An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Weak Case for War with Iran

Jeffrey Goldberg's new article in the Atlantic is deeply reported -- and deeply wrong about the Middle East. But it's his misunderstanding of America that is most dangerous of all.


Amid widespread skepticism that sanctions will stop Tehran's nuclear development and grudging, belated recognition that the Green Movement will not deliver a more pliable Iranian government, a growing number of commentators are asking the question, "What does President Obama do next on Iran?"

Amid widespread skepticism that sanctions will stop Tehran’s nuclear development and grudging, belated recognition that the Green Movement will not deliver a more pliable Iranian government, a growing number of commentators are asking the question, "What does President Obama do next on Iran?"

For hawks, the answer is war. Last month, in The Weekly Standard, Reuel Marc Gerecht made the case for an Israeli strike against Iranian nuclear targets. With the publication of Jeffrey Goldberg’s "The Point of No Return" in the Atlantic, the campaign for war against Iran is now arguing that the United States should attack so Israel won’t have to.

To be sure, Goldberg never explicitly writes that "the United States should bomb Iran." But he argues that, unless Israel is persuaded that Obama will order an attack, "there is a better than 50 percent chance that Israel will launch a strike by next July."  And Goldberg’s Israeli interlocutors readily acknowledge that the United States could mount a far more robust air campaign against Iranian nuclear targets than Israel could. A much more limited Israeli strike "may cause Iran to redouble its efforts-this time with a measure of international sympathy-to create a nuclear arsenal [and] cause chaos for America in the Middle East," he acknowledges. Goldberg believes the Obama administration understands that "perhaps the best way to obviate a military strike on Iran is to make the threat of a strike by the Americans seem real." But there is a clear implication that, if threat alone does not work, better for the United States to pull the trigger than Israel.

Goldberg’s reporting on Israeli thinking about Iran — reflecting interviews with "roughly 40 current and past Israeli decision makers" — including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — is exemplary. Unlike Gerecht, Goldberg does not skirt the potentially negative consequences of war. But Goldberg’s reporting also reveals that the case for attacking Iran — especially for America to attack so Israel won’t — is even flimsier than the case Goldberg helped make for invading Iraq in 2002, in a New Yorker article alleging that "the relationship between Saddam’s regime and Al Qaeda is far closer than previously thought."

Goldberg’s case for war on Iran starts with the Holocaust — and a view of the Islamic Republic as a latter-day Third Reich, under ideologically obsessed, anti-Semitic leadership to which "rational deterrence theory … might not apply." Israelis across the political spectrum have bought the argument that Iran is an "existential threat," he writes. But, as Goldberg himself acknowledges, this is not true. He recounts his realization of the "contradiction" captured in a photograph of Israeli fighter planes flying over Auschwitz that he saw "in more than a dozen different offices" at Israel’s defense ministry:

"If the Jewish physicists who created Israel’s nuclear arsenal could somehow have ripped a hole in the space-time continuum and sent a squadron of fighters back to 1942, then the problem of Auschwitz would have been solved in 1942. In other words, the creation of a serious Jewish military capability-a nuclear bomb, say, or the Israeli air force-during World War II would have meant a quicker end to the Holocaust. It is fair to say, then, that the existence of the Israeli air force, and of Israel’s nuclear arsenal, means axiomatically that the Iranian nuclear program is not the equivalent of Auschwitz." (emphasis added)

Moreover, the Islamic Republic is not Hitler’s Germany, particularly regarding Jews. No matter how many anti-Zionist or even anti-Semitic quotes Gerecht, Goldberg, and others may marshal from Iranian politicians, inconvenient realities undermine the Islamic Republic/Third Reich analogy: Roughly 25,000-30,000 Jews continue living in Iran, with civil status equal to other Iranians and a constitutionally guaranteed parliamentary seat. It is illegal in the Islamic Republic for Muslims to consume alcohol –but Jews (and Christians) are permitted wine for religious ceremonies and personal consumption. Iranian politicians frequently question Israel’s legitimacy and predict demographics will ultimately produce a "one-state" solution in Palestine. It’s true that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has made provocative statements questioning the Holocaust. But neither Ahmadinejad nor any other Iranian leader has threatened to destroy Israel by initiating military conflict.

Fixating on Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric obscures the fact that normalized U.S.-Iranian relations would profoundly benefit Israel — just as Henry Kissinger’s engagement with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s decisively changed regional dynamics to preclude any possibility of another generalized Arab-Israeli war. It is only in retrospect that Sadat — an open admirer of Hitler who worked with Germany against Britain during World War II and not only made vicious anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic statements but launched a war that killed and injured thousands of Israelis — is depicted as a "man of peace."

Goldberg ascribes Netanyahu’s concern about the "existential threat" from Iran to the influence of Netanyahu’s father — a revisionist scholar who upended historiography of the Spanish Inquisition by focusing on its anti-Semitic roots. But Netanyahu père‘s worldview does not permit rational calculation of threat or diplomatic contributions to Israel’s security. Ben Zion Netanyahu opposed Likud Prime Minister Menachem Begin over peace with Egypt and, in an interview last year, said of Arabs that they are "an enemy by essence …  [T]he only thing that might move the Arabs from the rejectionist position is force."

