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No Second Iraq

On Iran, the parallels are inexact, but the lessons remain instructive

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Yes, that is none other than Hans Blix discussing the Iranian nuclear program this week.(Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)

In case your memory needed refreshing, yesterday’s front-page New York Times story noted the parallel between the run-up to the invasion of Iraq and current talk over Iran. And just as important as understanding the parallel is understanding that all the American debaters themselves understand the parallel; the discussion over how the United States should approach Iran and its alleged nuclear weapons program—think of it as an alleged “weapons of mass destruction” program, if that helps—is explicitly taking place in the context of wanting to avoid the mistakes and misperceptions that led to the invasion of Iraq.

It would be incredibly silly—and one can sense some succumbing to this comforting silliness—to conclude that just as we were wrong about Iraq’s program, Iran’s, too, is far less severe than we imagine now. The latest U.N. report found pretty overwhelming evidence of the ability to produce a weapon; the last time Iran refused to cooperate with international inspectors was, literally, two days ago. There is evidence that the scientists Israel somebody is assassinating are bent on destroying Israel. And in the context of the anti-Semitic, eliminationist rhetoric routinely emitted by the regime, it feels counterintuitive, to say the least, simply to believe the Supreme Leader when he says the nuclear program is intended purely peacefully. (It’s also worth noting that while the Iraq War was a massive ground invasion intended to change a regime, even the more hawkish talk of striking Iran comprises an air strike—perhaps an “air war”—with the more modest aim of disrupting the nuclear program.)

On the flip side, in the context of the Iraq history, alarmist jeremiads like this Robert Wright post, in which he warns that a ludicrous, non-binding Senate resolution ostensibly banning containment as a U.S. policy toward Iran (doesn’t the executive branch make foreign policy?) may inexorably lead to war, make a little more sense, although I wish Wright were a mite less focused on the specific nefarious influence of AIPAC as opposed to the generally hawkish predilections of generally hawkish politicians representing generally hawkish voters.

Even the best article I’ve read recently on what to do about Iran practically begins with the warning, “the lesson of Iraq, the last preventive war launched by the United States, is that Washington should not choose war when there are still other options.”

Those are the words of Colin Kahl, who just so happens to be recently of the Defense Department. His Foreign Affairs essay provides a relatively succinct brief against war right now, arguing that we would have at least a year between Iran’s political decision to build a bomb, which we would learn of soon after it occurred, and its having a bomb; that an attack would almost surely escalate and involve other countries in the region (not just Israel, also the Gulf states, Lebanon, and perhaps Syria); that Iran is more on the ropes now than ever before, and therefore more amenable than ever before to negotiation; and that a strike may not force all that much of a delay in the development of a weapon.

Ultimately, Kahl argues—as he also did yesterday in a shorter piece—that an attack would actually subsequently necessitate the same sort of containment that hawks now decry, only made more difficult by the yet-more-increased aura of mistrust and enmity birthed by, well, our having just bombed the crap out of them. You get all the negative blowback of an attack (not guaranteed, but very likely) as well as a more difficult task of continuing to head off a bomb … and you haven’t even tried what would actually be the most assured method of prevention: reaching an actual diplomatic solution, the admittedly unlikely eventuality that, if attained, would keep Iran out of the nuclear-weapon club more credibly than any bunker-busting attack would.

In this context, the only rational reason to attack is, ironically, Israel’s. For the following scenario does depend upon the U.S. attacking Iran if its own, more reasonable red line—the decision to build a bomb—is crossed. And if you are Prime Minister Netanyahu—of a hawkish inclination to be sure, but also reasonably mistrustful of the current regime—there is a logic to attacking now to make sure everyone has to turn their cards over. It may be Netanyahu who, as Ari Shavit put it today, “believes solely in the Zionist sword,” but it is President Obama’s responsibility to make sure it stays sheathed. At their meeting next month, Obama must persuade Bibi not to bomb now by assuring him that he himself will bomb later. Of course, we’ve entered Dr. Strangelove territory here, but the point of Dr. Strangelove is that it was all plausible.

