Feckless Plot, Not a Feckless Response

October 17, 2011

While the administration responds to the alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S. with new sanctions and heightened international pressure against Iran, some on the right have seized on the moment as, in Bill Kristol’s words, “an engraved invitation to use force” against Tehran. However, national security experts from both sides of the aisle and Iranian opposition leaders continue to warn that the economic and human costs of such an attack would be extraordinarily high and its efficacy limited at best. Senior military leaders use words like “foolish” to describe a strike, while Iranian opposition leaders have denounced its likely effects on Iran’s democracy activists and human rights campaigners.

New Iran challenges, but 2012 politics produce same old – rejected – responses. Michael Crowley writes in TIME, “[T]he weird Iranian plan to kill Adel al Jubeir is reminding the right of their loathing for Tehran, that Iran’s nuclear program has been steadily marching on, and their sense that Obama has gone soft on Iran’s leaders. On Fox News last night, John McCain complained that the new sanctions are not doing enough harm, and insisted that Obama take tougher steps against the country’s leadership and shipping industry. The GOP candidates still seem to be sorting out their exact reactions to the alleged terror plot-Rick Perry seized on it to talk about border security, of all things-but with a new poll showing that almost half the country views Iran as an ‘enemy’ of the U.S., they surely see the political opportunity here… Several of those hawks are advisers to Mitt Romney, for instance, and last week Romney advocated rattling our saber by moving U.S. aircraft carrier groups to the eastern Mediterranean and the Persian Gulf region. Rick Santorum, Herman Cain and even the foreign policy minimalist Jon Huntsman have all said military strikes on Iran might be necessary to stop its nuclear program, while Michele Bachmann calls Iran’s nuclear program ‘the most important thing.’” Meanwhile, William Kristol of the Weekly Standard said America now has an “engraved invitation” to use force. [Michael Crowley, 10/17/11. William Kristol via ThinkProgress, 10/15/11]

National security experts warn of the dangers of war with Iran. Military leaders and non-partisan analysts say a military attack would be highly costly in dollars and lives; would have at best a short-term effect on Iran’s nuclear program; and would likely cement the determination of the Iranian regime to go full speed ahead with its nuclear program. Senior military leaders use words like “foolish” to describe a strike, while Iranian opposition leaders have denounced its likely effects on Iran’s democracy activists and human rights campaigners.

Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “I think Iran having a nuclear weapon would be incredibly destabilizing. I think attacking them would also create the same kind of outcome… But from my perspective … the last option is to strike right now.” [Mike Mullen via Reuters, 4/19/11]

Lieutenant Colonel Leif Eckholm, strategic plans and policy directorate for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “The regime has devoted considerable effort to hide, diversify, and protect its nuclear assets, and the regime’s determination to acquire nuclear weapons actually may well increase after such a strike…Proponents of a more comprehensive military intervention will argue that a full-scale invasion is the only means by which to crush the regime and its military apparatus, guarantee total elimination of the Iranian nuclear enterprise, and create a window for democratic change. But the price of invasion would be astronomical, and the nationalistic reaction would be fierce; thus, the projected cost in life and treasure must be weighed against the envisioned, yet unpredictable, advantages of a new regime in Tehran.” [Leif Eckholm, Hoover Institution, 8/1/11]

Meir Dagan, former Mossad chief: Haaretz reports: “Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan referred to the possibility a future Israeli Air Force attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as ‘the stupidest thing I have ever heard’ during a conference held at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem…When asked about what would happen in the aftermath of an Israeli attack Dagan said that: ‘It will be followed by a war with Iran. It is the kind of thing where we know how it starts, but not how it will end.’” [Meir Dagan via Haaretz, 5/7/11]

Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former George W. Bush administration undersecretary of state for political affairs: “Air strikes would undoubtedly lead Iran to hit back asymmetrically against us in Iraq, Afghanistan and the wider region, especially through its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas. This reminds us of Churchill’s maxim that, once a war starts, it is impossible to know how it will end.” [Nicholas Burns, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, 5/6/09]

Barry Blechman, co-founder and distinguished fellow, Stimson Center: “Fortunately, most Americans understand the risks of a military strike, even if some of their representatives like to beat their chests periodically.  The conflict is not likely to end with a US air strike.  Iran would hit back at US and allied forces and assets, with a high risk that the US armed forces would for a third time become involved in a lengthy conflict in the Middle East.  The political and economic repercussions of such a conflict would be severe; not least of which would be once again uniting the Iranian people and their current rulers in hatred of the United States.” [Barry Blechman, 10/13/11]

