Silencing the Drumbeats
The debate over war with Iran is back in the headlines this week, even as Iran’s economic and political systems are in disarray-with Iran’s president announcing last week that sanctions are working. Experts continue to stress that military action would likely reverse these trends and prove enormously destabilizing. As a Stimson-USIP report warned last year, “Allusions by U.S. 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.”
Iran anxiety rising, but experts call heated rhetoric counterproductive. Against the backdrop of the planned U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq and House action on unilateral sanctions that would target Iran’s Central Bank and prohibit U.S. diplomatic conduct, the Guardian writes today, “No one should be naive about the possibility that Iran is building a nuclear bomb. In February, the world’s nuclear inspector agency, the IAEA, listed seven outstanding questions about work which Iran had allegedly conducted on warhead design. In May, it claimed to have evidence about work dating back to 2003 on nuclear triggers. Next week we are promised another IAEA report that one western official calls a game-changer. But to date, it is equally true to say that the evidence for these claims has yet to be produced… Nevertheless the drumbeats are getting louder. Today we reveal British armed forces are making contingency plans for possible participation in an aerial attack on Iran’s nuclear enrichment plants. This includes where to deploy ships and submarines equipped with cruise missiles. Last week the New York Times reported that the US will send more naval ships to the area and expand military ties with the six nations in the Gulf Co-operation Council. Israel sees the Iran nuclear programme as an existential threat and the defence minister Ehud Barak reportedly told Washington that if the US does not bomb Iran, Israel will.” [The Guardian, 11/2/11]
Politics overwhelms policy in U.S. domestic debate. Council on Foreign Relations’ Ray Takeyh writes, “As the United States prepares to withdraw its forces from Iraq by year’s end, a chorus of influential voices is insisting that the beneficiary of such a move is Iran. That is, a beleaguered Shiite theocracy overwhelmed by low-simmering opposition at home and growing isolation abroad is said to emerge as the local hegemon. Such views discount how Iran’s contentious vision for the future of Iraq and its divisive tactics have alienated Iraqis across the sectarian spectrum. Iran may have been able to project its influence in an Iraq beset by civil war, but Tehran increasingly is on the margins as Iraq reconstitutes its national institutions.” And Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering write today, “…the House Foreign Relations Committee has proposed legislation that would make it ‘illegal for any American diplomat to have any contact with an Iranian official.’ Besides raising serious constitutional issues over the separation of powers, this preposterous law would make it illegal for the U.S. to know its enemy… Our leaders and experts have depended on intelligence information; indirect, often biased reporting from émigrés and other self-interested sources; and the occasional scholar, journalist, or religious leader who braves the unknown of Tehran. Can U.S. officials ‘know Iran’ without talking to Iranian officials, working with them, visiting their country, speaking their language, and even negotiating with them? To know a nation does not require that you agree with it, love it, or even accept its worldview. It requires that you understand it.” [Ray Takeyh, 11/2/11. Ambassadors William Luers and Thomas Pickering, 11/3/11]
International pressure continues to isolate Iran. As the Washington Post reported earlier this week, “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad acknowledged Tuesday that U.S.-designed financial sanctions are causing serious problems for Iran’s banking sector, as he appealed to lawmakers to keep his government together despite a massive embezzlement scandal. ‘Our banks cannot make international transactions anymore,’ the embattled president said in a speech before parliament to defend his minister of economic affairs and finance against impeachment charges related to the scandal. U.S. sanctions against Iran played an important role in the debate, in which critics sought to blame Ahmadinejad and his team for a lack of oversight in a $2.6 billion fraud case in which most factions seemed to be involved.” Tufts University Professor Vali Nasr explains why military action would likely bring Iranian leaders together and be counterproductive: “[I]f the U.S. confronts Iran directly, it would probably work to the advantage of Iranian leaders, allowing them to divert attention from domestic woes such as inflation, unemployment and the embarrassing alienation between Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The U.S. should not hand them that opportunity.” [Washington Post, 11/1/11. Vali Nasr, 11/2/11]
Military experts continue to warn about the consequences of military action. Military, intelligence and human rights leaders agree that a military strike on Iran would be counterproductive. And as Haartez reports, “A large majority of Israeli citizens believe that a military operation in Iran will lead to a regional flare-up with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and Hezbollah to the north of Israel in Lebanon, a Haaretz poll revealed Thursday. According to a Haaretz-Dialog poll, 80% of respondents said they believed an attack on Iran will lead to war with Hamas and Hezbollah.” The Guardian also notes, “The regional consequences of an aerial strike are daunting. It would be not one strike but many, with unforeseeable consequences. Heavy civilian casualties and an Iran reunited around its leadership are just two. Ground troops might well be needed to keep the Straits of Hormuz open. This would be war. Nor would it be one but potentially several, as missiles rained down on Israel from Lebanon and Gaza and Iran retaliated on targets in Iraq. Further, if the Iranian intention to construct a nuclear bomb was covert before such an attack, it would surely be overt after it. It is hugely important that negotiations are restarted before this nightmare becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
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, 4/19/10]
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]
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]
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]
What We’re Reading
Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou has called off a planned referendum on the latest round of eurozone bailout funds as negotiations for a possible national unity government progress.
Afghanistan’s neighbors in Central and South Asia promised support for Afghan efforts to reconcile with regional militia forces at a regional summit meeting in Istanbul.
Syria has reportedly accepted an Arab League proposal to halt violence against, and open dialogue with, demonstrators protesting the regime of Bashar al Assad.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged Libyan leaders to secure stockpiles of conventional, chemical and nuclear weapons to ensure a successful transition to democratic rule.
Pakistan granted India “most favored nation” trading status after the military dropped its objections to normalized trade relations with its neighbor.
The Chinese unmanned spacecraft Shenzhou 8 launched earlier this week, docking successfully with the Tiangong-1 space lab.
Djibouti will send about 850 soldiers to an African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia this month.
Nepal’s four major political parties agreed to complete the stalled peace process within a month, handing over property seized during the civil war and preparing a draft constitution.
Russian officials announced that the country will join the World Trade Organization after setting a long-standing trade dispute with the former Soviet republic of Georgia.
Commentary of the Day
The Bloomberg editors provide suggestions to world leaders at the G-20 summit on what they need to do now to stem the tide of the worldwide economic crisis.
Heather Hurlburt explains that the fervor for military action against Iran has spiked again; while diplomacy goes on, the risk of misjudgment grows.
Marwan Muasher outlines why Islamist political groups are not a threat, especially in the wake of the Tunisian elections.