Let’s assume the U.S. (and, crucially, Israel) listens to Kahl. What are the best ways to get a diplomatic solution? Step one is clearly to maintain the threat of military action. Step two, argues influential columnist David Ignatius today, is to establish some sort of communication with the regime, offer them an off-ramp, and then convince them there’s “no alternative but a punishing war.” Ignatius writes that history shows that “Iranian leaders aren’t irrational madmen—and also that they drive a hard bargain.” So keep the current sanctions, which are currently squeezing the Iranian economy and currency, in place. And step three, as outlined by Richard Haass and Michael Levi, is to offer Iran—publicly, so that the Iranian public can know what its leaders have for their consideration—a deal that would, effectively, call Iran’s bluff, allowing an extremely intrusively inspected and totally peaceful nuclear program (Haass and Levi are dead-set against an Iranian bomb). It’s notable that Dennis Ross, too, has expressed that he is okay with this.

It’s worth a shot. It’s more of a shot than we gave Saddam Hussein (not that he deserved better; we deserved better). It it fails, Iran itself (and not Netanyahu) will, in effect, have made the decision to be attacked; and Iran’s people and the rest of the world will know it.

In Din Over Iran, Rattling Sabers Echo [NYT]
AIPAC and the Push Toward War [Atlantic]
Not Time to Attack Iran [Foreign Affairs]
The Iran Containment Fallacy [The Hill Congress Blog]
Getting Iran to Back Down on Its Nuclear Program [WP]
How to Talk Down Tehran’s Nuclear Ambitions [WSJ]
If Israel Strikes Iran, It’ll Be Because Obama Didn’t Stop It
Earlier: On Iran, U.S. and Israeli Signals Still Crossed
U.N.: Evidence of Ongoing Iran Bomb Program

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Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

The Jewish Exponent (Philadelphia) has an interesting report of a talk by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates in which he does a respectable job of analyzing the dilemmas surrounding a possible attack against the Iranian nuclear facilities:
http://www.jewishexponent.com/article/25349/Gates_Opens_Up_on_an_Armed_Iran/

One point: Gates speaks of 3 separate un-synced clocks on Iran that are ticking away with different deadlines. I would add two more, both on when Iran’s efforts reach a “Zone of Immunity” from attack. One “Zone of Immunity” clock for the USA and a different one for Israel, with the difference a simple consequence of the USA being able to project greater force at a greater distance than Israel. And given past history, Israelis are very reticent about outsourcing its existential security.

hg
J’lem / Efrata

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

For an interesting counterview on why Israel is NOT about to attack Iran see David Horovitz’s piece over at the “Times of Israel”: http://www.timesofisrael.com/an-israeli-strike-on-iran-not-so-fast/

hg
J’lem / Efrata

Enrico says:

Tracy assumes that there is a non-military way of getting the Iranians to give up their current path. The Iranians have been pretty clear all along.

Tracy fails to mention that the Sunni regimes do not want Iran to have nuclear weapons capacity. The Saudis and Egyptians have let it be known that if Iran does develop that capacity, they will do so as well.

A nuclear free zone is the only assured path to Israel’s long term survival.

kafantaris says:

Iran faces a delicate issue. On the one hand it wants to show the world all it’s got and put it at ease, while on the other hand it fears that such show ‘n tell will give its enemies a roadmap to bomb it.
Saddam Hussein faced a similar dilemma ten years ago. Though he wanted the world to know he had nothing to hide, he also wanted to bluff his archenemy Iran into believing Iraq still had WMD.
Bluffing did not go well for Saddam, and it might not go well for Ahmadinejad.
But since the price tag for ridding Saddam proved high, maybe we ought to reflect what we are asking of Iran now. On the eve of a threatened attack, we are asking it to take us to the depths of its arsenal and show us all it’s got.
Such great expectations are a sign we have been talking to our friends too long and are in need of a broader perspective. Exactly when was the last time we asked Pakistan, India, China or Russia to show us their arsenal?
“But those countries are not advocating the destruction of Israel.”
True, but Israel is not a thorn on their side either.
Surely, however, we can see beyond the hyperboles and figure out their underlying purpose. Or have we forgotten that not all Iranians are thrilled with Ahmadinejad?
He sure hasn’t forgotten.
Nor has he forgotten that that his countrymen hate Israel even more. So he tells them that Israel will be wiped from the face of the earth. Expectantly, this nonsense unites them against a common enemy. It is even a diversion from the misery and isolation brought on by his theocratic regime.
Quite clever work by Ahmadinejad — and not a rial spent or a bullet fired.
So why are we letting the crazy talk about destroying Israel get us all worked-up — to the point of turning the world topsy-turvy again.
Can we not see the desperate attempts of an unpopular regime simply trying to hold on?

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No Second Iraq

On Iran, the parallels are inexact, but the lessons remain instructive

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