Marc Lynch

Debating an Attack on Iran

Debating an Attack on Iran


This morning, I posted my first contribution to the Atlantic’s online debate about Jeffrey Goldberg’s much-debated cover story on whether Israel will attack Iran.   I take Goldberg’s reporting seriously, particularly since I have heard many similar comments from both U.S. and Israeli officials.   That’s precisely why I believe that it’s important to engage the argument for an attack on Iran head on…. now, rather than after a bad decision has already been made.  What do I think?   Well, the title chosen by the editors doesn’t leave much to the imagination:  "Striking Iran is Unwarranted and It  Would Mean Disaster."  I argue that "the argument for a military strike on Iran remains weak, with massive potential negative effects, very limited prospects for significant positive impact, and much less urgency than its proponents claim. It is Obama’s sound strategic judgement, not his lack of will, which makes an attack unlikely."   The entire debate has been instructive.  

The debate about Goldberg’s article over the last couple of weeks has been quite robust — both the give and take among the eight panelists assembled by the Atlantic, and the broader discussion across the blogosphere which has been regularly rounded up in editor JJ Gould’s daily summaries.   Gould has done an impressive job of orchestrating actual dialogue across analytical divides (Elliott Abrams is scheduled to respond to my post soon, and I am supposed to respond to Reuel Gerecht’s post after he publishes it in a few days).  And, while I’m at it, a special shout-out to Goldberg for his strong stance on the New York mosque craziness — he has been a strong voice, and a brave one.

Contrary to the complaint by skeptics like the Leveretts that since they weren’t included the debate could only be an "echo chamber" (for the record, we published their take on the Middle East Channel here), many of the panelists have pushed back hard.  Some, like Gerecht, do indeed argue for military action.  But the general trend of the discussion is best captured by former State Department official Nicholas Burns, who came away "more convinced than ever that a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities would be potentially disastrous for U.S. interests. At worst, it could lead to a third war in the greater Middle East without the benefit of stopping Iran’s nuclear program. It makes much more sense for Obama to stick to his bet that a combination of diplomacy and toughness might yet compel Tehran to yield."   Gary Milhollin doubts that an attack would really have a decisive impact on the Iranian nuclear program, while Robin Wright argues that we are "nowhere near the point of no return."  Some echo chamber.  Add in the vibrant debate across many other sites (which I won’t try to summarize for fear of offending those whose contributions I leave out), and I’d say that Goldberg’s article has succeeded not in paving the way for military action but in focusing attention on the issue in such a way as to make an attack less likely.

While I’m not going to reproduce my whole essay here, here are some of the major points:

  • a military strike is not likely to put an end to Iran’s nuclear potential, or to provide any significant sense of certainty (I do not find Goldberg’s notion of Israeli commandos quickly darting in from Iraqi Kurdistan to check things out especially reassuring).
  • the idea Israel has a fixed deadline is not credible. Israeli officials and American Iran hawks have paraded a never-ending series of such immutable deadlines over the last decade — of 2006, of 2007, of 2008, and now of December 2010. None proved quite so immutable.
  • the costs could be high:  a strike by Americans or Israelis could trigger a wave of regional chaos, badly weaken the already struggling Green Movement, and seriously complicate the U.S. drawdown from Iraq. It would prove the death-knell for Obama’s efforts to construct a new relationship with the Muslim communities of the world, trigger a wave of anti-American rage among Arab publics, deeply complicate the tentative moves towards Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. 
  • The "war bluff" argument — that we will be most effective at diplomacy if we can credibly threaten force, with Israel playing the "bad cop" to force Iran to deal with the American "good cop" — only works if there is adequate trust between the U.S. and Israel. This is why the Obama administration has taken to consulting so regularly and at such high levels with Israel, in order to ensure that communication is clear and consistent. Goldberg’s suggestion that Israeli officials would nevertheless be prepared to spring such a surprise undermines that trust.
  • If Israel truly felt such existential urgency, then wouldn’t it be willing to make concessions on Gaza or the peace process in order to build international support and sympathy? If Israel hopes to build an international consensus, this has been an odd way to go about it.
  • Much of the alleged urgency to attack Iran is rooted in an oddly anachronistic view of rising Iranian power in the region. But in fact, Iran’s image and influence have been in retreat in the region during much of Obama’s administration. Obama’s initial outreach challenged the Iranian regime, which had grown quite comfortable in dealing with the Bush administration’s aggressive rhetoric dividing the region into moderate and radical camps — which had the self-defeating ef
    fect of ceding the popular mantle of "resistance" to Iran by default. But Iran today is isolated and beleaguered within the region, and has proven unable to capitalize on Obama’s declining popularity or U.S. policy mistakes. 
  • That the leadership of most Gulf states remains deeply suspicious of Iran, and that the Saudi-owned media is full of anti-Iranian commentary and reporting, is nothing new. But compared to two years ago, Iran’s position with Arab publics and the "resistance" trend is also far weaker. Turkey now offers a far more attractive — and effective — brand of "resistance", with its advanced economy, moderate Islamist and fully democratic politics, and creative diplomacy. Meanwhile, the botched aftermath of the Iranian elections and the repression of the Green Movement — heavily covered by al-Jazeera and other popular Arab media — badly harmed its image with Arab publics. An Israeli or American attack on Iran would almost certainly bring these publics intensely back to Iran’s side, though, rescuing them from their own decline. 
  • The hostility to Iran in various Arab circles should not lead anyone to believe that Arabs would support an attack on Iran by the U.S. or Israel, however (see MEC editor Amjad Atallah’s excellent post on this here). While Arab leaders would certainly like Iranian influence checked, they generally strongly oppose military action which could expose them to retaliation.  Arab leaders will likely continue to welcome any efforts to contain Iranian power, particularly when it takes the form of major arms deals and political support. And they will likely continue to mutter and complain about America’s failure to magically solve their problems for them. But those who expect these regimes to take a leading, public role in an attack on Iran are likely to be disappointed — especially if there is still no progress on the peace process.

There’s more, including a strong warning to not repeat the experience of 2002:  as a general rule, beware of those claiming that there are no options other than war and that time is running out, that the benefits of an attack will be high and the costs low, and that it won’t affect other important issues.  Hopefully we’ve learned something.  More on the debate later this week, when it officially wraps up.  

UPDATE:  Elliott Abrams responds by complaining that I blame Israel for everything, while declining to engage with any of my actual arguments.  How disappointing — for some reason, I have to admit that I expected better.