The seemingly inexorable march toward an armed conflict with Iran received a fresh boost this week when the Associated Press reported that Israeli officials do not plan on warning the United States if and when they decide to launch a pre-emptive strike on Iranian nuclear facilities. The rationale, according to an unnamed American official, is that Israeli officials want to keep the U.S. in the dark, so the Obama administration can’t be blamed for failing to stop the attack.
But the article, one of a slew of reports in recent weeks citing unnamed sources on the likelihood of a conflict between Israel and Iran, would seem to suggest that the machinery of war is in motion. The New York Times, for example, also reported this week that Iran is likely to launch terrorist-style attacks against U.S. civilian and military targets if Israel does indeed strike one or more of its nuclear facilities. The article seems, in a way, to be both downplaying the potential blowback of an attack on Iran and also to be softening the ground for a likely U.S. role in any Iran-Israeli conflict.
American politicians have only added fuel to the fire. The Republican candidates for president, for example, have essentially engaged in a game of one-upmanship over who can sound tougher and more bellicose toward Iran. Newt Gingrich has openly called for sabotaging Iranian oil refineries and assassinating Iranian scientists, saying, “If we were serious, we could break the Iranian regime.” Mitt Romney has called Iran “the greatest threat we face.” And Rick Santorum has said, flat out, that as president he would bomb Iran unless the country immediately agreed to dismantle its nuclear program.
Rep. Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota, has condemned the drumbeat toward war with Iran, saying in a speech on the House floor recently, “The rhetoric in Washington about the military strike against Iran leads me to think that we may be sliding into a new war yet.” Bewildered, Ellison added: Two months after leaving Iraq, we have already forgotten the consequences of war it appears.”
Indeed, there seems to be a significant amount of support among an otherwise war-weary public for a possible attack on Iran. A Pew Research Center survey found recently that nearly six in 10 Americans favor bombing Iran in order to prevent that country from obtaining nuclear weapons. Only 30 percent of respondents said it was more important to avoid a military conflict. Those numbers are in spite of the fact that most Americans favor a withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and an end to the war there.
It’s unclear what, exactly, is responsible for the apparent appetite for war among the American public. Lingering hostility from the 1979 hostage crisis might be at work, as well as the fact that Iranians remain largely alienated from Americans — we haven’t had a diplomatic relationship with them for three decades. The Obama administration’s foreign policy successes, including the relatively painless war in Libya and the assassination of terrorist leaders like Osama bin Laden, may also have emboldened Americans fearful of an Iranian nuclear bomb. The fact that these successes have been engineered using air power and unmanned drones has also, arguably, left Americans largely anesthetized to the human costs of war.
It would seem, in fact, that Americans are even more eager for war with Iran than Israelis themselves. A poll conducted by Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, found that only 19 percent of Israelis favor a strike on Iran without U.S. backing. Another 42 percent said they would favor an attack on Iran only with firm American backing. And another third of Israelis said they were flatly against war. Those numbers changed only modestly when the sample was modified to include only Israeli Jews.
Why are Israelis so reticent? Well for one, they seem to have a much less optimistic view of the outcome of an attack on Iran. According to the poll, a majority of Israelis said a missile strike on Iran would lead to a protracted conflict lasting months or years. And only 22 percent said such a strike would actually delay Iran’s nuclear program for more than five years. The cost-benefit ratio, it seems, is much different for Israelis than it is for Americans.
Nonetheless, Israeli leaders see an Iranian nuclear weapon as an intolerable existential threat, and are pushing American officials to get on board with a possible pre-emptive strike. According to a report in the Guardian, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to demand that President Obama express support for an attack on Iran if sanctions fail. The White House is considerably more timid. Each side, it seems, is more in line with the others’ electorate.