed, but we are going to have to deal with the government of Iran," Senator John Kerry, chairman of the influential Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Reuters.

"The dust will have to settle but ultimately we are going to deal with a government of Iran because we have to, because the nuclear issue is so compelling, urgent, dangerous and important to us," he added.

Since taking office, Obama has made a series of overtures to Iran - including inviting its diplomats to July 4th parties at U.S. embassies around the world - as a way of trying to rebuild ties severed after the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The U.S. hope is to coax Iran into a negotiation over its nuclear program - which Washington suspects is designed to produce atomic bombs but which Tehran says is to generate electricity - as well as other issues.

Jim Dobbins, a senior fellow at the Rand Corporation nonprofit research group and a former top U.S. diplomat who has dealt extensively with Iranians, said an assumption that the engagement policy was now dead took too short-term a view.

"Engagement with Iran is off for the foreseeable future, but the foreseeable future extends about a week," he said.

"If the regime succeeds in tamping down resistance, establishing effective control, and then proves willing to engage the United States in meaningful talks, my guess is that the administration will ultimately agree, although it will be more difficult as a result of these events," he added.

Security forces have clamped down on Tehran to prevent protest rallies. Reformists say the election was rigged to return President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power and to keep out moderate former prime minister Mirhossein Mousavi.

The furor over the election has exposed deep rifts within Iran's political elite, with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei solidly backing Ahmadinejad against Mousavi and declaring the disputed election result would stand.

U.S. conservatives argued that the Iranian crackdown had vindicated their view that Iran's ruling authorities are not willing to negotiate with the West over their nuclear program.

"I think his underlying policy is fundamentally wrong because negotiation is doomed to failure in the future, just as it has been doomed to failure in the past, when it comes to their nuclear program," said John Bolton, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President George W. Bush.

"I think the policy he should be pursuing is overthrowing the Islamic revolution of 1979," he said, calling for the United States to funnel more resources -- covert and overt -- to strengthen opponents of the Islamic republic inside and outside Iran.

Obama has taken some political heat for his careful response to the election, with Republicans arguing that he should supported the protesters earlier and and criticized the government's crackdown against them more sharply.

Kerry, however, suggested that Obama could not afford to write off the possibility of negotiating with Ahmadinejad.

"We don't' have the luxury of choosing our negotiating partners in certain situations," he said.

Asked how long any engagement might be delayed, Kerry replied: "I can't tell you how long that is, it could be a matter of weeks.

"Personally, I don't believe it will be a long period of time, but that will ultimately depend on how they will resolve this crisis, internally in Iran. If they choose to do things that are so extreme that they confront everybody's conscience ... they could make it very [difficult] in the short term."

Published as "Obama rescinds July 4 invites to Iranian diplomats"By Natasha Mozgovaya, Haaretz Correspondent and Reuters

Excerpt from "How Iran’s Hardliners Shot Themselves in the Foot," Shaul Bakhash, The Forward, June 26, 2009

"The irony of all this is that Mousavi actually did not necessarily pose a fundamental threat to the status quo. Certainly, he would have softened the tone of Iranian foreign policy, reverting to the type of presidential rhetoric that preceded Ahmadinejad’s term in office.

"And even Khamenei himself has not ruled out engaging America, so long as it is done on his terms. In any case, Iran’s nuclear policy is set by the supreme leader, not by the president. Moreover, easing of social, press and political controls of the kind envisaged by Mousavi would have been limited in scope. Yet the hardliners persisted in the belief that any relaxing of controls would be the thin edge of the wedge that would destabilize the whole system….

"If there is engagement with America, Khamenei wants to control it. In Ahmadinejad, he has a willing collaborator. In Mousavi, he might have had a president with a mind of his own.
These considerations may explain the decision to manipulate the election results — and the available evidence points to the conclusion that the results were, indeed, falsified — in order to give Ahmadinejad an undeserved victory."