Back in 2002, this crazy idea of responding to 9/11 by attacking Iraq first started being floated. And now we’re getting stronger and stronger whiffs of Dorky Middle East War, the Sequel: Iran. Can the sensible people of the world please stand up and say ”Please, let’s not do that“.

It’s getting to the point where the New York Times has matter-of-fact articles like Iran Raid Seen as a Huge Task for Israeli Jets. On top of which, some of the particularly bloodthirsty members of the LikudAmerica fringe are pushing like crazy on that Overton Window, for example see Does AIPAC want war?

Puzzling Evidence · It seems self-evident to me that an Israeli coup de main against Iranian nuclear facilities would be unlikely to have any effect that is positive for Israel or negative for Iran. Evidence suggests (if you read the Israeli media) that this also seems self-evident to the Israeli military leadership.

So why the continued sabre-rattling? I’ve read two theories:

  • The Israelis are trying to convince the US Administration that they’re crazy enough to do this in order to extract concessions, bribes for them not to. I don’t believe this, because it seems to me that Netanyahu’s administration has got pretty well everything they want from Obama’s: no real pressure on settlements or human-rights issues.

  • Some week, the Israelis are going to tell Washington they’re attacking next week, and the US knows it would be such a disaster that they conclude that they’ll have to do the attack on Israel’s behalf. But this is the one thing I can’t see the US administration, as Netanyahu-friendly as it is, even contemplating. Obama got where he is in some part on the basis of having been right about Iraq.

So I don’t know what the hell is actually going on. But recall the run-up to the Iraq war very vividly, and it isn’t making me happy.

Why It’s a Dumb Idea · I asserted above that an Israeli attack on Iran would be stupid and counterproductive. I ought to provide some arguments to back up that claim.

  • As that New York Times article makes clear, the risk of failure is very, very high.

  • It would strengthen Iran’s dictators. One of the few things that could cause the population to rally around the much-despised mullahs and Revolutionary Guard would be an actual foreign attack.

  • Chances are that a few minutes after the attack started, Hezbollah missiles would start flying out of South Lebanon. The conventional wisdom is that they have more and better missiles than in the 2006 war, and could potentially drop a few right into Tel Aviv.

    Now, there’s no doubt that the IDF would dearly love a chance to have another run at Hezbollah. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they did better than last time. But it also wouldn’t be a surprise if they didn’t; which feels like a deeply stupid bet for an Israeli politician to make.

Nuclear Iran? · Obviously, it’s perfectly sensible to worry about a nuclear-armed Iran; it’s fought recent wars with its neighbors. But it seems to me that it’s the neighbors who should be worrying.

I just can’t see any scenario in which Iran, if it did get a usable bomb that could be delivered at that distance, would try to nuke Israel. Here’s why: The mullahs and Revolutionary Guards who are oppressing Iran are doing just fine, thank you. They’ve managed to fend off the opposition, the oil business is good, and it’s easy for a ruling elite to ignore sanctions pain, as Saddam Hussein showed us all.

If they were so silly as to make Israel feel existentially threatened on Tuesday, Tehran would be a smoking radioactive crater on Wednesday, and that would be bad for business.

American Politics · Someone is fomenting a war. It’s hard to figure out who, and why, exactly. But this is scary as hell.

Right now, US politics is at a fever pitch. Seems to me that this campaign slogan might be worth trying: “Israel shouldn’t attack Iran, and if they do they’re on their own. As President, I won’t start a war with Iran unless they threaten America.”


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Guy Rosen (Feb 21 2012, at 00:36)

Good article Tim, however I believe your first possible theory for the sabre-rattling was close but just missed the mark.

To put things in context - Israelis from top to bottom really, honestly believe that nukes in the hands of the Ayatollah regime is a threat on the scale not seen since WWII (and one must recall that those events of the last century are etched into the collective history; just listening to Ahmadinajad brings back those old fears).

