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U.S.-Iran-Israel: The Fateful Triangle

August 27, 2010

No sooner had the ink dried on the new U.S. Iran sanctions bill—a bill said to be necessary to avoid war with Iran—than the media campaign for war with Iran began.

(In case you haven’t been exposed to the campaign yet, the loci classici are Reuel Marc Gerecht’s “Should Israel Bomb Iran? Better safe than sorry” in the July 26 Weekly Standard, a July 25 Associated Press story wrongly reporting that former CIA chief Michael Hayden said that war with Iran is “inexorable” (he actually said Iran’s nuclear program was “inexorable”), and the mother-of-all-Iran-war-hype pieces, Jeffrey Goldberg’s “Point of No Return,” the cover story in the September Atlantic.)

The campaign has a congressional component, too: H. Res. 1553, introduced by Rep. Louis Gohmert and 46 Republican colleagues July 22.  The resolution expresses support for Israel to use “all means necessary… including the use of military force” to “eliminate nuclear threats” posed by Iran.  It is, in effect, a U.S. declaration of war on Iran, as an Israeli attack would likely draw the U.S. into the fight.  (You can urge your representative to oppose H. Res. 1553)

The campaign doesn’t hope to achieve immediate results.   It is a medium-term effort.  Goldberg’s piece argues for the likelihood of an Israeli attack on Iran “one day next spring.”  Iranian-American analyst Trita Parsi suggests the campaign’s goal could be either to force President Obama’s hand sometime in the next two years or to “push out Obama and push in a Republican president amenable to a U.S. war against Iran for the sake of avoiding an Israeli war against Iran.”

It’s not just about Iran

It’s also likely that the campaign for war with Iran is not entirely about Iran.  David Kay, the former UN and U.S. Iraq weapons inspector (and an Iraq hawk who supported the 2003 U.S. invasion), argues that Israel, through the statements of anonymous Israeli officials at the core of Goldberg’s Atlantic article, is “engaged in psychological warfare with the Obama administration.  Beyond trying to force Obama to attack Iran or permit an Israeli attack, Kay writes that:

of probably greater importance to the current Israeli government is avoiding the Obama administration pushing it into a choice between settlements and territorial arrangements with the Palestinians that it is unwilling to make and permanent damage to its relationship with the U.S. Hyping the Iranian nuclear program and the need for early military action is a nice bargaining counter.

Either, Kay argues, Israel can use the threat of an Israeli attack on Iran to persuade the U.S. to back off demands for concessions to the Palestinians, or an actual war will produce a catastrophe in which the U.S. will be unable to pursue Israeli-Palestinian peace.  In other words, a threatened or actual war with Iran is the Netanyahu government’s escape route from U.S. pressure for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

Obama administration pushes back, a bit

Whatever the campaign’s motives, its claim that it is “two-minutes to midnight” is grossly exaggerated.  For Iran to have a deliverable nuclear weapon it is only, at a minimum, one year to midnight.  And equally important, the Iran nuclear weapons clock is not running at the moment.  In a mildly encouraging sign that the Obama administration is pushing back against the Iran war campaign, administration officials told the New York Times last week that they had recently persuaded Israel that Iran could not build a nuclear weapon in less than a year after an expulsion of the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency who now monitor Iran’s uranium enrichment process.  The U.S. officials said they believed their discussions with the Israelis had reduced the chances that Israel would attack Iran within the next year.

U.S. officials told the Times that IAEA inspectors would quickly detect an Iranian move to “breakout” from civilian nuclear activities to a weapons program, or Iran’s expulsion of the inspectors would send the same signal that Iran had decided to “dash” to build a weapon.  In either case, there would be plenty of time for Israel or the U.S. to consider a military response.  Although indications are that Iran has run into problems with its uranium enrichment process, it is nonetheless slowly acquiring the knowhow to build nuclear weapons if it decides to do so.  But it is also clear that there is very little chance that Iran could make the move from a civilian program to a weapons program without setting off early warning alarm bells around the world.

A little help from our friends

In these circumstances the first priority should be to defeat the Iran war campaign in the media and in Congress, and avoid marching into another disastrous war on trumped-up charges, as the U.S. did in Iraq.   Beyond avoiding war, the Obama administration needs to be pressed to renew diplomatic efforts to persuade Iran to accept even more stringent international safeguards for its nuclear program than those already in place.  Actually, the more accurate way to put it is to say that the administration needs to be pressed to accept diplomatic efforts to resolve concerns over Iran’s nuclear program.

The U.S. and its traditional partners are not likely to be able to do the job alone.  The road to agreement between Washington and Tehran today almost certainly passes through Ankara.  Turkey has likely become the indispensable mediator in overcoming the domestic political opposition to engagement with the U.S. in Iran.  Iran needs Turkey’s neighborly Muslim face for reassurance if it is to step toward accommodation with the country it has characterized as the “Great Satan” for more than 30 years.   The U.S. needs Turkey, too.  Accepting the mediation of a regional ally would be a decisive step away from the preemptive style of U.S. foreign policy that Sen. Arlen Specter aptly characterized during the previous administration as “insulting.” Specter said then that the U.S. approach to the world had all too often “earned us the title of ‘the ugly American.’”  The Obama administration would do well to heed the truth in Sen. Specter’s words and try getting by in the world with a little help from our friends.

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