The New York Times ran a story today highlighting the eerie similarities between the 2003 distortions, hyper-ventilating, and misuse of intelligence data that led to the disastrous Iraq war and what we are experiencing now regarding a possible war with Iran. The major difference now is that the United States now has a president and military establishment that seem far less eager than the Bush administration to rush headlong into another yet Middle Eastern quagmire.
Of course many members of Congress and some of the neo-cons are banging the drums for more resolute action (read military) against the potential Iranian nuclear threat. This being an election year Republicans love accusing Obama of being weak in the face of the Iranian threat. This plays well to the Republican right wing that actually believes this kind of force makes American ‘look strong’. It would be gratifying if such people recognized that the Iraq war combined with the economic/financial mismanagement leading to the 2008 blow-up did more to create the widely accepted notion that America is on the downhill slope than anything Obama could possibly do, or not do. The fact that the US is using force intelligently for once (Libya, Osama bin Laden, and Anwar al-Awlaki) seems lost on the critics who won’t be happy until the 81st Airborne Division is descending on Teheran.
Some of the loudest voices for a pre-emptive strike against Iran are coming from Israel where government officials waste no effort to paint the nuclear situation in Iran in the most frightening way possible. Israel has legitimate fears of a nuclear-armed Iran whose leaders make even the North Koreans look reasonable. But is war the only answer, and, more specifically, should the United States be dragged into a war on the basis of Israeli intelligence that might , just might be tailored to frighten an uniformed American public and swing votes to jingoistic Republican presidential candidates trying to demonstrate their ‘toughness’?
The current Israeli government really has two fears: a justified fear of Iran with nuclear weapons and a lesser fear of the re-election of Barrack Obama. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would love to see a friendly Republican replace a highly critical Obama after the election next fall. He would love to be rid of Obama with his constant criticism of the West Bank settlements and Netanyahu’s steadfast refusal to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians. Republican hopefuls like Newt Gingrich already claim that the Palestinians are an ‘invented´ people. The other GOP candidates have fallen in line with the ‘Obama is timid toward Iran’ theme. Netanyahu’s only problem is that none of the current crop of Republican candidates looks capable at this point of beating Obama. And with a second-term Obama Netanyahu can expect even more criticism and pressure to do a deal with Palestinians.
There are serious doubts that Israel could actually pull off an effective attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities on its own. It’s a long way from Israel to Iran and the Israelis would have to get permission from people like the Jordanians and Iraqis to fly over those countries. Hard to see this happening. Even if they did get this permission, would Israeli planes have enough fuel for the long trip, dodging Iranian air defenses, and time over the target to knock out the facilities? If they could convince the United States to help the problem becomes much easier.
Of course there is another way, but Netanyahu shows no signs of even trying this. Israel could make common cause with a number of Arab countries – Saudi Arabia for a start - that also fear and loath Iran. But no Arab country would dare do this unless and until Israel reaches a reasonable agreement with the Palestinians that leads to a real Palestinian state. Among other things this would mean giving up the idea of Greater Israel incorporating the West Bank and agreeing to halt the settlements. The Israeli government may actually believe that the settlements are not a major issue, but every Palestinian and most of the other Arabs do. It is very difficult seeing how any Arab government would risk its very existence by forming an alliance with Israel until this situation is resolved. Until that time the Arabs will rely on American protection from any Iranian threat.
So far the US administration is keeping its cool. Intelligence analysts tell Congress that Iran has not reached the point of building a bomb. The U.S. Chief of Staff recently told his Israeli counterparts that an attack right now would not be ‘prudent.’
Given the nature of the Iranian government and the near-universal disbelief of its claim to be building plants for nuclear energy and not a bomb it is entirely possible that the situation may deteriorate into armed conflict. But right now we don’t know just how the Iranian regime will react to tougher sanctions. Nor, according to the U.S. Secretary of Defense, has Iran reached the point of no-return on the development of a nuclear weapon. If we do have to fight another war with unknown and potentially widespread, damaging consequences let’s at least be sure we do so on the basis of real knowledge and commitment to avoid Iraq II.