Hence, using the Iranian problem as leverage for small concessions on things like settlements is simply irrelevant and out of proportion. (And as you pointed out, unnecessary, Netanyahu has wiggled his way there anyhow.)

BUT since we all hope and pray that the good Iranian people will one day get rid of the nuts that are running their country, we ask ourselves how to make that day come faster. Sanctions - real, painful sanctions - are possibly an effective tool that carries less risk of the boomerang uniting effect of a strike. Netanyahu could be hoping that if the world truly believes Israel is "crazy enough" to strike, there will be more pressure on the international community to put those sanctions into place in order to avert a strike.

So is it all a big bluff? I think not, and evidence implies that a viable military option is and has been in preparation for years but quite like any last resort, the leadership has yet to decide whether to use it. In a Sun Tzu kind of paradox, the more viable the military option, the less likely it will be used.


From: Mike (Feb 21 2012, at 01:51)

"it’s perfectly sensible to worry about a nuclear-armed Iran; it’s fought recent wars with its neighbors"

If you're talking about Iran-Iraq, Iran didn't have much choice in the matter. It was invaded, and that invasion was supported by most of the Western world. Wanting a nuclear deterrent makes perfect sense, and bombing them for wanting one seems the height of hypocrisy.


From: Houman (Feb 21 2012, at 02:23)

"Obviously, it’s perfectly sensible to worry about a nuclear-armed Iran; it’s fought recent wars with its neighbors."

Please do some research before making wrong statements like this. The last time Iran invaded a country was on 13 February 1739 (invading India). For your convenience that was 273 years ago. When was the last time USrael went to war?

The War between Iran-Iraq was imposed by Iraq in 1980-1988. Iraq was supported with Chemical weapons from Western countries and got direct support from USA by their VETO right in the UN Security Council.

Before making statements like this, please do your homework.


From: Lucky Jim (Feb 21 2012, at 03:20)

I really wish you were right, but it just doesn't jibe with what's going on.

"It would strengthen Iran’s dictators. One of the few things that could cause the population to rally around the much despised mullahs and Revolutionary Guard would be an actual foreign attack."

Assuming that's even true, looking at the aftermath of the Arab Spring---Islamists being elected across north Africa and the middle East, all of them making the usual anti-Semitic noises---should the Israelis really give too much weight to this consideration? Now, what would really stengthen Iran's dictators would be a few nuclear weapons.

"As that New York Times article makes clear, the risk of failure is very, very high."

The probability of failure may be high. The risk of failure is that probability multiplied by how likely the Iranians are do something really nasty against Israel, like, say, wiping them off the map. The risk is unacceptable.

"If they were so silly as to make Israel feel existentially threatened on Tuesday, Tehran would be a smoking radioactive crater on Wednesday, and that would be bad for business."

The mullahs aren't business men. They're theocrats bent on the destruction of Israel. Tehran being a smoking radioactive crater would bother them a whole lot less than Tel Aviv being a smoking radioactive crater would bother the Israelis.


From: Michael (Feb 21 2012, at 04:08)

+@Guy Rosen, but where is the evidence that sanctions will be a step towards the Iranian people overthrowing the regime?


From: Tom Welsh (Feb 21 2012, at 05:15)

Tim, you seem to have overlooked the most obvious and plausible reason for the USA (and Israel) to whip up aggression against Iran. It's the oldest political trick in the book: when things are going wrong at home, distract the populace with a foreign menace. There is a useful side benefit, which is that it is much harder (and may even be made illegal) to question the government about anything in "wartime". Iraq has served its turn, and now there is very little of it left. Afghanistan is following the same trajectory, and soon there will be no one left worth killing. A new enemy is required - someone who can be compared with Hitler. (Incidentally, the USA remained firmly neutral in WW2 until first Japan and then Germany declared war on it, but that's not important right now).

As for the Iranian "nuclear threat", please keep in mind a few simple facts.