This is a strategically obtuse outlook, the influence of which on the current Israeli government’s decision-making can only be pernicious. But Goldberg’s reporting on his conversations with Israeli generals, national-security policymakers, and politicians makes clear that, in fact, those at the top of Israel’s political order understand Iran’s nuclear program is not an "existential threat." His interlocutors recognize Iran is unlikely to invite its own destruction by attacking Israel directly. Rather, they say, a nuclear Iran "will progressively undermine [Israel’s] ability to retain its most creative and productive citizens," according to Defense Minister Ehud Barak.

"The real threat to Zionism is the dilution of quality," Barak tells Goldberg. "Jews know that they can land on their feet in any corner of the world. The real test for us is to make Israel such an attractive place, such a cutting-edge place in human society, education, culture, science, quality of life, that even American Jewish young people want to come here … Our young people can consciously decide to go other places [and] stay out of here by choice."

Ephraim Sneh, retired general and former deputy defense minister, also describes the non-existential nature of the Iranian "threat":

"[Israelis] are good citizens, and brave citizens, but the dynamics of life are such that if … someone finishes a Ph.D. and they are offered a job in America, they might stay there … The bottom line is that we would have an accelerated brain drain."

In other words, Israeli elites want the United States to
attack Iran’s nuclear program — with the potentially negative repercussions that Goldberg acknowledges — so that Israel will not experience "a dilution of quality" or "an accelerated brain drain." Sneh argues that "if Israel is no longer understood by its 6 million Jewish citizens, and by the roughly 7 million Jews who live outside of Israel, to be a ‘natural safe haven’, then its raison d’être will have been subverted."

To be sure, the United States has an abiding commitment to Israel’s security. But, just as surely, preventing "dilution of quality" or bolstering Israelis’ perceptions regarding their country’s raison d’être can never give an American president a just or strategically sound cause for initiating war. And make no mistake: Bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities would mean war.

Netanyahu himself admits that the challenges posed by a nuclear Iran "are more subtle than a direct attack," noting that "you’d create a sea change in the balance of power in our area." This is another major point in the Israeli case for war that deserves unpacking — and debunking. Goldberg points out that "Persian and Jewish civilizations have not forever been enemies." In fact, the Islamic Republic and Israel have not forever been enemies. During the Iran-Iraq war, Israel — over Washington’s objections — sold weapons to Iran, and was involved in U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s subsequent outreach to Tehran (which imploded in the Iran-Contra scandal).

However, Israeli-Iranian geopolitical dynamics changed with the Cold War’s end, the Soviet Union’s collapse, and the removal of Iraq’s military as a factor in the regional balance of power through the first Gulf War. Since then, Israel has deemed Iran its principal rival for regional hegemony — and the Islamic Republic views what it sees as Israel’s hegemonic ambitions as threatening its vital interests.

Israeli elites want to preserve a regional balance of power strongly tilted in Israel’s favor and what an Israeli general described to Goldberg as "freedom of action" –the freedom to use force unilaterally, anytime, for whatever purpose Israel wants. The problem with Iranian nuclear capability — not just weapons, but capability  — is that it might begin constraining Israel’s currently unconstrained "freedom of action." In May, retired Israeli military officers, diplomats, and intelligence officials conducted a war game that assumed Iran had acquired "nuclear weapons capability." Participants subsequently told Reuters that such capability does not pose an "existential threat" to Israel — but "would blunt Israel’s military autonomy."

One may appreciate Israel’s desire to maximize its military autonomy. But, in an already conflicted region, Israel’s assertion of military hegemony is itself a significant contributor to instability and the risk of conflict. Certainly, maximizing Israel’s freedom of unilateral military initiative is not a valid rationale for the United States to start a war with Iran. Just imagine how Obama would explain such reasoning to the American people.

So, what should Obama do? Goldberg concludes with a story told by Israeli President Shimon Peres about Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. When Ben-Gurion met U.S. president-elect John F. Kennedy in late 1960, Kennedy asked what he could do for Israel. Ben-Gurion replied, "What you can do is be a great president of the United States."

Regarding Iran, what constitutes "greatness" for Obama? Clearly, Obama will not achieve greatness by acquiescing to another fraudulently advocated and strategically damaging war in the Middle East. He could, however, achieve greatness by doing with Iran what Richard Nixon did with Egypt and China — realigning previously antagonistic relations with important countries in ways that continue serving the interests of America and its allies more than three decades later.

Flynt Leverett is senior fellow at the New America Foundation and teaches international affairs at Penn State. Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Stratega, a political risk consultancy. Both are former National Security Council staff members with long experience working on Middle East issues in the U.S. government.
Hillary Mann Leverett, who served as director for Afghanistan, Iran, and Persian Gulf affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, is the chief executive officer of STRATEGA, a political risk consultancy.

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.