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Comment | Bombs Away: What Will It Take to Avoid War with Iran?

by PAUL MUTTER

21 Mar 2012 16:46Comments

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None of the central adversaries seems motivated to blink first.

Paul Mutter is a graduate student at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU and a fellow at Truthout, an independent online magazine.
[ comment ] Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson served as Colin Powell's chief of staff during the George W. Bush administration, resigning in 2005 when Powell stepped down from his post as secretary of state. Wilkerson, having helped prepare his boss's now-infamous 2003 presentation at the United Nations concerning alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, understands quite well where cherry-picking and deliberate political manipulation of evidence can lead the U.S. armed forces -- Ahmed Chalabi's network was a significant source of intelligence on Iraq's supposed WMDs, just as the Mujahedin-e Kalgh Organization (MKO) is now reportedly America's main source of intelligence on Iran's "clandestine" nuclear activities.

Which seems to be why Colonel Wilkerson has given an interview to Vanity Fair in which he argues that Israel does not have the military capacity to stop Iran, and that a nuclear-armed Iran, however undesirable an outcome, would not be an existential threat. He echoes language that landed Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in a spot of trouble when he deployed it on CNN: a nuclear-armed Iran, as well as a nuclear-capable Saudi Arabia, would be "rational entities" and "deterrence would work," argues Wilkerson. (Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has said the same thing -- will anyone dare to call him an Iran enabler?) These are not words proponents of military action wish to hear -- Panetta has had to clarify his remarks and admit that no, he did not mean the United States and Israel should have to live with a nuclear Iran. He might want to think about the implications of his clarified remarks in light of National Defense University lecturer T. X. Hammes's words: "The current debate on whether or not to bomb Iran is being framed as a false choice.... The real choice is facing an Iran with nuclear weapons or facing an Iran with nuclear weapons after you have bombed it."

Wilkerson's recent statements refute every point multiple Congressional broadsides aimed against Obama's Iran policy have looked to argue. (Last month, Muhammad Sahimi offered a more explicit takedown of such efforts.)

Yet Iran will not -- according to both the Israeli prime minister and the president of the United States -- be permitted to obtain a nuclear weapon. We knew that much already. So the two leaders now argue openly over at what point to use military force. In his address to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) earlier this month, Obama committed himself to a position that is the other side of the coin that Netanyahu brought with him to Washington: "heads," Iran will be struck when it moves to build a bomb; "tails," Iran will be struck when it is determined to have enough fissile material to build a bomb.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell's strident attack on Obama at AIPAC offers Bibi consolation for his failure to get Obama to agree with him 100 percent in public. This consolation is not without danger as Congress's general position is closer to Netanyahu's than it is to Obama's. The bills HR 1905 -- which would all but ban backdoor channels of communication with Tehran -- and SR 380/HR 568 -- which demands the United States keep Iran "from acquiring a nuclear weapons capability" -- both move toward becoming law. A modified version of HR 1905 is going to be voted on by the Senate this month, piling more sanctions on top of those the Obama administration has already implemented, sanctions that people like Ron Paul and Gary Sick feel will bring us to war in the end anyway, as was the case with Iraq.

Wilkerson also contends that Iran wants a latent nuclear-weapon capability. While the Islamic Republic's intentions are open to debate, I absolutely agree with the colonel's logic here, and the issue of "latent capability" in diplomatic negotiations will be a significant stumbling block to overcome if the new round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany) is going to go anywhere.

Building a latent capability is something Iranian leaders are probably seriously considering -- in fact, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that George W. Bush claims forced him to back away from striking Iran says that up until 2003 the regime was pursuing weaponization efforts. Iran was not just thinking about the United States and Israel, though. Iraq played a guessing game with its nuclear program after the Israeli Air Force attacked in 1981, which must have served as impetus for the Iranian government after the end of the Iran-Iraq War to expand its own efforts.

Although U.S. and Israeli politicians object to Iran acquiring a latent capability, there is nothing inherently illegal about it (as Wilkerson notes, Japan has a "latent capability"). It would help the ayatollahs secure their international position in light of their justifiable belief that regime change is "on the table," perceiving it under the cloth of new banking sanctions, mysterious explosions that kill their nuclear personnel, and efforts to get the MKO off the U.S. State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations.