1. You say Iran has "been involved" in wars with its neighbours. Yes, for instance when it was attacked by Iraq - which was egged on by the USA. Being the victim of aggression is not a mark of disgrace.

2. There is no evidence that Iran even plans to acquire nuclear weapons. It has not been purifying uranium beyond about 20 percent, whereas far more (e.g. 90 percent) is required for weapons.

3. Iran is entirely entitled to purify uranium and use it for peaceful purposes (power, medicine, etc.) It has signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) and has observed its requirements as far as anyone knows. Meanwhile India, Pakistan, North Korea and Israel, which have functional nuclear arsenals, have never even signed the treaty (apart from North Korea for a short while). And even nations like the USA and UK have not met their obligations under the NPT.


From: LZ (Feb 21 2012, at 05:35)

Nuclear Iran will indeed be a threat. Think what would have happened if Saddam's Iraq had nuclear weapons at the time he invaded Kuwait.


From: Anonymous (Feb 21 2012, at 05:47)

Personally, I think the saber-rattling on Iran is just like it was with Iraq and is happening for the same reason: US Politics. Stirring up fears about Iran is good politics for some people, so they do. I don't think they care that they might set off a chain of events with real-world consequences.

Depressingly, one of the worst things that could happen is for Obama to come out against war with Iran. It wouldn't change any minds that need changing. It would just convince some people that Obama couldn't be trusted to deal with America's enemies.

The sensible people of the world coming out against it would also be counterproductive. Just as it does with Iran, applying external pressure would only unite the US in resisting it. International disapproval didn't slow down war with Iraq. If anything, it sped it up.

Sadly, I have no idea what would actually help.


From: George Goodall (Feb 21 2012, at 05:52)

I can't disagree. Ian MacDonald imagined a similar scenario in his novel The Dervish House (he was robbed of the Hugo if you ask me!). There was no war in his near-future scenario. Instead, there was pre-emptive nuclear strike on Iran's uranium refining facilities in Fandoglu Mountain. The EU reprimands, the Russians bluster, and the Chinese and Indians yell... but they are all distracted by their own domestic/environmental concerns. It's the Georgians, Azerbaijanians (sp?), and Iranians that suffer.


From: Simon Fodden (Feb 21 2012, at 06:01)

The US has withdrawn from Iraq and is withdrawing from Afghanistan—which will leave it without an active war, an unstable state for America, since WWII certainly. The likeliest next enemy is Iran. Good place for them to test the "all-drones, all the time" approach to war.


From: Lawrence (Feb 21 2012, at 06:27)

I think you're ignoring the simple explanation in favor of complicated conspiracy theories. As you said, Iranians don't really like their dictators. The ayatollahs are at risk of being overthrown sooner or later. When that time comes, they will have nothing to lose, and attacking Israel will look like a low risk choice among various bad options. Sure, today it would be pretty stupid to attack Israel, but it's not smart for Israelis to look just at the next three to six months, like some poorly-run publicly-traded business. I don't really see a likely path to a stable Iran that doesn't involve the ayatollahs losing power.

Even then, there'd be no reason to start a nuclear war, since that would also be suicidal. The idea would be to have a nuclear bomb so you limit the Israeli options on counterattack. If the Israelis were winning, *then* you'd drop in the bomb in "self-defense".


From: John B (Feb 21 2012, at 07:41)

“Israel shouldn’t attack Iran, and if they do they’re on their own. As President, I won’t start a war with Iran unless they threaten America.”

'Ron Paul told voters on Friday that he would not launch a preemptive strike on Iran because “they don’t threaten our national security.”

“If some other country thought they had to go to war with them, that is their business,”'

Sounds like a pretty close match to me :)

But they won't nominate him for some reason.


From: Jess (Feb 21 2012, at 09:29)

Tim, you've made some excellent points, particularly regarding American politics. (I voted for Ron Paul; you're welcome.) As numerous comments have it, Iran has not been so openly belligerent as one might assume from the headlines, even if they do support terrorists a bit.