General Anthony Zinni, former CENTCOM commander: “The problem with the strike is thinking through the consequences of Iranian reaction…You can see all these reactions that are problematic in so many ways. Economic impact, national security impact — it will drag us into a conflict. I think anybody that believes that it would be a clean strike and it would be over and there would be no reaction is foolish.” [Anthony Zinni, PBS, 8/04/09]

Admiral Joe Sestak, former Congressman and retired Navy Admiral: “A military strike, whether it’s by land or air, against Iran would make the aftermath of the Iraqi invasion look like a cakewalk with regard to the impact on the United States’ national security.” [Joe Sestak via Think Progress, 9/20/11]

Paul Pillar, former intelligence officer: “If the saber rattling were ever to lead to the use of military force, among the disastrous consequences for U.S. interests would be to ensure the enmity of future generations of Iranians and to provide the strongest possible incentive for those Iranians to build, or rebuild, a nuclear weapons capability.” [Paul Pillar, NSN, 2/3/11]

Barry Blechman, co-founder of the Stimson Center, and Daniel Brumberg, senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace: “Allusions by US officials to the potential use of military options plays into the hands of the ultra hard-liners among Iran’s elites, strengthening their arguments that the country will only be safe from American threats when it has nuclear weapons. … U.S. military capabilities are well known. Reminding Iran of them only strengthens the arguments of those in Tehran who press for acquiring nuclear weapons.” [Blechman and Brumberg, Stimson-USIP, 11/10]

International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran: “Between January and June 2011, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran interviewed 35 Iranian human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists, student activists, writers, cultural leaders and members of the political opposition in order to document the perspectives of people inside the country, and particularly of the reform-oriented members of civil society, about the possibility of armed conflict with Iran… Overwhelmingly, from the perspective of those interviewed for this report, military action against Iran by the United States or Israel would be futile, counterproductive and irrational. Accordingly, while achieving none of the goals used to justify such action, a strike would lead to further political regression and repression, deeper enmity between the Iranian people and the United States, and severe humanitarian problems.” [ICHRI, 7/11]

What We’re Reading

American and Afghan soldiers near the border with Pakistan have faced a sharp increase in the volume of rocket fire from Pakistani territory in the past six months.

Gulf countries seeking to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League over its bloody crackdown on protesters failed to gain enough support to push the measure through.

Just weeks before U.S. troops plan to leave Iraq, the country’s political elite and Washington are at odds over whether American soldiers stay as trainers, while Baghdad rejects any legal immunity for U.S. soldiers and Washington says that means no deal.

Troops loyal to Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh and forces opposed to his rule were engaged in heavy fighting across much of the capital Sanaa.

Israel released the names of 477 prisoners it intends to swap in exchange for a soldier abducted by the militant group Hamas, while some Israelis opposed to the deal asked the Supreme Court to intervene.

The Kenyan military stormed into Somalia, sending hundreds of troops to battle the Shabab militant group and becoming the latest East African country to be dragged into Somalia’s intractable anarchy.

China is steeling itself for another presidential election in rambunctiously democratic Taiwan, hoping a victory for the ruling Nationalists enables even better ties but also girding for an opposition win that may inflame tensions.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has accused politicians in the main opposition party of considering deals with criminals, opening an inflammatory new front in the nation’s presidential election campaign.

North Korea and the United States will hold a second round of talks in Geneva next week to discuss ways to restart regional talks on disabling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

Demonstrations inspired by New York’s “Occupy Wall Street” spread to more than 900 cities across the globe over the weekend, venting anger at the global financial system, inequality and government cutbacks.

Commentary of the Day

Jason Straziuso notes the Ugandan military’s willingness to fight the Shabab in Somalia as one reason for U.S. willingness to send troops to help deal with long-running Ugandan rebels in the Lord’s Resistance Army.

The International Crisis Group reviews the history and horrors of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

Robert Fisk examines Assad’s raids on Lebanon and Syria’s slow slip into civil war.

Karl Vick explains how Gaza’s economic and global isolation are damaging Hamas.

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