These aren't paranoid clerical delusions. In 2007, when Dagan was still heading up Mossad, he made it quite clear that Tel Aviv's endgame is regime change in Tehran to render the nuclear question moot. Exactly how this would be accomplished short of a ground invasion is anyone's guess, and even if it could be done indirectly, there is a consensus on the nuclear program that cannot be wished away: Green Movement leaders support the nuclear program, as, apparently, do the vast majority of Iranian citizens. (Is Iranian public opinion changing? For a different opinion, see here.)

There are no indications that Israel's ultimate position has changed. And while the Obama administration did little to help the Green Movement a few years back and supposedly curtailed some Bush-era covert ops programs, there are still influential constituencies in the Beltway pushing for regime change -- or at least boosting the profile of the "actors" who hope that they will be assets in the contest for Iranian hearts and minds. These are reasons enough for Tehran to want a latent capability, even to the point of risking financial ruin and military action against their nuclear facilities -- or rather, further financial ruin and more intensive military action.

Why? Because to abrogate this capacity in full view of the world would mean that Iranian leaders would be left wondering whether or not regime change was still being discussed behind closed doors with its nuclear capabilities no longer counted as a risk factor. Their object lesson? Dictators in Iraq and Libya failed to develop latent capabilities before the hammer fell. Aluf Benn writes in Haaretz:

Netanyahu booby-trapped himself back when he was still making his way to Washington, when he presented Iran with a public ultimatum: dismantle the underground enrichment facility near Qom, cease all enrichment activity, and remove the medium-grade uranium from Iranian territory. He realizes that the Iranian government will never agree to those terms...

As a Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatory, Iran is legally allowed to do these things, but if non-NPT signatory Israel has its way, Iran will be treated very differently from other NPT signatories, a hard pill for its proud leaders to swallow. If the impending negotiations fail to resolve the impasse, Obama and Panetta have said they will act, and for all the talk of Obama being an appeaser, this is a president who sends in the bombers. "Containment" is not an option, we are told. Someone is going to have to blink first, and in this supercharged partisan climate, it is not clear the United States will do that -- nor is it clear that Iran will do so, despite all of the hardships the sanctions have imposed and the regime's faltering influence in Syria. Tehran would not want to lose the ambiguity surrounding its nuclear program because, again, it is not convinced regime change is "off the table." Perhaps not in 2012, but after another year or two the United States and Israel might convincingly portray an ongoing stalemate as proof of capacity and intent sufficient to justify an air war.

And some in Tehran would probably welcome a first strike from the West. They do not fear it will crumble the regime, but rather believe it would rally people around the flag in a time of economic hardship and manipulated parliamentary elections. Our hope must be that Tehran decides, as Cuba is reportedly urging it to decide, that de-escalation is what it needs to survive at home and to make concessions to ensure its grip on power, even concessions that would probably be unacceptable to any other NPT signatory, including the United States.

While Wilkerson does not see Iran getting a nuclear capability as a direct threat to the United States, he observes that there's room for diplomacy here. He adds, "Inside the Pentagon, civilian and military, I cannot find a single voice in favor of striking Iran." Though this is encouraging news for diplomats, and Netanyahu faces an uphill battle in his own country against a reluctant cabinet, openly critical remarks from the intelligence community, and growing antiwar public opinion, the fact remains that a preventive military option is still on the table. Former CIA officer Paul R. Pillar's thorough argument in Washington Monthly that the world -- and, more specifically, Israel -- can actually live with a nuclear-weapons capable Iran is clearly not being seriously considered by the White House or Congress, let alone Tel Aviv.

I hope Wilkerson is right, but as he and Pillar know all too well from the lead-up to the Iraq War, political and media pressure can undermine this "anti-war" constellation in the halls of government faster than a war's opponents can respond and the narrative of "smoking guns" can easily span presidential administrations and party lines. Netanyahu may have been rebuffed for the moment, but he has hardly been deterred. As Michael Tomasky notes, "Obama didn't just lay the groundwork for more war -- he laid the groundwork for another preemptive war. Or preventive, if you prefer."

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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