Let me say that nuclear technology is fairly old at this point; any nation Iran's size that really wants it is going to get it. (Stuxnet was cool though! Much better than assassinating scientists or aerial bombing.)

An important correction: there is no guarantee that whatever replaces the current regime, if that happens anytime in the next couple of decades, will be any less belligerent or any less committed to nuclear technology. If one might analogize to USA politics, a "liberal" regime might well redouble its nuclear and authoritarian efforts, to forestall any accusations of softness. As Spengler of Asia Times has argued, the Iranians are sitting on the worst demographic timebomb outside Eastern Europe, and they pay attention to that sort of thing. They know that different ethnic groups have warred and conquered what is now Iran for at least 5,000 years, and they're looking around nervously. Israel may only be a proxy for the Pakistanis, Kurds, Central Asians, etc. that are a more direct threat to Iran, but everyone notices nuclear weapons, and no one gives them up once they've got them.


From: Tom Welsh (Feb 22 2012, at 14:01)

Although I put my reactions as strongly as I felt I should in my previous comment, I very much understated the case that Iran has done nothing wrong at all.

As a corrective, and in case you wish to understand what is really going on, may I suggest this article by Arthur Silber?

Perhaps I could put it like this. "What part of 'Supreme International Crime' do you not understand?"


From: Bernie Simon (Feb 28 2012, at 06:12)

Here's a theory, and I throw it out just as idea. Some people have bet heavily that the price of oil will keep going up. They know that sooner or later the market will turn and if it turns too soon, they will lose their bets. Threatening war with Iran drives the price of oil up, as war threatens passage of Arabian oil through the Straits of Hormuz. This gives time for the investors to cash out their bets and take their profits.


From: len (Feb 28 2012, at 13:55)

<blockquote>it seems to me that it’s the neighbors who should be worrying.</blockquote>

The Saudis certainly are. It was one of the only really interesting news bits from WikiLeaks: the Saudi royal family is perfectly happy for the US to hit Iran. Not exactly the kind of news one gives the world and expects not to roil some powerful folk, but that is the dour fellow's problem as soon as the Swedes are done with him.

I tend to dismiss the opinions from Canadians these days regards world politics. They are seldom involved except covertly and for pay so they don't have that much experience.

The US has sent every signal they have offline and on to the Israelis to say America isn't up for this one. Israel replied they'd go it alone and not tell us first.

On the other hand, for the We Just Can't Get Through a Day Without Professing Our Distaste for America Gang, remember all war happy types always have a spare in case the trendy one doesn't work out. In this case, they look South of the Border and wonder how long it will be before the Drug Lords and The We Not Only Don't Like America But We Have WMD To Sell get together and do something that justifies getting Mad Jack Pershing out of the cooler and sending him on a long ride through the border towns.

That is the one that makes me nervous as more assets are purchased to position along that border. Iran can rot in theocratic hell as long as it likes. America made it's point to the ruling beards when that roof was blown down on the majlis right after Reagan was elected. They do understand it gets personal.


From: Tony (Feb 29 2012, at 00:25)

"Someone is fomenting a war. It’s hard to figure out who, and why, exactly. But this is scary as hell."

Agreed it's scary, but not really hard to figure out. Look at Iraq and Afghanistan. Who benefitted? Where did the money go? The big companies awarded lucrative reconstruction projects? The defense companies? Private contractor companies? Friends and backers of the people in power - how many of George Bushes friends were directors of companies awarded contracts - hint: Halliburton anyone?

Think of war as an efficient and legal mechanism for transferring vast sums of tax payer money to the Swiss bank accounts of the people really pulling the strings of politicians.

It's almost the perfect scam - tax payer money is used to lay a country to waste (and the corporations benefit from the munitions sold to do this), and then tax payer money is used to rebuild that country (again the chosen corporations benefit). All while the corporations pay minimal tax by leveraging cheap labour and locating in tax havens. Nice work if you can get it...


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