Opinion: The war over war with Iran

NEW YORK — I can’t help feeling that we’re seeing the beginning of a campaign to railroad the United States, one way or another, into attacking Iran – or of cleaning up an unfinished mess created by a much smaller Israeli strike.

The Atlantic, a fantastically interesting magazine and website, devoted its cover this month to the question of whether such a strike is inevitable. The gathering of experts, eager to talk tough on Iran, that followed has been instructive. And it all seems to have been timed perfectly with a full-court press by former officials and experts who have advocated air strikes for years.

Some of these voices have long campaigned for a U.S.-led air attack on Iranian facilities. Among those pushing the idea that an attack is imminent: Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former CIA operative and now a fellow at the conservative Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, Mideast experts Michael Eisenstadt and Patrick Clawson, both of Likudnik Washington Institute for Near East Studies, and John Bolton, the hawkish neo-con who served as a top diplomat during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Bolton this week upped the ante, taking to the airwaves (read: Fox News) to claim Israel has only a few more days to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, arguing that once Russia has fully fueled the Bushehr nuclear power plant it helped Iran build outside Tehran next week, any comprehensive effort to bomb Iranian facilities would spread radiation all over Iranian civilians. This is an image even Bolton recoils at, apparently.

Yet U.S. military planners concluded long ago that Iran’s nuclear program has already developed beyond the point where air strikes could destroy it. At best, air strikes push back the day when Iran attains nuclear capability (whether it actually “tests” a warhead is another question). During the early days of the Iraq war in 2003, perhaps, such a mission might have successfully set back Iran’s nuclear weapons program a few years (though destroying it, frankly, would always have required an invasion and a sustained UNSCOM-style inspections regime). Right now, the frustrating UN sanctions route appears the best of a bad set of options.

Few claim the air strikes would do long-term damage to Iran’s program. A recent assessment by James Phillips, a senior defense analyst from the conservative Heritage Foundation, concluded that Israeli air strikes could only “buy a little time” at this point. Phillips goes on to argue that it would be better for Israel to buy some time now than fight a nuclear war with Iran later – as if these are the only two options on the table.

But Phillips, like other analysts of various political leanings, also lays out a series of harrowing consequences from such an attack, including possible chemical and biological counterstrikes by Iranian missiles on Israel, the unleashing of Hezbollah and Hamas against Israeli and U.S. interests, the activation of Iranian agents in Iraq to foil the American withdrawal and, in the darkest scenario, the closing of the Straits of Hormuz and attacks on Saudi oil facilities – in effect, precipitation of a global oil crisis like none ever seen.

The fact is, in every year subsequent to our misguided Iraq invasion, both the expansion and “hardening” of Iran’s program, plus the political atmosphere in the Middle East, has lessened the potential for a successful preemptive air strike against Iranian nuclear facilities. The United States, left to its own devices right now, certainly would not take this route. The stakes in Iraq and the global economy simply are too high. For the United States, the best-case scenario would be for the conflict to ossify into a standoff reliant on Israeli and U.S. nuclear deterrence. Sanctions would continue to give incentives for Iran to stay away from taking the final, fateful step – testing a weapon.

But Israel could choose to force our hand. From the Israeli perspective, it’s reasonable to ask whether “detente” – or the Middle Eastern version of the Cold War doctrine of “Mutually Assured Destruction — represents a stable foundation for peace. Iran, for instance, could allow Hezbollah access to nuclear weapons. This seems far-fetched to some, but it is easier to dismiss such theories from outside Israel’s borders.

Yet this proxy problem works both ways: Iran’s ties to Hezbollah and increasing influence on Hamas in the Gaza Strip link those smaller flashpoints to the regional balance of power, and Israeli calculations about the fallout from any preemptive strike invariably include retaliation by one if not both of these groups.

Add to this a right-wing Israeli government and a sudden chorus of voices in the American press claiming, as the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg did last week, that the conflict has reached a “point of no return” and that the chances of an Israeli air strike by New Year’s now stand at 50-50.” American officials have fallen over themselves in the past two weeks, too, to emphasize that “the expression ‘all options on the table’ means that all options are on the table,” as Obama aide Rahm Emmanuel put it. It is a prescription for miscalculation.

Israel’s fond memories of past “preemptive successes” - the 1967 “Six Day War,” the Osirak reactor strike in Iraq in 1982 and the destruction of what Israel described as a nascent nuclear weapons facility in the Syrian desert in 2007 - could lead it to overestimate its capabilities with regard to the sprawling and dispersed Iranian program. It should, instead, be focused on the memory of its failure to defeat Hezbollah alone during the short 2006 war, and the reality that even the most successful strike against Iran only postpones a day of reckoning.

A comprehensive peace that draws the Sunni Arab states into a de facto alliance against the revolutionary Shiites of Iran is the only long-term solution to Israel’s security dilemma. That means a contiguous Palestinian state, returning the Golan Heights to Syria and signing the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

This all seems hard to imagine right now. Israel is in no mood (or political condition) to compromise. And Iran’s regime is in a state of panic after last summer’s unrest, even if the regime has (for now) prevailed. But neither side should be fooled: an attack on Iran cannot be “limited” in the way air strikes on Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas positions in Gaza. War on Iran means war with Iran, and that war will rock the world.